Friday, December 21, 2012

Putin Throws Assad Under the Bus

When you lose this guy, time's up.

On Thursday, President Putin said this about Syria and Assad:

"We are not concerned about the fate of al-Assad’s regime. We understand what is going on there and that the family has held power for 40 years. Undoubtedly, there is a call for changes.”

“We are worried about a different thing – what next? We simply don’t want the current opposition, having become the authorities, to start fighting the people who are the current authorities ... and [we don’t want] this to go on forever.”

During the past several months, the opposition forces have consolidated gains, holding most of the north and opening up new fronts in the south. After a year of scattered fighting and assaults, they have now carried out coordinated attacks that are stripping away territory from the Assad regime which is looking more and more like a well-armed militia than coherent national fighting force. Russia knows this and is likely planning its pull-back from the Middle East. Does Iran? Probably.

But, there is a grain of truth in President Putin's remarks yesterday.  The Arab Spring has resulted in an upsurge of hard line Islamists, such as the Salafists in Egypt and similar groups in Syria.  The conventional wisdom was that if the Assad regime fell, those who peacefully demonstrated for fundamental rights a year ago would be able to consolidate and reconstruct a largely secular Syria but one that included Islamic principles.  That is unlikely to happen, and we can see from Iraq and Egypt, that those who wanted democracy are likely to end up with a new government that is neither liberal or democratic.  

President Putin is also correct in his concern that the fighting could go on forever.  Syria's opposition is united by only one thing - to remove the Assad regime. Once that is accomplished, what then?  One merely has to look at Egypt and its looming governance crisis.

Then there are the Kurds who have been largely disconnected from the fighting but not the opposition. Will they have a role to play within a new government or will they reflect on their wider interests with their government in northern Iraq?  If fighting erupts in northern Iraq between the Baghdad government and the Kurdish autonomous region - an increasingly likely scenario given the possibility of no Kurdish representation in the Iraq government - will it spread to engulf Syria?  Ankara is also likely looking at that possibility.

So, the complexity of the state of play in Syria is reflected in the entire region at this point while the US and Europe seem to be trying to find a way to engage in the regime change process so as to have influence in the new Syria.  Hence the labelling of the Ansar al-Jebhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham (Supporters of the Front for Victory of the People of Syria) or simply Jebhat al-Nusra (Support Front) by Washington as a terrorist organization in an attempt to sift out extremist.

As the end game approaches, the complexity will increase as Iran, seeing an ally swept from power, struggles to reset its relationship with Syria, while Turkey moves to create a stable transition that does not involve a Kurdish uprising that could spill over into its territory and the West maneuvers to prevent extremist elements from coming to power.

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