News / Middle East

Analysts: Syria's Assad is Fortunate in His Enemies

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with China's state television CCTV, in Damascus, Sept. 23, 2013.
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with China's state television CCTV, in Damascus, Sept. 23, 2013.
Reuters
Bashar al-Assad, who only a month ago faced the likelihood of U.S. missile strikes that could have tipped the balance of Syria's war against him, has won a reprieve.

His supporters, political sources in Damascus say, are jubilant, convinced the threat of regime change has lifted and that the Assads can face down opponents they consider weak - U.S. President Barack Obama and France's President Francois Hollande among them - just as they saw off their predecessors.

“I think they feel that they can live this out and wait for leaders like Hollande and Obama to leave office, just as they did with Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush,” said one well-placed source in Damascus, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“I think Assad feels that the chemical weapons actually saved his regime, rather than brought it down,” said the source.

The mood shift is a consequence of the world's confused response to a sarin gas attack on rebel suburbs of Damascus last month, the sources say. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad's ally in the 30 months-old conflict, conjured up a diplomatic process to confront the atrocity.

Assad says he will comply with a deal Moscow struck with Washington for him to surrender his chemical arsenal. Washington and its allies blame Assad loyalists for the Aug 21 attack, which they say killed 1,400 people, while the Syrian government pointed the finger at the rebels.

In almost daily interviews with Russian, Chinese, European and even American media, Assad emphasizes Syria's contribution to fighting jihadi extremism while explaining how lengthy and costly the disarmament process will be. A composed Assad gives every sign of becoming a devout convert to diplomacy.

He also has agreed in principle for Syrian government officials to attend talks with the opposition in Geneva aimed at agreeing a peaceful political transition, though authorities also have made clear they will not simply concede power.

Russia's diplomatic coup, on the face of it, provides Assad with a shield behind which he can step up his bombardment of rebel positions - so long as he does not use chemical weapons.

Syria's civil war looms large as world leaders gather this week for the annual U.N. General Assembly. Envoys from the five big U.N. powers - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China - have been meeting to negotiate a resolution to back the U.S.-Russian deal to remove Syria's chemical weapons by mid-2014.

“The deal avoids a regional tremor and may open the path for Geneva 2 [peace talks] but it won't stop the fighting or resolve the conflict because Assad is part of the conflict and not part of the solution,”said Sarkis Naoum, a columnist on Beirut's an-Nahar newspaper.

Enemies have no appetite for war

Naoum said Assad has been singularly fortunate in his enemies: a fragmented Syrian opposition, divided Arab countries, and a Turkish government whose reach exceeds its grasp.

“He is fortunate because he has Iran, which is willing to go all the way to support him, while there isn't a single Arab country that has this kind of determination to enter the battlefield on the side of the opposition,” said Naoum.

“He is also fortunate because there is an American president who has no appetite for war and because Russia wants to settle its scores with America [via Syria]”.

Yet Naoum, like many students of the Syrian conflict, judges that luck will not enable the Assad government to “regain control of all of Syria or to reimpose the existing regime.”

“Assad recognizes that he cannot control the whole country but he will never say it publicly. It is a chess game. Bashar is looking at the next three steps ahead,” said one European ambassador in the region.

Ultimately, the conflict has evolved beyond Assad. It has become a fight between non-Arab Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Gulf Arab states and a bone of contention between the U.S. and a Russia trying to recover its old role as the world's second superpower.

Assad is just a pawn among larger, more effective players than himself.

Assad, experts say, will surrender as many weapons as he needs to avoid a U.S. strike and keep Russia on his side but is  likely to keep some as an insurance policy because he would have learnt from the fate of Libyan leader Moammer Gadhafi and Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, who surrendered their weapons and had no ultimate deterrent when they were toppled and killed.

“Assad's game plan is obviously to survive beyond everything else, but that survival will mean keeping Russia on his side, giving up the majority of his stocks of weapons of mass destruction, stopping American use of force and keeping the international community fractured and indeed to show that the opposition is not united enough to take power,” said Toby Dodge, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics.

Protracted war

Syrian troops, with the help of Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah militia, have been consolidating their hold on rural areas around the capital Damascus, Assad's bastion.

Assad, Syrian sources say, is throwing his efforts behind keeping control of Damascus, the Mediterranean coast which is the heartland of his Alawite sect, and Homs, which links those two regions. He will leave the north and east in the hands of mainstream rebels and jihadis fighting bitterly for its control.

The original target of the gas attack in the Ghouta area looks set to be a target again of an army offensive to clear it once and for all of rebels, a pro-Syrian Lebanese official told Reuters.

“The battle to flush out eastern and western Ghouta from rebels will start soon so that all the areas near Damascus will be clear and safe,” he said. “Assad will close off the areas that are important to him [Homs and the Mediterranean coast] and for the rest he would not care even if the biggest battles took place in rural areas of Idlib, and Aleppo.”

While U.N. inspectors go through the tortuous and long process of accounting for and destroying Syria's chemical stockpiles, on the ground nobody can foresee a breakthrough in a conflict that so far has killed 100,000 people and displaced millions.

Within the rebels, another civil war is raging now between fighters from al-Qaida's Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and rival rebel forces in northern Syria, near the Turkish border. This plays in Assad's favor.

Russia, which faces its own challenge from Islamists on its southern fringes, has accused the West of helping militants by seeking Assad's removal without paying enough attention to the potential consequences. Putin said rebels could eventually expand attacks beyond Syria and the Middle East.

Assad, meanwhile, looks set to remain president of Syria, a country that his family has ruled for 40 years, and will run for next year's presidential vote, both his foes and allies believe.

“This is a decades old struggle,” Dodge said. “At the moment, I don't see anything that is going to oust Assad. The opposition is still very fractured, America's position is still very tenuous and Russia still has a block on the Security Council. He is in Syria for many years to come.”

“All he has to do in order to win is not lose,” said Dodge.

You May Like

Philippines, Muslim Rebels Try to Salvage Peace Pact

Peace process faces major setback after botched military operation to find terrorists results in bloody gunbattle between government forces, Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters More

Republicans Expect Long, Expensive Presidential Battle

Political strategist says eventual winner will be one who can put together strongest coalition of various conservative groups that make up Republican Party More

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Engineers have come up with a lever-operated design that makes use of easily accessible bicycle technology More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More