Assad’s departure still non-starter for Putin

Article Summary
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comment on "orderly" transition could offer a face-saving spark for Syria political talks; Hezbollah’s No. 2 disavows "ambitions" in Syria; did Iran benefit from US missile strike? Sistani seeks restraints on Iraqi armed groups looking to fight in Syria.

Is there a Syrian Medvedev? (Part 2)

Maxim Suchkov writes that following the visit of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Moscow this week, “the departure of President Bashar al-Assad was and remains a non-starter for Russia. What neither Lavrov nor Putin would probably say to Tillerson, but do expect him to understand, is that Russia has invested so much into Syria now, politically and militarily, that Moscow’s primary concern is less about Assad than about the principle, power and prestige of maintaining its position. Hence, any plan that might move Moscow from this standing would have to involve some face-saving mechanism that the Kremlin could package as a win-win internationally, and as a 'decision made in Russia’s best interest' domestically.”

This column last week anticipated that there would likely be little movement in the Russian position on Syria, noting that “Putin has given top priority to re-establishing Russia as a regional power in the Middle East. His backing of the Syrian government boosted his reputation as a credible partner, and he will be loath to lose face. Putin has absorbed the lessons of 2011, when his government acquiesced in a UN resolution authorizing military intervention in Libya, which led to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s overthrow.”

Suchkov adds, “So far, the US vision has been to get Russia on board by offering Moscow an opportunity to 'play a constructive role in the humanitarian and political catastrophe in the Middle East.' That approach misses a critical point in Russian political psychology: The Kremlin believes it has already stepped up as a constructive player to counter the increasingly destructive forces unleashed by the United States. This belief — no matter how uncomfortably it sits with anyone — is not entirely groundless. Many players in the region perceive Russia in this capacity, even if it’s just for their own political reasons.”

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Tillerson’s remark, “We do think it’s important that Assad’s departure is done in an orderly way — an orderly way — so that certain interests and constituencies that he represents feel they have been represented at the negotiating table for a political solution,” is considered by Moscow as a “positive outcome,” according to Suchkov, because “it leaves open the prospect of returning to the political process that was underway for several months before the gas attack and the airstrikes.”

The reference to “certain interests and constituencies that he [Assad] represents” reflects an approach to Syria’s transition that Al-Monitor has consistently stressed. In our very first Week in Review column in November 2012 we wrote, “Assad is the leader of the Alawites, until the armed Alawites decide otherwise. Simply put, until the Syrian Alawites themselves make a change, they will back Assad. Any initiative that therefore leaves out these same Alawites of Syria, and overlooks the sectarian, local and regional dimensions of the Syrian conflict, is a recipe for diplomatic failure and more deaths among all Syrians. … Until such a time there is a change from within Syria’s Alawite community, the conclusion one must reach, is that for now Assad is their leader, for whatever reason. … Discussion of a 'post-Assad' future for Syria solely among the Syrian National Coalition in Istanbul or Doha, absent a role for the Alawites inside Syria — who are presently represented and defended by Assad — will come to naught.” 

And with regard to Tillerson’s comment that Russia has “the best means of helping Assad recognize this reality [that his reign is 'coming to an end'],” it may be worth recalling that in August 2012 we published “Is there a Syrian Medvedev?” which noted that “Putin is not willing to concede Russia’s influence in Syria and can easily stomach the violence. Russia is more relevant than ever in Syria. … This is not simply about the Russian base in Tartus or arms sales. The strong ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Patriarchate of Antioch reflect deep cultural ties that influence the perception of Syria among many Russians. The US diplomatic surge [in Syria] should include new approaches to Moscow, Tehran and Ankara. The objective would be to encourage them to engage Assad to facilitate the emergence of a 'Syrian Medvedev,' a transitional figure acceptable to the regime, the Syrian people and the relevant outside powers, who would allow Assad a face-saving way out.”

