With or without al-Assad?

With or without al-Assad?

It’s true: There is no military solution (or quick fix) to the Syrian crisis. In order to end the bloodshed, parties have to reach a political settlement. However, what determines the bargaining power of the players at the negotiation table is their relative positions on the ground. The latest reports, which highlight Russia’s massive military buildup in Syria, should be considered from this perspective.

Based on the heavy dispatch of ammunition, tanks, logistics and military personnel to Latakia, particularly in the last couple of weeks, Russia is said to be engaged in plans to transform the Bassel al-Assad International Airport into a new airbase. Construction continues at full speed to upgrade the capacity of the airfield while prefabricated houses are being built to accommodate around a thousand military staff in the area. Sources also claim that Russia is planning to move its naval base in Tartus closer to the new airbase to boost its capacity and provide integration between the two bases.

It is no secret that Russia has been providing military equipment and humanitarian aid to the Syrian government since the outbreak of the civil war, in line with treaties signed in the 1970s between then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and the Soviet regime. Russia’s recent military buildup, however, which focuses on Latakia, a stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad and his family, is more of a strategic move to keep Russia’s military presence intact in the Mediterranean even if Syria dissolves into separate entities. If Moscow is really determined to put Russian boots on the ground in Syria as some suggest to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), then it could be a real game-changer, upsetting the balance of power in favor of the al-Assad regime.

Russia’s latest move, which comes in the aftermath of Turkey’s decision to open the İncirlik airbase to the use of anti-ISIL coalition forces, actually defies those who insist that al-Assad should go first. Within the framework of diplomatic initiatives, which have gained momentum following the nuclear deal with Iran, Russia has been calling on the coalition forces – including even the moderate opposition groups – to unite with the Syrian army in their efforts to combat ISIL. Therefore, Russian incentives to send in ground forces merely constitutes the military aspect of a two-fold strategy as Moscow also paves the way for a new round of talks in Geneva in the diplomatic sphere.

The possible engagement of Russian military forces in the Syrian conflict clearly puts Turkey’s plans to establish a “safe zone” to the north of Aleppo at risk since Russia regards efforts to carve out land from Syria – either as a so-called safe zone or as an ISIL-free zone – as a violation of Syria’s territorial integrity, and thus opposes any kind of operation because it lacks the consent of the al-Assad government. It is highly unlikely that the coalition partners will take the risk of an outright military confrontation with Russia while trying to “degrade and destroy” ISIL. 

It is not realistic, either, to expect the Barack Obama administration to opt for a policy revision in Syria, especially when election campaigns will start setting the agenda in Washington in the coming months. Even though many among political and military circles have come to acknowledge the fact that airstrikes alone are not enough to defeat ISIL, President Obama will most probably keep on leading from behind. In the case of Syria, this may lead to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – a staunch ally of Washington – moving closer to the Syrian army, which is not a favorable outcome for Turkey regarding its distance and defiance of the PYD, which is seen as a credible force against ISIL.
In the following weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin will give a speech at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. In contrast to President Obama’s overly criticized policy of Syria and particularly the scandalous train-and-equip program, Russia’s firm commitment to stand by its allies in spite of economic embargoes and falling oil prices will surely send a message to the countries in the Middle East that have been feeling rather abandoned by the White House.

At a time when the Arab Spring has proved democratic peace theorists wrong and produced praise for stability more than ever before, and as Russian forces throw their weight around in terms of the political equations in Syria, the question that needs an answer is whether any political settlement will involve al-Assad or not. 

It is really tragic that we’ve come all the way from the Geneva Communiqué and witnessed the death of more than 250,000 people, only to see that we’re still debating the same topic.