Russia and the Syrian conflict

Drop the dictator!

For there to be any hope of an end to the war in Syria, Moscow has to realise that an orderly handover of power in Damascus is in its own interest, writes Kristin Helberg

Regardless of how one evaluates Russia's role in Syria – to mercilessly and effectively bombard civilians so as to save an unscrupulous mass murderer, to take crude, bruising military action with a view to boxing through its regional interests, or to use clever tactics to position itself as an indispensable world power – Vladimir Putin has certainly made sure of one thing: the road to peace in Syria leads through Moscow. The reason for this is that of all Assad's supporters, Russia is the only one that can do without Assad (unlike Iran) and has both the political and the military clout to force him into a retreat. Consequently, anyone who wants to resolve the conflict must convince the Russian president that Russia's interests are best served by a transfer of power in Damascus.

Here are the four most important arguments in this respect. First up: Syria's statehood, which everyone – Russians, Americans, Iranians, Turks and Saudis alike – wants to preserve, but which is already disintegrating. The fact of the matter is that Syria as a state can only be saved without Assad; the president is not a guarantee of Syria's statehood, he is a threat to it. This first argument is inextricably linked to the second: the state of the Syrian army, whose ineffectiveness and lack of morale is driving the Russian military to despair. Thirdly, the terrorist threat to Russia does not decrease when everyone in Syria focuses on combating 'Sunni terrorism', it increases.

As long as foreign Shia militias are allowed to murder as they please on Assad's behalf, the radicalisation of Syria's majority Sunni population will continue. Fourthly, Putin has basically done what he set out to do. This is why the time has come for a post-war order without Assad from which Moscow can safely withdraw, safe in the knowledge that Russia's interests are safeguarded even without Assad.

But first to the Syrian state: whenever international and regional players speak of preserving state structures, they generally end up making the case for Assad. After all, it is alleged that only the regime can guarantee these state structures at this point in time. The horror scenario goes something like this: 'if Assad falls, there will be anarchy, jihadis will step in and fill the power vacuum and the country will descend into chaos.' In other words, the fear is that Syria will become another 'failed state'.

In view of this fear, it is worth taking a closer look at the condition of the Syrian state in order to understand how it can be saved. In doing so, two things become apparent.

Liberating the Syrian state from Assad's influence

Russian fighter jets at a Syrian airbase near Latakia (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/Russian Defence Ministry)
Escalating the war in Syria: one year ago, Russia became involved in the Syrian civil war. Moscow′s self-declared "War on Terror " has become a huge military operation, which has had an even more devastating effect on Syria′s suffering civilian population

Firstly, above all else, the purpose of state institutions in Syria is to keep Assad in power. Over the course of several decades, the military, security forces, judiciary, party and administration have been turned into crutches for Assad's rule and act in the current conflict as the president's personal tools for staying in power.

Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, neither the military nor the police respectively play an independent role in Syria. Both have been completely appropriated by Assad, which explains why he has been able to hold on to power. This is why the first step must be to liberate the Syrian state from Assad's influence so that the necessary structures, which would serve the Syrian people and not their oppressor, can develop.

Secondly, in many places, Assad has lost control to local warlords who are acting independently of Damascus, both in terms of their funding and their personnel. As Middle East military expert Tobias Schneider has already illustrated in great detail, the 'government-held areas' are in fact as fragmented and characterised by changing alliances as the regions held by the opposition. Local life around the country is no longer always shaped by the government in Damascus, but by dozens of groups loyal to Assad who are benefitting from the war and above all pursuing their own local interests.

The rival Tiger Forces in the provinces of Aleppo and Hama and the Desert Hawks in Latakia are considered particularly powerful. They are led by smugglers, criminals and militia members and are bankrolled by money-laundering and the trade in weapons, oil and people. Moreover, instead of relying on crumbling state institutions, they have built up their own local support networks.

Assad himself boosted the emergence of these forces in August 2013 when he signed a decree allowing business people to build up their own militia in order to protect their assets. ″With the stroke of a pen,″ says Schneider, ″the regime armed its own kleptocrats.″

Syria′s president Bashar Assad visiting the troops in the Damascus suburb of Marj al-Sultan (photo: picture-alliance/AP/SANA)
Power base crumbling: Assad has lost control to local warlords who are acting independently of Damascus, both in terms of their funding and their personnel. Government-held areas are in fact as fragmented and characterised by changing alliances as the regions held by the opposition

Out of control

Some – such as the Tiger Forces – have been able to consolidate their power at regional level to such an extent that even Assad's dreaded military secret police have lost their grip on them. Nevertheless, the regime needs these militias to repel opposition attacks. When it comes to taking back territory, these militias form strange alliances with local warlords, foreign fighters and the remnants of groups loyal to the regime. In those cases where offensives are successful, the region does not automatically fall back into the hands of the powers-that-be in Damascus, but is instead dominated by the most influential militias in that area. This is why the areas that were recaptured over the past year only superficially seem to strengthen Assad. In reality, they are an illustration of his loss of power within his own camp.