Qassem: Hezbollah protecting "resistance" axis

In an exclusive interview with Ali Rizk for Al-Monitor, Naim Qassem, the deputy secretary-general of Hezbollah, criticized the US missile attack on Syria and denied that Hezbollah is seeking a permanent presence in Syria.

“Hezbollah is currently present in Syria to support our Syrian brothers so that the Syrian resistance will not fall under the mercy of Israel,” Qassem told Al-Monitor. “As long as we are needed in Syria, we will remain there. When Syrians reach political solutions to save their country, and they no longer need us, we will return home. We do not have any political, military or financial ambitions in Syria. We are fighting there to protect the resistance axis. This does not require our permanent presence there.”

Iran sees gain from US strike

Ali Hashem writes that the US missile “attack was received in the Iranian capital as a message from Washington to all parties fighting along the forces of Syria’s defiant President Bashar al-Assad that the grace period given to all involved in the war-torn country by the United States had come to an end. In fact, the Syrian crisis seemed for a few months to have had some rules of engagement when it comes to major incidents like the one that occurred at the Shayrat air base near Palmyra, but this time the whole scene was a shock, given US President Donald Trump’s previous statements with regard to Syria and the region in general. As such, those in Tehran who spoke to Al-Monitor see the missile attack as closer to political maneuvering than a complete change in strategy.”

Hashem concludes, “Despite the anger in Tehran over the US attack, the Iranians have emerged as the main winners of the latest turn in the Syrian crisis. Once again, Russia has no trusted partner in Syria but Iran, and Tehran is now able to push Moscow to adopt a stronger stance against the US role in the Syrian crisis, meaning that mainly from the Iranian point of view, if such strikes are left without a strong response — even if verbal — they will become a daily or weekly occurrence."

Iraq’s mixed messages on Syria

Ali Mamouri explains that Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down reflects a mixed and complicated approach to the Syrian conflict by Iraq’s Shiite leaders.

“Sadr’s stance on the Syrian regime is not new,” Mamouri writes, “as other clerics have criticized the Syrian regime for its atrocities against its own people. They have also criticized Shiite militias for backing Assad in the fight against the Syrian opposition.”

Mamouri continues, “Many prominent Najaf clerics have never supported the Syrian regime, with some even forbidding their followers to fight in Syria. Four prominent Najaf clergymen — Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Sheikh Ishaq al-Fayyad, Seyed Mohammad Sa’id al-Hakim and Sheikh Bashir al-Najafi — were quoted by Asharq Alawsat as adopting a unified stance in 2013: 'Individuals who go to Syria for jihad are disobeying the commands of religious authorities.' In Qom, no prominent clerics have issued fatwas in support of sending Shiite fighters to Syria.

“With the Islamic State (IS) nearly defeated in Iraq, there are growing concerns that Shiite militias from the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) might head to Syria to fight for the Syrian regime. These militias have not only been strengthened by their experience fighting IS, they now have a legal standing under the PMU law passed in November 2016. Shiite PMU factions have long voiced their readiness to take the fight to Syria as soon as possible. The factions calling for going to Syria are directly affiliated with Iran, as is the case with Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Saraya al-Khorasani, who maintain a military presence in both Iraq and Syria. These factions constantly reiterate their intention to step up their presence in post-IS Syria. On March 8, Harakat al-Nujaba announced its plan to form a special military force in Syria.”

Sistani has issued a fatwa to prevent the PMU from operating outside Iraq, and outside Iraqi government control. “The restrictions put Iran-affiliated factions in a difficult position, as they were looking forward to stepping up their presence in Syria independently of the Iraqi government. Recalling the backdrop against which the PMU was established — the fall of Mosul into IS' hands — Sistani is now pulling the rug of legitimacy from under the feet of Iran-affiliated factions. … Sistani and Sadr’s positions are intended to support [Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-] Abadi in curbing Iran-affiliated factions and establishing stability in post-IS Iraq and protect it from regional tensions and the US-Iranian conflict,” Mamouri adds.

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Found in: haider al-abadi, bashar al-assad, rex tillerson, muqtada al-sadr, hezbollah, pmu, is
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