Syrian regime will remain sidelined if it fails to change
The Syrian regime loves to pretend everything is normal even when the country is in ruins and the Syrian people are facing poverty and a deadly pandemic. Domestically, this pretense is a farce that does not fool anyone, even regime loyalists. Bashar Assad has little room for maneuver internally, given that the economy is smashed and his allies under sanctions. But what are his options internationally? Can he rebuild ties with his neighbors in the region? Can he break the isolation Syria has faced for more than a decade and limit his reliance on Iran and Russia?
Timing might work in his favor. The fighting has eased off, at least for now, making it potentially less embarrassing for other parties to inch closer to Syria. Since early March, the lines of conflict have been frozen. A period of six months where the basic zones of control remain static has been a rarity over the last nine years.
The regime controls much of western and southern Syria, amounting to 63.38 percent of the country. Idlib in the northwest — about 3 percent of the country — remains under a mix of opposition and extremist control. The Turkish-occupied areas in the north are out of the regime’s reach. Then there is the Kurdish-dominated zone in the east. Here, the regime is itching to recapture the oil fields but, while a US military presence remains, this looks unlikely. Russian forces have, however, been stirring up local feeling against both the Syrian Democratic Forces and the US presence. The hope is that President Donald Trump will view a withdrawal as advantageous to his election chances on Nov. 3. The Syrian regime will continue to pose as the only viable alternative for Kurdish groups terrified of Turkey’s intentions against them.
This stasis owes more to a Russian-Turkish understanding than any new-found desire of the Assad regime to accept the status quo. Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan have come to a modus vivendi in Syria and seemingly have little desire to relight the fires at this stage. One has to wonder if both leaders would accept this as a de facto temporary Syrian settlement, which a begrudging Assad has no choice but to accept.
If pursuing the conflict into the last remaining areas outside of his control is not currently viable, Assad has one other major ambition beyond survival: He has to return life in Syria to a semblance of normality. Any viewing of the Syrian media misleadingly suggests this has already been achieved. However, the economic crisis that has led to 80 percent of the Syrian population living in poverty suggests otherwise, as does the coronavirus disease pandemic that has struck Syrians far harder than the regime cares to admit.
To rebuild a Syrian economy shattered by war, regime corruption and the financial crisis at home and in neighboring Lebanon, Assad needs friends beyond Russia and Iran. These two states will remain as the security guarantees for the regime, without which it could disintegrate, but this comes at a steep price that Syria will be paying back for years. But Assad knows that neither Moscow nor Tehran can bale Syria out. He needs support from elsewhere.
Notably, the official Syrian media made no comment whatsoever on the decisions of the UAE and Bahrain to normalize ties with Israel. Remember that the Damascus regime has always portrayed itself as being the center of Arab resistance to Israel, with the most hard-line stance on the issue of land for peace. One might have expected its outlets to be hurling fire and brimstone at these Gulf states.
The silence from Damascus indicates it has other priorities. No doubt it is hoping to draw closer to the UAE and Bahrain. Oman never severed ties with the Assad regime, instead, as ever, maintaining relations with all regional actors. Senior Omani officials do occasionally visit the Syrian capital. Assad will hope that the UAE, which is already providing humanitarian support, could assist financially and open up for serious trade. Its support could also lead to a return to the Arab League — a sign that Syria was being accepted back into the regional fold and losing its status as the Siberia of the Middle East. Russia is portraying Syria to the Gulf states as a counter to Turkish assertiveness in the region.
It would appear extremely unlikely that Assad would contemplate any overtures to Israel himself, but the temptation must be there if it would mean an easing of the harmful US sanctions. Putin would be delighted to polish his credentials as a Middle East power broker by facilitating the deal and acting as guarantor.
As the Iranian economy slides further into meltdown, Syria will receive less and less financial support from its ally. If Assad were to abandon Iran, the rewards could prove enticing. The Trump administration would gladly jump on this, arguing that its diplomatic activity had encouraged this climate of normalization. Sanctions could be lifted as part of the deal, with reconstruction aid coming in. Still, the EU would want to see a degree of reform in the Syrian political system, which is something of a red line for Assad. Could the regime concede on the territorial issue of the occupied Golan Heights? This would be another red line, although it might be pink round the edges. Could it accept an interim arrangement?
None of this appears likely. The regime is rarely bold and has yet to find a box it can think outside of. Its approach is rigid to the point of being brittle. Any alteration from a historic position is somehow perceived as weakness. Protest against its rule or criticism of its behavior engenders only repression and violence.
To rebuild the Syrian shattered economy, Assad needs friends beyond Russia and Iran.
As a result, it tends to be reactive not proactive. Initiatives are alien to its DNA. It does not seek friends but often still expects them to come to it, in the stubborn belief — ingrained since the earliest days of the regime in the 1970s — that all roads lead to Damascus. The simple harsh reality is that the regime is stuck in the quagmire it has dug for itself, with little appreciation of how it needs to change at home or abroad.
Syria needs friends but this regime has few and also has precious little idea of how to win them. Unless it can modify its approach and accept even modest reforms, it will remain on the margins and powerless.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech