War-weary West concedes to Russia's vision for Syria

War-weary West concedes to Russia's vision for Syria
Analysis: Bashar al-Assad is receiving a makeover, thanks to Russian leaders - but Syria's opposition rejects a new vision of the president, as its western allies engage with Moscow.
5 min read
28 September, 2015
Most urban areas in Syria have now been ravaged by the conflict [AFP]

As world leaders converge on New York for a landmark UN meeting, a solution to the Syrian war now appears to be in the hands of the Damascus regime's foremost European ally, Russia.

For the past four years, Western blame for the civil war has been levelled squarely at one man - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But as war fatigue creeps in, it looks like the regime's leading international opponents - the US, UK, Turkey and Arab states - are looking for a quick solution to the war which has cost 250,000 Syrian lives.

EU countries have agreed to pump more money into helping alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Syria's neighbouring countries - who are hosting more than four million refugees.

But without an end to the conflict in sight, they appear to growing tired of the Syrian opposition's insistence that Assad must go.

Contact group

On Monday, Russia said that it had formed the framework for a contact group that will include the "most influential outside players" in the Syrian conflict.

Moscow said that Syrian peace talks would be pushed forward after the UN meeting.

Critically, the group would include key parties that have becoming embroiled in the conflict - Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt.

Russia's deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, told Russian media that Moscow wants the talks to happen "as quickly as possible" - perhaps related to Russia's fears that its growing influence in the region could wane if peace talks are stalled further.  

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have already held talks on the Syrian issue. Kerry is also due meet Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

A state department official told Reuters that there was a very "thorough exchange of views on both military and political implications on Russia's increased engagement in Syria".

Assad has scored a huge diplomatic victory in this, after a string of defeats on the battlefield. Up until recently his days appeared numbered.

Morale-sapping losses such as Abu al-Dahur airbase in Idlib province have been turned around after Russia and Iran reaffirmed their commitment to the regime.

Russia hurried in troops and weapons - effectively taking over Latakia airbase and expanding its operations at its Syrian-Mediterranean port, Tartous.

Damascus' other main ally, Iran, has brokered an agreement to allow residents of two Shia villages in Idlib province to be evacuated with the more strategically significant Zabadani town cleared of rebel fighters and Sunnis.

International backing

With these powerful friends behind them, the regime is transforming itself from an international pariah to a key power that could end the four-year conflict.

Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the Syrian president must be included in peace talks.

"We will have to talk with many actors. Assad will be part of that, but also others like the US and Russia as well as important regional partners like Iran or Saudi Arabia," Merkel said at the 21 September EU meeting organised to tackle the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe.

It was an unprecedented statement by a major EU leader, the bloc largely in agreement that Assad was part of the problem - not the solution - in Syria.

A week later, and the UK's Prime Minister David Cameron hinted that Assad could stay in power - temporarily - as head of a transitional government.

At the UN meeting today, Cameron is expected to call for a new peace drive, and drop his opposition to Assad being part of talks. Washington has also agreed on a role for Assad in a transitional leadership.

Even Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is accused of arming the Syrian rebels, made a landmark statement last week: "The [peace] process could possibly be without Assad, or the transitional process could be with him."

It marks an important moment for the regime, as the US and EU countries make small steps towards rapprochement with the regime.

[Click to enlarge]

What has spooked the West, however, has been the continued threat of the bloodthirsty Islamic State group and the thousands of Syrian refugees pouring into Europe.

On Sunday, France launched airstrikes on IS targets inside Syria for the first time, while the UK looks set to follow suit.

Together, the West now looks to be in agreement that IS - and some radical fringe groups in the rebel ranks - are the biggest bogeymen of the Syrian saga. This is a narrative Assad has pursued throughout the conflict.

While the US-led coalition continues to strike IS targets in Iraq, and now Syria, Russia has been successful in giving Assad a PR makeover.

He is still viewed as a butcher - but many are now taking the bait and viewing him as a stalwart opponent to IS and necessary to preventing an extremist takeover of Syria.

The much publicised fall of Palmyra, and a massive exodus of refugees to Europe have been key factors in this.

It is why Russia's build-up in Syria is being looked upon through the prism of the fight against IS - rather than an expansionist move.

Russia has also agreed to an intelligence-sharing initiative with Iraq, Syria and Iran, furthering its efforts to fight the extremist group within a regional framework.

IS fight

At present, a column of regime troops is advancing in Aleppo province to relieve an IS-besieged airbase. If they are successful, it will be another major publicity scoop for Damascus.

Meanwhile, the rebels continue their sustained fight against the IS group in northern Syria, which is all but ignored by mainstream media.

The Syrian opposition is adamant that Assad must play no role in peace talks.  

On Saturday, the Syrian National Coalition and rebel groups held a meeting to discuss their response to the Russian plans.

"[We] emphasise [the] rejection of any presence of Bashar al-Assad in the transitional period, or in Syria's future, as well as of all attempts to re-market the regime," read a statement from the opposition group released on Monday. 

"The Russian military build-up in Syria to protect Assad from falling does not serve a political solution... Russia has never been a mediator in the conflict but a partner of the regime."

Suspicions among activists that the US is ready to sacrifice the aspirations of the Syrian opposition for a quick end to the conflict are growing.

They say that the fate of Syria's future is no longer decided by the people, but by outside powers.

Syria's main battlefields, at least between the regime and the rebels, are essentially being placed on the periphery as the world focuses its attention on the threat of IS.