A poster of Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo [Photo: © Ats Pro Terra Sancta]We do not know whether it is legend or truth, but apparently Bashar al-Assad’s grandfather was called Sulayman al-Wahsh, meaning Sulayman “the beast”. It was probably his son Hafez, once he had become Prime Minister, to change it into al-Assad, meaning “the lion”, choosing a name that is more appropriate for a political and military leader.
Today, with the recapture of Aleppo thanks to the Iranian allies and Hezbollah’s Lebanese Shiite militia, and with the Russians guiding the negotiations, Bashar al-Assad seems to be in a strong position. Except that, a careful reading of the diplomatic and military framework reveals a very different reality: the weakness of the regime forces the rais to be in a subordinate position and to an equivocal opportunistic politics.
At the conference in Astana, in Kazakhstan, a few weeks ago, Russia and Turkey tried to consolidate the truce declared in late December; although the UN is ready to continue negotiations, the ceasefire actually remains fragile and the situation, besides the joint statements, ambiguous.
First of all, disagreements between Russians and Turks, on the one hand, and Iranians and Syrian government on the other are emerging; secondarily, at the negotiating table there are only the rebel movements of “revolutionary” matrix, such as the Syrian National Coalition (CNS), or moderate Muslim matrix, such as Jaysh al-Islam. Absent from the negotiation table, and therefore excluded from the truce, are not only extremist jihadist movements, such as the Islamic State and Jabhat Fatah al-Shams (JFS), former Jabhat al-Nusra, but also the Union’s Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD).
Russia’s position is central; officially, Moscow has made clear many times that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria are not called into question, and that the priority is not a regime change but the fight against terrorism. Actually, with their armed intervention in Syria, Moscow has made a considerable political investment and now, by negotiating within terms and times decided by them, Moscow would like to cash out. The Russian strategy, in fact, has been that of weakening moderate rebels, namely the ones who, with major American and European supports, could have been a viable alternative to the regime, leaving to the West the task of tackling the irreconcilable jihadist movements. Thus, it is not a coincidence that the negotiations in Astana took place precisely when two conditions were met: the rapprochement between Moscow and Ankara, and the recapture of Aleppo by the regime. In fact, with a diplomatic flip dictated by realpolitik requirements, Turkey abandoned the confrontation with Moscow and the idea of a regime change in Damascus, and is now focused on the Kurdish issue, in particular to counter the PKK-PYD axis, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, blacklisted as a terrorist organization in Turkey. As dowry to the Russians, Ankara brought their strong influence on numerous rebel groups; in fact, first they pressured such groups in order to allow the regime to win back Aleppo, and then led them to negotiate. In return, Turkey reached a leading role among those who are actually deciding Syria’s future; for example, last August, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was given free hand from Damascus and Moscow to intervene in Syria and create a buffer zone with the "Euphrates Shield" operation. In addition, Turkey obtained that the PYD would not be present in Astana.
The second favorable condition for Moscow was the fall of Aleppo which, quickly followed by the opening of negotiations, put the rebel groups in front of a choice: to sit, even if defeated, to the negotiating table, or to risk being considered - also by the UN - spoilers of the peace process and therefore to be eliminated along with the jihadists.
Hence, with the truce of Astana, Moscow seeks a military agreement with the rebel forces that they have defeated militarily or tamed politically through Turkey, to then consolidate everything with a political agreement ratified in Geneva. In this way, once ensured the survival of the regime, the only thing left to do would be to continue - together with the international community - the war against terrorism, meaning against ISIS and the Islamist armed opposition.
Paradoxically, the major obstacle to the Russian plan is represented by the Syrian regime itself. First of all, both during the ceasefire sanctioned by the UN in February 2016 and the one negotiated between former US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the following September, the Syrian government forces took advantage of the situation, concentrated troops and gained tactical advantage, violating the truce. Indeed, Moscow was accused of not being in control of their Syrian ally, or of maliciously exploiting the truce in order to consolidate their positions and obtain tactical advantage. In any case, today, with the moderate opposition weakened and the jihadist one divided, Assad is strongly tempted to continue the offensive, before an actual agreement "freezes" the situation on the ground. And what stimulate him in this direction is the Iranian position. Tehran is formally involved in the negotiations led by Moscow, but in reality there are major disagreements; Iran’s major concern is that Russia will be able to steal from their hand the special relationship with and influence on the Syrian regime. Also, while for Iran the alliance with the regime in Damascus holds an essential strategic value, for Russia the Syrian theater is just one of the open matches with Washington, D.C., and, taking into account opportunities that may open up with Donald Trump as President, they would be more willing to give concessions; the removal of Bashar al-Assad could be in the first place. Thus, it is not a coincidence that Tehran was opposed to the presence of America, very symbolic by the way, at the Astana conference. Consequently, while Moscow tries to capitalize on their political investment through a peace agreement, Iran is ensuring their influence in Syria with the control of the numerous militias that are active in the country. Stuck in the middle, between the Russian bear and the wolves of the militia sponsored by Iran, Bashar is forced to play the role of the opportunistic fox, rather than that of the lion.