The situation is compounded by the regime's dependence on foreign support. Without military support from Russia and Iran, Assad would have been finished long ago. Moreover, without the reinforcement of Shia militiamen from Lebanon (Hezbollah), Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, no territory would have been captured on the ground.

If reports by the Russian military are to be believed, the Syrian army is largely made up of unmotivated soldiers who prefer to rip off their compatriots at checkpoints than fight for the fatherland. According to the Russian military strategist Mikhail Khodarenok, Syria's General Staff has no plan, the Air Force is out of date and uses home-made bombs and recruits are poorly provided for and equipped and correspondingly demoralised. He concludes that it is not possible to win a war with partners like Hezbollah and Iran, who are pursuing their own interests and an ally like Assad's army and calls for an end to Russian intervention by the end of the year.

Syria's Islamist rebels united against IS

From a Russian point of view, as far as the fight against terrorism is concerned, it would make more sense to focus on the so-called 'Islamic State' (IS) in Syria than to get involved in Assad's war crimes against predominantly Sunni civilians and co-operate with Shia militias – of all people. Moscow's attempt to paint as many Assad opponents as possible as radical Islamists and to put them on a par with IS is just as counterproductive as Turkey's habit of referring to the Kurdish defence units of the PKK's sister party, the PYD, in the same breath as IS.

Those who flatly dismiss their opponents as terrorists without understanding the role that they play for people at local level only whip up opposition and confirm the propaganda of the extremists. Their motto is 'Syria's Sunnis against the rest of the world'. For this reason, Russia and the USA would do well to make Syria's Islamist rebels their allies in the fight against IS, thereby exerting so much pressure on their main enemy, Assad, that he will remove any obstacles to a negotiated resolution.

Meeting of the UN Security Council (photo: picture-alliance/Photoshot)
UN Security Council divided: with Aleppo facing the heaviest bombing raids of the war to date, Russia and the Western powers are accusing each other of being responsible for the current escalation in violence. During an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Sunday France′s ambassador to the UN Francois Delattre accused the Russian government of undermining the ceasefire through its support for the Syrian dictatorship. His Russian counterpart Vitaly Churkin rejected the allegation. UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon spoke of "war crimes" being committed in Aleppo

And then what? Syria will not become a caliphate: the Syrians would not accept a ban on smoking or listening to music and everyone would get involved in the fight against IS. All foreign fighters would have to leave the country, not only the Chechen jihadis, but also the Lebanese members of Hezbollah and Iranian mercenaries. Then Syria's rebels could clarify their links to al-Qaida and discover that they are impressed by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham's (formerly known as the Nusra Front) fight on the front line, but not its ideology. Everything else is a matter for negotiation: slow, complex and full of foul compromises, but undoubtedly better than continuing to abandon Syria to decline.

Assad is destroying Syria

Assad's departure is the necessary first step because bringing an end to the fighting gets harder every day that he is in power. Moreover, no one can plan what comes after him because Damascus will simply not allow it. Any potential regime candidate who could play a role in a transition – because he bears no responsibility for the murders and might be acceptable to many Syrians – risks his life making such plans at the present time. This is why the knock-out argument that 'there is no alternative to Assad' is not helpful and in fact merely accelerates the disintegration of the state and the spiral of violence in Syria.

It is undoubtedly true that the opposition has to pull itself together in many respects, but no matter who is on the other side, Assad himself is destroying Syria. The longer others fight for his survival, the more warlords will end up sitting at the table later on setting the conditions for peace.

Were Russia willing to raise the prospect of a new beginning without Assad in Geneva, this could have a decisive influence on the transition process and secure Russia's presence in the form of military bases. Putin has already achieved what he set out to achieve, namely to be perceived in the Middle East as a key player and on the international stage as a world power.

With an end to the Assad regime brought about by diplomacy, Vladimir Putin could give Syria an opportunity for peace and prove that Russian involvement can be not only destructive, but ultimately also constructive.

Kristin Helberg

© Qantara.de 2016

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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