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Assad's continuity sets a new low for the region

In the remarkable book “In Praise of Hatred,” the young narrator imagined by Khaled Khalifa journeys through the streets of Aleppo. She describes in detail how Syria’s commercial and cultural hub, once a key point of passage of the old Silk Road, has changed. Gradually, the active business atmosphere and bursting dynamism of its streets have given way to a climate of fear, suspicion and desolation.
The omnipresent regime had sucked the life out of Aleppo’s streets. The mukhabarat had infiltrated society and monopolized business. Violence, torture and death became the new normal. While many people grew alienated, for many others militancy became the only apparent alternative to the regime’s reign of terror.
Among the various accounts about Syria’s recent history worth the read, Khalifa’s fictional book proved to be not only a prescient picture of the country’s recent past, but also the most accurate prelude to the events that followed the 2011 protests. Aleppo, now in ruins, became the epicenter of the struggle for Syria, and the regime’s “victory” in the battle for the city gave Bashar Assad a new lease on life.
Last week at Sochi, the Black Sea resort better known as home of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Russia made new inroads in the search for a political settlement to Syria’s tragic conflict. President Vladimir Putin met his Iranian and Turkish counterparts with a view to making the next round of peace talks groundbreaking.
Evident enough of Russia’s preponderant position, the proposal is for Sochi to host the peace conference. The latest round of the UN-led peace process currently being held in Geneva comes across as a legitimization of the Russia-led plans, rather than the main venue where key decisions will be made.
The notion that Russia is fully committed to the defense and stability of the regime in Damascus, but flexible about Assad’s future, has long been touted as Moscow’s default position. “We aren’t concerned about Assad’s fate, we understand that the same family has been in power for 40 years and changes are obviously needed,” Putin notably said in 2012.
Since then, statements by Russian officials, and details that emerged from countless meetings on the Syrian crisis, indicate that Putin probably meant what he said about Assad. Russia is also committed to the political process, not least because it owns the mess, and now that it has secured its key interests, it is keen to extract itself from it.

At the heart of the crisis are the efforts to keep in power an illegitimate dictator who has slaughtered hundreds of thousands of his own people, displaced millions more and burned entire cities to the ground.

Dr. Manuel Almeida

But one thing are statements of principle, another is the reality on the ground. The regime’s pyrrhic victory, in which Russia played a key role over the last three years of the conflict, means it will be harder for Moscow to not only acquiesce to Assad being sidelined, but to actively push for that outcome.
Thus, a scenario where he remains in power at least until 2021, the end of his current presidential term, is growing increasingly likely. This renders a mirage all the talk about lasting peace, reconstruction and having the Syrian people “decide their future themselves,” as Putin reiterated at the trilateral meeting.
At the heart of this crisis remain the efforts to keep in power an illegitimate dictator who has slaughtered hundreds of thousands of his own people, displaced millions more and burned entire cities to the ground. The use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs have played a big part in the process. Even more crucial than legitimacy is the issue of governance and the lack of capacity to deliver it. Assad’s only legacy is the destruction of Syria and its potential partition.
Seeing him as a bulwark against extremist groups continues to be a mistake. By prioritizing military efforts against the moderate opposition during much of the conflict, Assad and his allies successfully enforced the deceiving narrative that the war is between the regime and radicals. The strength of terrorist groups in Syria is a natural consequence of the regime’s brutality and longstanding use of extremists as a tool to sow the seeds of chaos in neighboring countries.
But blame is not to be laid at Moscow’s door. In Washington and European capitals, the tendency to accept Assad as some sort of lesser evil has not been resisted, at great cost to European and global security. Many of the voices that treat Assad’s leadership as an inevitability are the same that call for reform, modernization and progress in the region. It should be clear by now that the two are incompatible.

—  Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, and holds a Ph.D.
 in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida