January 9, 2017

Syrian political talks in Astana - why Bashar al-Asad has little to fear

From a Turkish Anadolu Agency post

This article is based on the assumption that the current fragile ceasefire in Syria will continue to hold for the 30 days that are called for before the beginning of negotiations sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran. For my comments on the absence of the United States at those talks, please see Russia and Turkey broker a ceasefire in Syria - where is the United States?

In what would have been impossible just over a year ago has happened - Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has agreed to send representatives of his government to attend talks on resolving the crisis in the country. The talks will begin later this month in Astana, Kazakhstan. Speaking in English to European reporters, al-Asad said, "Everything is on the table, we are prepared to discuss everything."

That sounds good - the media even reported that President al-Asad had asserted there would be no preconditions for the talks. I think that is more an interpretation of his remarks rather than accurate journalism. When you read his actual words, there are several preconditions involved.

The first condition is Al-Asad's approval of who will represent the Syrian opposition at the table. The president has said they must be "genuine" Syrians, not Saudis, French or British. If the opposition delegation is somehow unacceptable to him - he has rejected talks in the past based on this condition - the Syrian government may threaten to not attend.

The second condition is the virtual exclusion of any discussion about al-Asad's position as Syria's president. Again, his words are fairly clear - he lived in England for years and expresses himself effectively in English.

"My position is related to the constitution, which is very clear about the mechanism by which the president assumes or leaves power. So if they want to discuss this point, they must discuss the constitution, which is not the exclusive property of the government, the presidency or the opposition. It belongs to the Syrian people. They (the parties in Astana) can propose a constitutional referendum, but they can’t say, ‘We want this president’ or ‘We don’t want this president’, because the president comes to power through the ballot box. If they’re unhappy with the president, let’s go to the ballot box."

That sounds to me like a precondition. I read it to mean that the question of whether or not he continues in office will not be "on the table."*

However, Bashar al-Asad may not have the final say about his participation in the talks.

These talks are being driven by the new power brokers in the region - Russia, Turkey and Iran. If they determine that Syrian government participation in the talks is required, they will simply tell Bashar that his regime will participate.

That said, Bashar al-Asad has little reason to fear that he will not continue in power.

President al-Asad's security was determined in September 2015 when the Russians deployed a sizable air expeditionary force to Syria to ensure that the Syrian regime was not defeated. At that time, the opposition was effectively pushing the Syrian armed forces south from Aleppo and Idlib governorates - despite the presence of large numbers of Hizballah fighters, Iranian troops and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members, and Iraqi Shi'a militias. The Russian intervention - contrary to the warnings of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter - was effective in turning the tide of battle.

The Russians and President Vladimir Putin want, and appear to have gotten, a regime in Syria they can influence and manipulate. Although Russia claims that it is withdrawing its forces from Syria, Moscow announced an agreement with Damascus for a permanent Russian naval presence at the Syrian naval base at Tartus, and a long-term presence at Humaymim Air Base near Latakia - the Russians have invested a lot of money in the infrastructure for both facilities.

Iran will go along with the Russian position to maintain Bashar in power, as they too want a cooperative government in Syria. Iran needs access to Syrian airspace and prefers to use Damascus International Airport to equip and resupply its proxy militia Hizballah, now one of the major military and political forces in Lebanon. The Iranian leadership further likes the idea of a Shi'a Crescent extending from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut, with Tehran being the key player.

The Turks would prefer that the al-Asad government be replaced, believing that the Syrian regime has in the past supported the Kurdish separatist (and designated terrorist) PKK party. As long as there is no hint of Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria, they will go along. I believe they will press Russia for additional access in Central Asia - the Turks fancy themselves as the leaders of all things Turkic (as the Iranians do vis-a-vis all things Shi'a).

Thanks to the ascendancy of Russia, Iran and Turkey as the new power brokers in the region, combined with the seeming acquiescence of the United States, Bashar al-Asad will almost certainly remain as the President of Syria.

* Personal note: I lived in Syria - it is not a Jeffersonian democracy. The president's seemingly principled adherence to the Syrian constitution is sanctimonious and hypocritical - I saw how little concern the regime has for legal or constitutional values. For more, see this article I wrote when Bashar al-Asad was elected to the presidency on the death of his father in 2000, Syria - Next Target of the Bush Administration?