Events at home and abroad have turned in Assad’s favour
With President Bashar Al Assad’s term scheduled to end in July, the Syrian regime is apparently preparing for new elections that Mr Al Assad will surely win, by foul means if not fair. This has alarmed the United Nations mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, who has warned that it may doom prospects for future talks.
Elections have yet to be finalised, but Mr Brahimi told reporters that if they were held, the opposition would be unlikely to talk to the regime. A presidential election represents the last opportunity to transition away from Mr Al Assad, otherwise Syria’s conflict could be without political resolution.
Last December, the Syrian president was worried that the Geneva negotiations, scheduled for January, would precipitate his removal. At the time, Mr Al Assad had declared that he might run for elections this year, which prompted a rebuke from the Russian deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, who told the Interfax news agency that the remark “makes the atmosphere heavier and does not make the situation calmer”.
There was speculation then that the Russians might view the end of Mr Al Assad’s term as a convenient point to hand over power to a more consensual leadership. Mr Al Assad would have completed his constitutional term in office, thus preserving his regime and bolstering Russian insistence that Syria’s sovereignty had to be respected.
That was the thinking at least, but it became increasingly untenable as the Russians showed no signs of giving up on Mr Al Assad. Subsequently there were other statements by Syrian officials mentioning that Mr Al Assad might stand for re-election, but these provoked no Russian response.
That’s not surprising. Mr Al Assad can see that both the domestic and international situations are turning in his favour.
Domestically, his army has made progress, most recently by recapturing the town of Yabroud, located just east of the strategic highway linking Damascus to Homs.
And internationally, Russia’s decision to annex Crimea has isolated it internationally. That means that Mr Al Assad will not soon have to worry about paying the price for a Russian-American rapprochement over Syria. If anything, tension between Washington and Moscow is bound to rise, giving the Syrian leader more room to pursue his own agenda.
In addition, the Geneva negotiations that had been supported by Russia and the United States utterly failed. They showed that the two powers were on very different wavelengths when it came to the outlines of a diplomatic solution for the Syrian conflict, making further cooperation doubtful.
But as Mr Al Assad consolidates his position, and seeks to anchor this reality with his own re-election come July, there remain two significant risks that his regime will have to address.
The first is that Syria has failed to respect several deadlines for the removal and destruction of its chemical weapons arsenal. If it continues to do so, this could trigger American military retaliation, particularly in a key Congressional election year for Barack Obama. Both Mr Al Assad and Vladimir Putin seek to avoid such an eventuality.
That is perhaps why Mikhail Ulyanov, the head of the security and disarmament department at the Russian foreign ministry, declared last week: “If there are no difficulties then in a month, on April 13, the removal [of the Syrian chemical weapons] will be practically finished.” In restating its commitment to the general deadline, Moscow clearly intended to head off any American military action against Syria.
A second risk for Mr Al Assad is the purported spring offensive planned by rebels based in southern Syria. News reports have suggested that southern rebel groups have been armed by Saudi Arabia and trained by the Americans and Jordanians. Significantly, they are to be supplied with anti-aircraft missiles stored in warehouses in Jordan. Their principal objective would be to attack Damascus and force Mr Al Assad to negotiate.
However, there continue to be doubts about the potential success of such an offensive. The Americans have not given, or not yet given, a green light to deploy the portable anti-aircraft missiles, or manpads, which would give rebels a decisive edge against the aircraft and helicopters of the Syrian armed forces.
Increasingly, it appears that Mr Al Assad is seeking a military solution to the conflict. That is easier said than done, and no one seriously believes it will lead to a decisive victory in the short term. Large swathes of Syria continue to be controlled by the rebels, with the regime focused on controlling Damascus and the Syrian coast, and the communication lines in between.
But Mr Brahimi is right: if Mr Al Assad were to go ahead with an election, that this would effectively undermine a negotiated outcome in Syria. And if the Russians were to sign on to this, it means they feel the Syrian president can prevail militarily. This attitude would no doubt be shared by Iran.
That is where the Saudi and American plan for a southern offensive become important. The outcome may decide whether Mr Al Assad goes ahead with his project to stand for re-election, or whether he and his sponsors must consider alternatives.
Mr Al Assad is little concerned by the legitimacy of the election process. More than 2.5 million people are refugees outside Syria, and 6.5 million are internally displaced, so there is little latitude to gauge real popular aspirations. But the Syrian leader has other priorities. His objective is political survival and a re-election, no matter how ludicrous, would help him do just that.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut
On Twitter: @BeirutCalling
Updated: March 19, 2014 04:00 AM