Will Putin be able to carry al-Assad forever?
The bottom line of the Syria talks between the U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin is that they agree that Syria today under Bashar al-Assad is no longer sustainable, but they disagree on the future of al-Assad himself.
The Russian suggestion about holding a conference of the “outside players” - made up of themselves, the U.S., Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia - was promising in the sense that perhaps Russia would be open to negotiate to make al-Assad part of a transition government in return for contributing to removing him from power in the “new Syria.” But the speech he delivered at the U.N. General Assembly was disappointing in terms of his outright support for al-Assad, who is denounced as a tyrant by Obama. It is not just Obama; many Western leaders - the most recent ones being David Cameron of the U.K. and François Hollande of France - think al-Assad can have no place in the future of Syria because of the devastation he has wrought on his people.
The Turkish government’s staunch anti-Assad position may be criticized, but the words of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in New York had a point when he said it was impossible to expect to expect “a dictator, a tyrant” to successfully orchestrate a transition period. After all, al-Assad only has control of 14 percent of his country amid a war that has killed 300,000 people, leading to the migration of nearly 6 million refugees and the displacement of 7-8 million within the country.
Being part of a transition to a Syria without al-Assad and steering that transition are two different things. The second sounds like an oxymoron; as in Davutoğlu’s criticism of Putin, it may only extend the rule of al-Assad. Putin’s rhetoric of “letting the Syrian people decide the fate of al-Assad,” as if there are conditions for free elections in the country, is not valid after four years of civil war and circumstances summarized by Davutoğlu.
The threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is growing and threatening not only Syria but the entire region and beyond. Indeed, al-Assad has been using the presence of ISIL as a pretext for his legitimacy, in a sense saying “If I go, ISIL will come.” In a way, Putin is giving dangerous protection to this brutal opportunism of al-Assad.
I believe that the Turkish government’s Syria policy can be considered in two dimensions: An exemplary one from the humanitarian dimension in handling the refugee situation and a problematic one in handling the civil war there. I think President Tayyip Erdoğan and PM Davutoğlu should revise Turkey’s policy to putting a priority on fighting ISIL to guarantee a Syria without al-Assad, but Putin’s outright support for a terrible anti-hero like al-Assad is not something I can understand or accept.
Is this support in order to maintain the Russian naval base in Tartus? Is it for the continuation of Russia’s presence in the Eastern Mediterranean with supply links via Turkish straits and logistical support from EU member Cyprus? It is true that Iran’s support for the al-Assad regime cannot be ignored or underestimated, but that without the support of Russia’s vetoing power in the U.N. Security Council, al-Assad cannot long maintain his rule in the small portion of territory that he still holds. Will Putin and Russia be able to carry al-Assad’s political and humanitarian load forever?