President Bashar al-Assad made an important speech in Damascus on Sunday, outlining – before an audience of diplomats – his vision of the transition toward a political settlement in Syria.
Assad gave notice to those foreign powers who have pushed a regime change agenda – an agenda that has spectacularly failed – that he expects them to abandon their residual links with rebel groups. He said: “There will be neither security cooperation, nor the opening of embassies, nor a role for certain states that say they want to find a way out [of Syria’s war], unless they explicitly cut their ties with terrorism.”
Assad had in mind the US and its regional and western allies – principally Saudi Arabia, Turkey and France. He duly highlighted the robust support received from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in turning the tide of the war, but also dwelt on the “big picture.” The “strategic future of Syria,” he said, “must be towards the East.” He ended with the tantalizing remark that Syria needs to reconsider the map of its external relations.
Evidently, Assad intends to regain control of the entire country and is confident that such an achievement is not far off. The Astana talks and any UN-sponsored peace process have become sideshows; the accent now is on crushing rebel groups through a mix of coercive diplomacy and sheer military power. Syrian government forces will press ahead with their military offensive to liberate the city of Deir Ez-Zor; they’ll then cross the Euphrates and take control of the southern regions bordering Iraq, vanquishing Islamic State (ISIS).
“There will be neither security cooperation, nor the opening of embassies, nor a role for certain states that say they want to find a way out, unless they explicitly cut their ties with terrorism”
To be sure, the US has to take some major decisions in the weeks ahead. It has set up 12 military bases in the Kurdish regions of northern Syria, indicative of plans for a prolonged stay in Syria. The Kurds, allied to the US, expect a permanent American presence. The US objective still appears to be to beat the government’s forces to Dier Ez-Zor and seize control of the oil fields in the north-eastern province of Hasaka (which are important for ensuring the economic viability of a Kurdistan in northern Syria.) This plan looks increasingly like a pipe dream, however.
Traditionally, Syrian diplomacy has been quite adept at exploiting the fault lines in regional and global politics to preserve the country’s own strategic autonomy. The bottom line is that a sort of inter-dependency has developed in the Russian-Syrian alliance. Syrian forces cannot make headway in their offensive along the banks of the Euphrates in the coming weeks without Russian air cover; but this is also emerging as part of a joint enterprise to prevent a long-term US military presence in Syria and the balkanization of the country.
It is also in Iran’s interest that the US retrenches from Syria. Tehran’s best bet is that Assad holds onto power. Both Russia and Iran are stakeholders in Syria’s unity and territorial integrity.
A shift in the overall military balance in Assad’s favor is borne out by reports that Hezbollah has cut back its involvement in Syria from a peak level of 20,000 fighters in Syria to a force level of 5,000
The visit by the head of Iran’s General Staff of the Armed Forces, Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, to Turkey last week, which was the first such event in over four decades, and the signing of a Turkish-Iranian military agreement on August 17 in Ankara to expand military cooperation, signifies that the two countries have shared interests in preventing any independent Kurdish entities appearing on the maps of Iraq or Syria. Simply put, all these factors work to Syria’s advantage.
An additional booster for Syrian diplomacy comes in the guise of the nascent Russian-Turkish-Iranian axis, which is compelling Turkey to terminate its support for extremist groups in Syria. Russia has been cajoling Turkey with appreciable success and the Turkish-Iranian entente hastens that process. Equally, acute contradictions in the Turkish-American relationship make the US military presence on a long-term basis in northern Syria unsustainable.
The US faces an uphill task to cobble together a credible rebel force that can challenge the might of the Syrian government forces and Iran-backed militia in the southern and eastern regions of Syria. A shift in the overall military balance in Assad’s favor is borne out by reports that Hezbollah has cut back its involvement in Syria from a peak level of 20,000 fighters in Syria to a force level of 5,000.
All in all, therefore, the big question is not whether but when US commanders decide to call it a day in Syria. That point is still not within sight. But Assad has made it clear that although Syria will be open to negotiating diversified external relationships, in this conflict the winner will take all.