by David Quach
After two years of fighting, neither the Free Syrian Army nor the government of Bashar al-Assad has made meaningful gains in the Syrian conflict. Considering that even the most creative efforts by skilled diplomats like Kofi Annan have failed, Syria’s unknown future is unlikely to make itself clear any time soon.
However a few limited options exist for the country’s future, though they do not differ substantially. In order to understand what paths the country is likely to slide toward, we must understand the needs of all the actors involved.
Although rebels’ goals may be no clearer, very few Syrian experts including academics, journalists, and analysts have identified the underlying intentions of the Syrian government beyond the straight-forward “hold-on-to-power” mindset portrayed by the State Department.
If we review the last two years of the State Department’s rhetoric, we consistently see that Washington has portrayed Bashar al-Assad as an illegitimate ruler, detested by much of his country, and retaining widespread control through force. Iranian and Russian outlets have suggested Assad still holds support of the populace and faces a relatively unchallenged claim to governance. Though Washington accuses Assad of governing illegitimately and abusively, it has been prudent not to reveal its assessment of his underlying plan.
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?
Western news reports have consistently portrayed Assad as the grand-decision maker of the government, as if he alone commands the war effort against the rebels throughout Syria. However, certain journalists and analysts outside of Western circles have suggested that though Bashar is officially the head of state, his effective control over the military and key state institutions is far more dilute than most would imagine. Even a simple profile of his background would support this conclusion.
Assuming his regime is the dictatorship the West has projected, it is unlikely that the hardened administrators who ruled with Bashar’s father, Hafez, would trust a largely inexperienced leader of civilian origins to hold firm control over their governance. Without the level of public training of even the lowest level diplomat in any foreign service, it is unlikely that Assad himself possesses the skills to make key decisions about how to confront political opposition and where to move the country.
Most important, his background is entirely inconsistent with the style of leadership the West has associated with his regime. There is no way that someone, who was training to become an ophthalmologist just six years before his coronation as President, could have the stomach, let alone the determination, to spearhead a perfected system of civilian intimidation and oppression.
If we assume he holds a figurehead role within the administration so that more experienced officials can act without restraint, how can the country seriously change its path if Bashar al-Assad is removed from power? This makes the intentions of opposition members suspicious.
I am doubtful that a superior government could coagulate in Damascus from mere replacement of a few top officials and leaving the Alawite administration throughout the country intact. The question is then: What kind of agreement could the Alawis and the opposition forces come to? Again, understanding likely outcomes requires an understanding of each party’s intent.
BASHAR AL-ASSAD’S PLAN
Assad’s main strategy has been bluffing and maintaining a hard line on his position. In reality, regardless of what occurs in the war, his own future is going to be rather provided he isn’t killed in a manner similar to Muammar Gadhafi.
Although he is something of a pariah now, Bashar al-Assad has powerful allies in Russia and Iran. Deft use of the leverage that can be gained through these allies could see al-Assad spend the rest of his life in prison – much better end than the end of Col. Muammar Gadhafi.
The remaining bastions of power held by the Assad government are its very own insurance card. As long as these institutions remain loyal to al-Assad, no body has the means of forcing him from power and trying him at home.
As long as Russia continues to arm the Syria government, Assad has no incentive to draw down his war efforts.
Only when Russia finds its own diplomatic position dangerous will it mandate a change of strategy on the Syrian front. A peace in Syria will completely depend on Russia’s ability to meet its needs out of the peace deal.
Russia’s needs are primarily one of status – as long as the Syrian regime remains its ally, Russia can count on Syria to carry out its allied military-political objectives. Until it can receive the same level of support from a Syrian replacement, it would rather not risk a change in Damascus.
If Russia is a primary negotiator in the peace process, it will attempt to maintain influence within the new Syrian government while obtaining asylum for prior Syrian officials. What will result is likely a visible removal of all top officials from power under a protected status and a swift change in administration. Until the identity of the future governors of Damascus can be identified, Russia, and even the United States, can take no such step.