The sham re-election of Bashar Assad earlier this year was at the will of Russia and Iran, and no one else. Assad is beholden to both countries for the position he holds, and it is they, and they alone that will decide when he has served his purpose and be replaced.
He knows this of course. On the ropes, his erratic diplomatic actions are skittish as he yells, “how high?” when Moscow or Tehran order him to jump, while attempting to open dialogue with Arab countries.
Assad recently called Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan to “discuss bilateral relations and boost mutual interests of both peoples,” according to the Syrian state news agency SANA. The UAE along with other parts of the GCC have been, according to the Assad regime, supporters of rebel militant Islamic factions in different parts of Syrian territories.
The favorable election result gives Assad another seven years in office, but looking at the farce that Syria has become, it begs the question: favorable for who?
The situation on the ground suggests that Assad is in a quagmire that he’s unable to escape from. The President’s survival is far from relying on popular vote or consent, so there is no chance that the public will rise up and protect him from outside interference from other countries.
They want him gone, along with the rest of the world, bar Iran and Russia.
With both countries extending military support to Assad over several years to keep him in power, the two stakeholders can switch this security resources tap off when they want.
Russia under Putin uses a toolkit that has supported the country well throughout its history. It is patient, and today generally, and for the most part will try to avoid military interventions unless unavoidable. This isn’t to say it doesn’t flex its muscles when it believes it’s of strategic importance, but by using sanctions, propaganda and disinformation Moscow is very successful at muddying the waters in regional relationships across the globe.
In Syria it makes sense for Putin to use Assad as a stooge. After all, selling military hardware to someone that will fight on your behalf is much better than putting large numbers of boots on the ground yourself.
There isn’t an end game in sight for Moscow and Tehran: the status quo of destabilizing the region suits them, with Iran in particular keen to divert attention and resources from their enemies onto its proxies
Throughout successive peace talks, regardless of whether Vienna, Geneva or Astana, Syria’s two state sponsors have been committed to preserve his position endlessly. With talks about his removal as president - both direct and discreet - no headway has been made.
The weight of uncertainty on Assad’s shoulders must be huge. He knows his days are numbered, but when his presidency comes to a close is anyone’s guess.
And, his aim to reinvent himself and Syria as having the potential to become a positive player pan-Arabia is nigh impossible.
Assad will benefit somewhat from shy steps to normalization with some Arab states on the back of the Egypt-Lebanon gas pipeline that must pass through Syria to happen. This is the only opportunity he has to thaw ties in the region, but the frost will always remain.
He will not regain the lost seat in the Arab League, and certainly not while the noose of Iran and Russia rests around his neck.
Russia has spent billions of dollars in Syrian intervention to tilt the balance of power in favor of Assad, and the mission isn’t yet complete with at least one third of the country still out of his control.
With the United States recent foreign policies, and its perceived indifference to the Middle East, Russia and Iran will have greater impetus to do what they want.
Like it or not, Washington’s concentrating on the rise of China.
Assad’s crimes against humanity will never be forgiven or forgotten, but escaping one’s sense of schadenfreude is difficult when considering his tenure coming to a close, and with no control over when this will finally happen.