LEVANT & EASTERN MED – June 2020
Assad winning war and losing peace?
The political fate of Bashar Al-Assad could prove to be the most surprising paradox of the Syrian crisis: having practically won the war, he could lose peace.
In Syria, the war began in 2011 mainly as a civil war and therefore as an internal crisis of the regime. Bashar al-Assad’s fate was the discriminating factor to show who had won: either the opposition or the regime.
The war has had three phases. The first, fully internal; the second, becoming a “hybrid” mutation with the arrival of non-state external actors (Hezbollah and Sunni jihadi extremists) and the featuring the full regionalization of the war sanctioned by the Russian intervention in November 2015. From this date, the internal dynamics of the crisis became progressively variables more dependent on the regional ones.
Until mid-2019, the figure of Bashar al-Assad continued to coincide politically with the regime. The request for his expulsion was therefore synonymous with “regime change”.
But since mid-2019, signals multiplied indicating possibly that Bashar al-Assad’s fate is becoming distinct from that of the regime. Indeed, external dynamics have a powerful influence on Syria, pushing towards an agreement, but without Bashar al-Assad, with solid reasons.
First, Russia’s stance. Since April 2020, a series of articles came out in the Russian press criticizing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the corruption of his regime. One of them referred to a poll (presumably carried out by the Foundation for the Protection of National Values in Syria) showing that only 32% of respondents in Syria said they wanted to vote for al-Assad in the 2021 presidential election.
Second, an even more surprising sinister internal signal, indicating a probably irreparable fracture within the regime itself. The richest man in Syria and direct cousin of the president, Rami Makhlouf, published a video complaining about an anti-corruption investigation against one of his companies, Syriatel. This public declaration follows the first (which, however, was later retracted) occurred in July 2019.
Third, the evaluation from Iran. An official image from the press office of the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei, shows a collective prayer of all the allies of Iran, who are facing the Al-Aqsa Mosque and therefore in direction of Mecca, with the Dome of the Rock as background. This prayer is strikingly similar to the heavily edited pictures of the tribune of the Soviet authorities on the parade for the anniversary of the October Revolution: a barometer of power relations.
Here we have in the foreground the leader of Hizballah, Hassan Nasrallah, with HAMAS leader Ismael Hanyieh on his left. Bashar al-Assad is almost entirely hidden in the third row, together with PLO leader Mahmud Abbas next to him. He is even behind Ibraheem Zakzakym, a Nigerian Shiite leader, in the second row. No Iraqi leader seems to be present. The cloud depicting a Soleimani looking at the Dome of the Rock reminds us of Iranian priorities in the region.
If protest will erupt in governmental strongholds, also following the economic ripple effect from Lebanon, it will be for Damascus a return to square one in 2001. Did the war make sense and will Bashar al-Assad make still sense?
So if Russia and Turkey agree – taking advantage of the void left by the US – on a Syria in the Russian sphere of influence in exchange for political agility for Turkey – and indeed this seems the trend if we look also at Libya – Bashar al-Assad could make the expense of it, no longer capable of being irreplaceable in guaranteeing a regime that emerged victorious from the war waged.