London and Washington have had their positions on Syria thrown into disarray by the entry of Russia into the conflict, so much so that they have been forced to soften one of their primary stated goals: removing Bashar al-Assad from power.
Their official position now is that they can live with Assad remaining in power in the short term, while the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is fought back and a political settlement is reached between Damascus and ‘legitimate opposition groups.’ London and Washington maintain that they still wish to see Assad go, but that they are in no particular rush to see this happen. Assad is here to stay, and Western powers have conceded that fact.
The idea that the Assad regime will eventually give in to international pressure and agree to some sort of political transition is fanciful.Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Assad is backed by Russia and Iran, both of which have invested greatly into Assad over the years. Russian President Vladimir Putin has now explicitly staked a huge amount of political capital in giving full military backing to the Assad regime, and perhaps even his reputation and legacy in and out of Russia. Entering the war in this way was a strategic masterstroke for Putin, but this was also a huge risk to take, and could backfire spectacularly.
Iran, on the other hand, has been one of the pillars sustaining the Assad regime for generations. Syria is, or would be in a normal situation, an overwhelmingly Sunni country, but it is ruled by the Shiite Alawite sect to which Assad belongs, and which makes up a mere 11 percent of the population. In this regard, the Iranian and Syrian regimes are mutually interdependent in their regional goals to protect and promote Shiite interests.
For similar reasons, the idea that the Assad regime will eventually give in to international pressure and agree to some sort of political transition is fanciful. The regime, and by extension the Alawite sect, are held responsible for some of the worst crimes against humanity this century against Syria civilians.
Most Syrians want Assad to go, but he will not agree to this, and the political establishment around him will not allow him to go even if he wanted to.Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
The Alawites would not let Assad resign even if he wanted to. They fear that if the administration of the state is taken over by Sunnis, their community will be wiped out. Their fear is not entirely unfounded. For them, for the regime, and for Assad himself, surrender equals death, which is why they will fight to the death.
Most Syrians want Assad to go, but he will not agree to this, and the political establishment around him will not allow him to go even if he wanted to. Iran has been brought out of the cold on the nuclear issue, and is being enticed to take a fuller part in the international community. Direct confrontation with Putin is ill-advised because the situation could escalate quickly into unimaginable horrors. Assad will stay, the horrors of the war will continue, and so will the stream of Syrian refugees into Europe.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim
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