Assad remains in power as bulwark against Islamic State

Analysis: Western leaders know Syria president’s army is only ground force in region

Western leaders now say  Syrian president Bashar al-Assad must be involved in peace talks. Photograph: Vahid Salemi/AP Photo

Western leaders now say Syrian president Bashar al-Assad must be involved in peace talks. Photograph: Vahid Salemi/AP Photo

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German chancellor Angela Merkel said yesterday that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad must be involved in peace talks – the latest evidence that key western leaders appear to have reconsidered their demand that he must step down ahead of any political transition.

Key western leaders have come to realise Assad is unlikely to be toppled any time soon, his army constitutes the only force on the ground countering and containing Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda radicals, and his allies Russia and Iran remain committed to him.

In an assessment published by the Carnegie Middle East Centre, politico-military analyst Yezid Sayigh writes: “For those who seek Assad’s departure, the hope that their existing approaches and levels of political or material investment are sufficient to ensure this outcome is naive, if not deliberately self-deluding.”

Sayigh says that although Syria’s armed forces are undermanned and overstretched, the regime claims legitimacy throughout the country by providing administrative services to citizens and paying salaries to government employees in provincial areas, even those held by opponents.

Domino toppling

In 2011, Washington and its allies wrongly predicted that Assad would be among the domino dictators to be toppled by people power.

After nearly a month of strikes and protests across Tunisia, president Zine al-Abdein Bin Ali fled the country for Saudi Arabia. Ben Ali, who had a narrow power base, was accused of massive corruption and mismanagement.

Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak was ousted by army chiefs 18 days after nation- wide demonstrations erupted.

An army officer stood beside vice-president Oman Suleiman when he announced Mubarak’s departure on Egyptian television on February 11th, making it clear who was behind the coup.

The army disputed Mubarak’s intention of naming his son Gamal as successor.

Libya’s Muammar Gadafy was ousted and killed by rebel forces backed by a US-Nato-led coalition of mainly western states, while Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh was compelled to stand down in early 2012 but re-emerged as the strongman behind the ongoing Houthi rebellion that has prompted military intervention by Saudi Arabia its allies.

Ben Ali, Mubarak and Saleh were abandoned by western and Arab allies who turned against Gadafy.

Assad remains in power although he, like the other four, initially faced demonstrations calling for reform and democracy.

Syrian protests, far smaller than those elsewhere, were within days infiltrated by armed men backed by external interests and powers seeking his overthrow.

Among those powers was the US: Wikileaks published a December 13th, 2006, secret cable from its embassy in Damascus putting forward steps to weaken and undermine Assad.

Stamp of approval

Appointed in 2010 as the first US ambassador to Damascus in five years, Robert Ford openly encouraged anti-regime demonstrations, giving them Washington’s stamp of approval, while the Pentagon provided logistical support and “non-lethal” equipment to “moderate” rebels.

Since 2013, however, Syria’s battlegrounds have been taken over by IS and al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra, which are determined to transform Syria into a province of a proselytising modern “caliphate” based on ultra-puritanical Saudi Wahhabism.

The West failed to respond until the IS conquest of Iraq’s second city Mosul in June 2014 and then focused on Iraq rather than IS’s main base in Syria’s Raqqa. To fight IS in Syria meant bolstering Assad.

He has not fallen because he has had the support of the armed forces, intelligence agencies, ruling Baath party, bureaucracy, influential business class, industrialists, and Alawite, Shia, Christian, Druze, Circassian and Kurdish minorities who, combined, constitute about one-quarter of the population.

Assad has also had strong political, military and financial backing from Iran and Russia.

While Sunnis amount to 74 per cent of the population, the majority did not support the rebels and do not back IS or Nusra, which hold large swathes of territory in Syria’s northern and eastern provinces.

Syrians of all faiths have fled areas under IS and Nusra control.

Of the 18 million Syrians who have not left the country, it is estimated more than two-thirds live in government-controlled areas while less than one-third dwells in insurgent-held areas.

Most of the six million internally displaced have gone to Damascus and the coastal cities held by the government.

Although this does not constitute an endorsement of Assad, who, according to a recent poll, has a 39 per cent approval rating, the flow into government-held areas demonstrates strong aversion to his opponents.

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