Starry-eyed Putin between fact and fantasy on Syria

Amir Taheri

Published: Updated:

As preparations underway for yet another international conference on Syria, Russia and the apologists in the West are also trying to change the narrative on the war-torn nation.

The narrative they suggest has four central themes.

The first is that the seven-year-old war is over with the defeat of “terrorists” linked to Al-Qaeda and the terrorist ISIS. The second theme is that we witness a total victory by Russia which must now be acknowledged as the arbiter of Syria’s destiny. The third theme is that Bashar al-Assad, still the country’s nominal president, ought to be considered as a relevant interlocutor.

The fourth theme is that the international community must now dig deep in its pockets to finance an ambitious reconstruction project in a country that has lost some 70 percent of its infrastructure. The problem with this narrative as peddled by Moscow is that its three themes do not fit together.

Let’s start with the claim that the war is over.

If that is the case how come Russia is actually enlarging its military footprint on Syrian soil? And that is not to mention that a Turkish military build-up that, if anything, has intensified in recent weeks. As for the United States, another foreign power with a military presence in Syria, President Donald Trump has just decreed that US forces should remain there until the full withdrawal by Iran and its mercenary allies.

However, for its part, Iran, although no longer building up its military presence, isn’t withdrawing either. It is, in fact, building new facilities and logistic networks for what could be a long-term stay, albeit in a location far from Syria’s most populated areas.

As for the supposedly defeated “terrorists,” it is true that they are no longer initiating major operations against Assad’s forces and its Russian and Iranian masters.

However, there are indications that the hydra supposedly slain by Vladimir Putin is far from dead and buried. Idlib, where a deal between Russia and Turkey has stopped a much-vaunted “cleansing” operation, an estimated 80,000 “terrorists” are still present and ready for action. In several other regions, notably Dera’a and the Homs-Hama axis, the same “terrorists” have simply decided to merge with the local population, that is to say, their own people, and lie low while they examine their options.

Actual fighting is never more than one part of a war, a complex reality with numerous ingredients including political, cultural, religious and economic. In fact, a war is never over with one side claiming victory, even if such a claim be grounded in reality. A war is over when one side admits defeat, implicitly adopting to a new status quo.

Today, however, that is not the case in Syria which remains in a state of war between a large number of its people, not to say the majority and the minority elite that controls some organs of state with Russian and Iranian backing.

Then there is the claim that thanks to its “victory”, Russia must now have the final word on Syria. If that is the case, what is the need for any international conference? Shouldn’t Putin treat Syria as a new version of Chechnya and decide who should rule in Damascus as he chose the rulers in Grozny?

Seasoned Machiavellians may even argue that it would be better to leave Syria all to Putin in the manner of a poisoned gift.

The last word

The claim that Assad is still relevant contradicts the claim that Russia must have the last word. The claim that Assad heads any sort of government anywhere in Syria, perhaps outside an enclave in Damascus, is but a fiction. In fact, the problem is that Syria has been turned into an ungoverned territory much like Somalia and large chunks of Democratic Congo.

The challenge is to help Syria create a new government structure not to cling to the ghost of the dead one. Anyone with a proper understanding of Syria today would know that the person of Bashar al-Assad is a barrier to the revival of a nation-state in that unhappy land.

Even within the shrinking space still dominated by Assad, there are forces that realize that it is no longer possible to prolong his personal rule. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those forces were to turn against Assad and offer his head as a price for securing a say in shaping some future power structure in Damascus.

The final theme of the Russian narrative regarding the reconstruction phase is also problematic.

How could any such program be launched without first deciding who rules the country and on what terms? On its own, even with Iran making a contribution, Russia does not have the economic resources and the technological means needed to rebuild a new Syria on the debris of the old one.

But even if the needed resources were somehow provided as if by magic, the manpower needed to establish a minimum of security across the country would be lacking. Assad’s minority cannot field the estimated 500,000 men needed to seize, cleanse and control all of Syria in a manner effective and durable enough to permit serious reconstruction projects. Is Putin in a position to deploy such a huge force? I doubt it.

In the absence of an authority capable of exercising effective control over territory, it is highly unlikely that Western powers, that are capable of investments on such a scale, would consider dipping into their pockets as Putin demands.

More than seven years of tragedy has not solved Syria’s central problem which is the rejection by a majority of its people of Bashar al-Assad and his isolated clique. As a result of Russian intervention, Assad’s opponents have failed to solve that problem by getting rid of him. At the same time, even with Russian backing, Assad has failed to solve that problem by making himself acceptable to his people.

Thus, the only relevant topic in any future international conference could be how to arrange an end to the Assad episode through a power-sharing scheme between his minority base and the majority of the Syrian people. Starry-eyed Putin needs to return to the drawing board in search of a project based on fact, not fantasy.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.


Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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