Putin and Assad: the players of Damascus

Photos of Assad and Russia's Putin are seen during a pro-Assad protest in front of the Russian embassy in Damascus, Syria
Teaser Image Caption
Photos of Assad and Russia's Putin are seen during a pro-Assad protest in front of the Russian embassy in Damascus, Syria

The mass exodus has hurled the question of how to bring an end to the conflict in Syria back on the European agenda. Millions of people have been displaced, hundreds of thousands are dead, cities and cultural heritage sites have been reduced to rubble - the situation has affected all but one: Bashar al-Assad, who, in theory, should bear the responsibility of protecting the Syrian population as head of government. His warfare is the main cause for death and, as evidenced by results from a recent survey conducted by the organisation Adopt a Revolution among refugees in Germany, displacement. Even though the power of the regime has shrunk to clearly defined regions in Syria and the quality of life has been diminished even in these, Assad up to this point in time does not feel compelled to resign.

This observation can be linked to previous experiences made by Assad senior and his son time and time again: waiting out a crisis is worthwhile. Both have consistently capitalised on letting enough time pass during periods of foreign pressure, trusting that the interests of other states will change at some point and will lead them to approach Damascus again. Without working for it, the regime has become politically acceptable again after every crisis in the past.

In the 1980s, Hafez al-Assad was ostracised for his role in supporting international terrorism. However, he was soon fawned over following the end of the Cold War when was to take a place at the table during the Middle East peace process, and even Syria’s occupation of Lebanon was accepted to this end. Following the revelation that the Syrian regime had significantly contributed to the transfer of jihadists into Iraq after 2003 – who were to derail the efforts of the American troops - Bashar al-Assad fell from grace in the eyes of the US. Furthermore, the circumstance that his secret services seemingly assumed a primary role in the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister did not contribute to Assad’s popularity. And yet, the position of US ambassador in Damascus – held vacant as a means of protest - was filled again in 2010.

The only thing that could reliably induce a change of course by the regime was the onset of a credible threat: seen, for example, in 1998, when Turkey set out to enforce the extradition of PKK leader Öcalan and allocated troops to the border, or in 2005, when western powers were successful in prompting the withdrawal of the Syrian military from Lebanon.

In this respect, the international community has deprived itself of a crucial form of leverage by signalising at an early stage of the conflict in Syria that it is not prepared to intervene in Syria under any circumstances.

It appears safe to suggest that Assad perceived this as a charter for his strategy of utmost brutality and that it contributed to his sustained lack of interest in genuine negotiations. Why even consider compromises if there are no long-term consequences to be expected?

In some situations, however, waiting alone does not suffice. In this case, the extent of savagery raised the inhibitions against approaching Assad again – notwithstanding the regime’s attempts to portray insurgents as Islamic terrorists from the very beginning. Typically, the west will reliably react to a perceived jihadist menace. Yet the powers of the regime faded away sooner than the decision-makers could be convinced of turning a blind eye and selecting Syria as an ally.

Hence now the direct support from Russia: Moscow has been backing Assad in the UN Security Council for a long time and has supported him with arms deliveries. However, the air strikes obey a different logic. The Russian air force is not capable of bombing out a victory for the Syrian despot. The Syrian army, despite the solid support it receives from Iran and the Hezbollah, is too weak for that purpose, as demonstrated by its failed ground offensive early October.

However, the air strikes can assist the regime in distorting the military and political situation in Syria to its advantage. Insofar, it is by no means failure, but rather rationale that strikes vaguely target positions of the “Islamic State” when, in fact, they are concentrated on the locations of rebels. Putin’s chief aim is to strengthen Assad. Stability, the cohesion of Syria as a state and even the fight against the “Islamic State” are treated as subordinate objectives.

Moscow is now preoccupied with bringing the strategy initiated by Bashar al-Assad to perfection: After the attempt to convince western states that the only alternatives to Assad are chaos and the “Islamic State” fell through, the powers in the centre are to be weakened and to be virtually driven into the arms of the “IS”. In order to ensure Assad’s waiting game is successful in the end, the facts need to be realigned according to his fiction.


Translated from the German by Christine F. G. Kollmar.