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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

The question of reconstruction could determine Assad’s political destiny

The Syrian president's future may be at greater risk once the conflict ends, writes Michael Young

A reader writes about the desperate situation at work in parts of Syria. Omar Sanadiki / Reuters
A reader writes about the desperate situation at work in parts of Syria. Omar Sanadiki / Reuters

It’s now taken as a given that Bashar Al Assad will not be removed from power by the actions of the Syrian opposition. Russian and Iranian military intervention, coupled with western diffidence about what his departure would have meant, undermined any military solution that might have ousted the Syrian president from office.

However, an alternative question merits being asked. Is Mr Al Assad’s political future at greater risk once the Syrian conflict ends? This may not be asludicrous as it sounds.

There are several reasons that could make such a scenario possible. First, that once the war in Syria ends, both Iran and Russia will want to stabilise Syria by ensuring it is reintegrated into the Arab fold. For as long as Mr Al Assad is president, such a process is likely to be seriously hindered.

Second, Syria will need massive amounts of money to be rebuilt after its war, a step that would be needed to reinforce any post-war settlement. Without major investment in reconstruction, the political order defended by Russia and Iran will remain fragile, very likely undermining their desire to consolidate Mr Al Assad's rule in a way that would spare them the need to do so on their own for years to come.

And third, in a post-conflict Syria the cost of replacing Mr Al Assad may be considerably less than it would be if the fighting were ongoing. The reality is that even if Moscow and Tehran had ever seriously contemplated removing Mr Al Assad after the uprising began, they didn't know how to do so in a way that would have preserved their interests, because the violence would have been precluded a smooth transition.

However, once the fighting ends, it is conceivable that a way could be found to ease Mr Al Assad out, in collaboration with the centres of power that had supported his regime. The advantage would be to get rid of a man whose continued presence represents a persistent obstacle to national reconciliation and normalisation of the Syrian state.

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This could involve finding a replacement for Mr Al Assad who would reassure those networks of officials in the security and military apparatus that Russia and Iran wish to keep in place. In this context, the recent Russian decision to present a ceremonial sword to Suheil Al Hassan, commander of the regime’s Tiger Force, led to speculation as to the true symbolism of the event, regardless of what the real Russian intent was.

However, several factors are likely to work against a transition away from Mr Al Assad. For starters, the Syrian president has never been so vulnerable and dependent, which represents a major advantage to his foreign protectors, Iran in particular. A new Syrian leader, on the contrary, could potentially be empowered to impose himself as a more independent figure, to bolster his national legitimacy.

A second mitigating factor is that Mr Al Assad is likely to resist any efforts to push him out. This can include eliminating potential rivals physically, as has happened with other Syrian security officials in the past decade, or simply blocking measures that Russia or Iran, or both, could not ignore. The Syrian president, and the people immediately around him who would lose out if he were to fall, still have the means to be spoilers.

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And third, even assuming that Russia and Iran agreed over the need to push Mr Al Assad out, would they agree over whom would replace him? Both have very different interests in Syria, and these can be expected to widen once the conflict there is over. That is why the selection of a new Syrian leader will most probably divide the two countries, allowing Mr Al Assad to play one off the other in such a way as to survive politically.

It is difficult to predict what will happen to Mr Al Assad, but the dynamics in Syria suggest he will not be able to rest after the guns have become silent. If anything, the guns are what kept him in power for so long. No matter what the outcome of the war, the president has become damaged goods, a fact that his Russian and Iranian backers will have to increasingly take into consideration as they prepare to consolidate their gains.

Things will be clearer for Mr Al Assad once he can better determine the extent of the hypocrisy of western democracies in their efforts to benefit from Syria’s reconstruction. Will they be willing to look the other way on Mr Al Assad’s crimes, or will they cover for their participation by isolating the Syrian president? Everyone wants to profit in post-war Syria, but it remains unclear who will provide the capital for reconstruction.

And that’s a question neither Iran nor Russia can take lightly. If Syria is not to turn into a larger version of Gaza, ruined and without imminent hope of revival, this could harm both their interests. The question of reconstruction could emerge as a central factor in Mr Al Assad’s political fate. Without money there is no reconstruction, and without reconstruction the regime’s “victory” would be an illusion. But Iran and Russia now own Syria because they so helped to break it apart.

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