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 According to the Russian military strategist Mikhail Khodarenok, Syria's General Staff has no plan, the Air Force is out of date and uses home-made bombs and recruits are poorly provided for and equipped and correspondingly demoralised.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.
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.
© Qantara.de 2016
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan