The reinvention of the Assad regime

The reinvention of the Assad regime

The reinvention of the Assad regime

A week is a long time in politics as recent developments in the Syrian crisis have demonstrated. Only a few weeks ago US President Barack Obama was threatening to launch a military strike against Syria in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons against its people, which killed over 1,000 and injured hundreds.
American naval ships were gathering in the East Mediterranean and the world braced itself for political and military fallout from an imminent strike. But at the 11th hour a proposal from US Secretary of State John Kerry on Syria’s chemical arsenal changed things dramatically.
Tension between Russia and the US soon subsided. The two sides worked on a UN Security Council resolution to disarm Syria’s chemical weapons. The resolution avoided reference to the use of force and it was adopted unanimously. Syria welcomed these developments. It committed itself to provide immediate information on its chemical weapons sites.
A few days ago, UN inspectors began the first stage of destroying Syria’s 1,000-ton stockpile of chemical weapons. For the first time since the Syrian crisis erupted more than two and half years ago the US had positive things to say about Syria. During this week’s meetings with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Bali, Indonesia, Kerry offered praise for the regime of Bashar Assad.
He said Assad’s regime deserves credit for its speedy compliance thus far with the UN Security Council resolution calling for the elimination of chemical weapons.
Both men had also agreed that the Syrian crisis can only be resolved through diplomacy by holding the Geneva II conference, hopefully in November. The threat of force is no more. It became apparent that Washington and Moscow shared a similar perspective on the Syrian issue. It was a remarkable turn of events — one that undermined the Syrian opposition’s efforts to depose Assad. In Damascus, recent developments were viewed as a victory to the regime.
Pundits spoke of a secret deal between the US and Russia over Syria. President Assad did not waste time. He gave interviews to Western media in which he presented his arguments over what was happening in his country. He admitted that he had made mistakes and that regime forces may have been
involved in massacres. He also defended his government’s decision to dismantle its chemical stockpiles and said that he was ready to run for re-elections if his people asked for it.
It soon appeared that Assad was rehabilitating himself. He is now the one calling for negotiations and his Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem reiterated that Damascus supports the convening of Geneva II without prior conditions. Syria’s diplomatic offensive left his foes stunned. The US about-face was a major development that angered Washington’s Gulf allies.
If a deal has been struck between Russia and the US to allow Assad to remain in power, at least for now, then it would be based on three main factors.
One: Syria’s agreement to dismantle its chemical weapons is a major breakthrough. It would take at least a year to complete and it cannot be done without Assad’s presence and compliance. Until that mission is concluded successfully the regime will have to be tolerated, especially that it now supports diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis.
Second: Washington now agrees that Syria cannot be allowed to fall into the hands of extremists. Recent developments in the north, where the Jihadist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) overran areas under the control of the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) and allegedly committed atrocities, have underlined the dangers of Al-Qaeda-linked groups fighting in Syria. Similar confrontations had taken place between the FSA and another extremist group, Jabhat Al-Nusra.
Third: The recent thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran and the latter’s offer to seek a political deal over its nuclear program cannot be separated from developments in Syria. Iran is a strong supporter of the Assad regime and it has offered to help in resolving the crisis there. The Syrian card will feature in upcoming talks between Iran and the West. Iran
would not want to see its regional influence recede and Washington knows this.
Israel, too, may want the Assad regime to remain for a bit longer. It is strategically imperative for Tel Aviv that Syria’s chemical threat be neutralized. Under a weakened Assad Syria poses no threat to Israel. A deal that allows Assad to remain in power may eventually entice Damascus to become part of a peace settlement being negotiated now between Israel and the Palestinians.
The US, which never advocated regime change, may now think that Assad can be reinvented or rehabilitated. So far he has been able to turn things around.
But it would be wrong to say that he will emerge as winner in the end. War continues to destroy Syria and the specter of losing large chunks of the country to his opponents is real. The regime has managed to buy precious time, but recent gains will not last for long.

• Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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