Shortly after what the United States deemed as a “red carpet welcome” for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after his symbolic visit to Moscow, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov as well as the foreign ministers of Turkey and Saudi Arabia met for talks in Vienna.
With Russia joining the military fray in Syria in recent weeks, this has transformed the calculus on the ground. Whilst Russia has insisted the target is Islamic State and “terrorist” groups, there is no doubt for Russia that the majority of anti-Assad rebel groups fall into the latter category, with Russian air strikes tipping the military balance at a delicate time.
Russian intervention has a number of goals but none more so than to ensure the survival of Assad, preserve Russian strategic interests in the Mediterranean and enshrine the role of Moscow as a key player in the Middle East. In this light, Assad’s recent visit to Moscow, even as Russia reaffirmed the importance of a political settlement to the crippling war, is designed to showcase their commitment that they will not relinquish Assad as part of any transitional government as the West and most of the regional powers demand.
There is clearly a lot of common ground between the US and Russia – keeping the country unified, promoting a secular and inclusive government and eliminating extremist groups. But even that common ground is nothing new. It’s the role of Assad that continues to plague transitional talks even as Lavrov condemned the “fixation” of these countries on the fate of Assad.
Russian and Iran have long insisted that it is up to the Syrian people to decide the fate of Assad, but even as Assad may be open to new presidential elections, it lacks credibility and value if they can only be held in Assad dominated areas once more and when most of the country is in turmoil.
However, there has been a reality brewing for several months in Western circles, that for talks on a political settlement to really succeed, the US and its allies have to ultimately accept that Assad will play a key part in any transitional government. If there was any doubt in that reality, then it has certainly been quashed with Russia’s active involvement in the conflict.
There has been literally dozens of round of talks on resolving the Syrian crisis and almost all have stopped at the fate of Assad. Even the much lauded Geneva Communiqué of June 30, 2012 suffered as it failed to clarify the role of Assad.
Assad and his allies do not pretend that they can ever assume control of greater Syria, the Russian air-strikes and the counter offensives on the ground by regime, Iran and Hezbollah forces is to ensure that Assad negotiates from a position of strength or at a minimum keeps the Alawite rump-state intact.
Kerry and Lavrov expressed a common goal in defeating IS, but in reality Russian will not seek to bail the US and its allies and actively eliminate IS only for those forces currently busy with IS turning on Damascus once more.
With the brutal Syrian war approaching 5 years, with thousands of deaths and millions displaced, facing the reality that West and regional powers may have to work with Assad in the short-term may be a small price to pay.
After all, what choice do they have? For any upping of rebel support, Russian and Iranian have proven their willingness to counter that in due measure. Assad has proven his staying power. It’s becoming a fruitless cycle and clearly there will be no military victor at this stage of the game.
Even most anti-Assad forces realize even if Assad is removed from the equation, the state institutions must be kept intact.
The ultimate question is how long will Assad be part of a transitional government, months or even years?
First Published: Kurdish Globe
Other Publication Sources: Various Misc