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Why Russia won’t remove Assad from power

Moscow and Tehran have become more dependent on the Syrian president as the conflict has dragged on, and as the threat posed by ISIL and other extremist groups grows, says one analyst.
A severely burned young boy is fed as he lies in the intensive care unit of a hospital in the rebel-held area of Douma, east of the capital Damascus, following reported mortar shelling by Syrian government forces on August 28, 2015. Abd Doumany/AFP Photo
A severely burned young boy is fed as he lies in the intensive care unit of a hospital in the rebel-held area of Douma, east of the capital Damascus, following reported mortar shelling by Syrian government forces on August 28, 2015. Abd Doumany/AFP Photo

Russia’s latest diplomatic drive to reach common ground with Saudi Arabia on the Syrian conflict broke down on the persisting question of president Bashar Al Assad’s fate.

Following talks in Moscow two weeks ago, Saudi Arabian foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir made clear the kingdom would not coordinate with the Assad regime in the fight against ISIL, insisting that “there is no place for Assad in the future of Syria”.

Speaking a week later following talks with Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif, Russia’s top diplomat Sergei Lavrov reiterated Moscow’s opposition to calls for Mr Al Assad’s removal as a condition for talks on a transitional process.

The role of Mr Al Assad has remained a constant sticking point between foreign powers in the bloody conflict. The calamitous consequences of the war, including over 240,000 dead, more than 9 million displaced and the emergence of terror groups such as ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra, have so far failed to sway foreign powers to reach a compromise on the Syrian conflict.

“Nobody is on the same page, there is zero agreement on who should win and what should be exchanged,” Joshua Landis, Syria expert and director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told The National.

Mr Lavrov’s remarks spurn speculation that Russia might consider supporting the removal of Mr Al Assad as part of a transitional deal.

Paul Saunders, executive director of the Centre for the National Interest in Washington, said the Kremlin’s continued support for Mr Al Assad is about “saving face” and “exercising Russian influence in Syria.

“Moscow would not have much leverage over Assad if the Russian government attempted to persuade him to step down,” he told The National, adding that Mr Al Assad remaining in power for a transitional period would provide Russia with extra negotiating room.

Russia and Iran have become more dependent on Mr Al Assad as the conflict has dragged on, and as the threat posed by ISIL and other extremist groups grows, according to Mr Landis.

“The regime is in a very delicate state. If he were to leave, it might collapse entirely, therefore their (Russia and Iran) entire position would be wiped out,” Mr Landis said.

Any attempt by Russia or Iran to orchestrate an internal coup within the regime to remove Mr Al Assad, while retaining the state apparatus, would likely fail, according to both Mr Landis and Mr Saunders.

“A move like this could fragment what remains of the Syrian government leading to its collapse,” Mr Saunders said, a nightmare scenario Russia is keen to avoid.

“So long as the Assad regime endures, it prevents the Islamic State from consolidating its hold over the whole country,” Mr Saunders added.

Mr Landis believes Moscow and Tehran simply do not have the ability to force the kind of in-house regime-change many in the Syrian opposition hope can be done.

“In order to get Assad to step aside, you have to get the Alawite generals to stand up to him the way the military in Egypt did to Mubarak, point their guns at him, and say he has no choice. The Alawite generals are not going to do that,” he said.

Anas Joudeh, a member of the internal opposition based in Damascus, also expressed caution at any sudden attempt to remove Assad.

“Why does one think that the departure of Assad will end the war? Removing the president cannot be a condition for the transition, but it can be a result of it,” he said.

The basis of Mr Al Assad’s support does not only stem from the backing of Moscow and Tehran, but also the strong support the Syrian president still enjoys from the country’s military, political and business elites, Mr Landis said.

“The Sunni, urban elites still by and large support Assad, which is why he still controls all the major cities. It’s not just brutal force.”

The continuing support from elites, in addition to the large following he enjoys in regime-held areas, makes any attempt to remove Mr Al Assad all the more difficult.

He has also made sure no suitable alternatives will arise that might prompt Russia and Iran to rethink their support of his presidency.

Mr Landis noted the case of veteran opposition figure, Abdelaziz Al Khayyer, a prominent Alawite who was promptly arrested and disappeared by the regime in 2012 following successful trips to Russia and China.

“Assad showed them (Russia, Iran and China), it’s either me or nothing, and that’s been the Assad strategy, that’s why he wipes out all of his liberal opposition and he keeps his most loyal lieutenants divided.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Updated: August 29, 2015 04:00 AM

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