If there were ever a time to be a fly on the wall, it will be tomorrow in Vienna, where top diplomats from the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Russia will meet face-to-face to discuss the war in Syria.
The summit comes as both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have stepped up the rhetoric in terms of what they’re prepared to do militarily to facilitate Assad’s ouster and also comes on the heels of Assad’s “surprise” meeting with Putin in Moscow.
As we’ve said several times since the bombing runs from Latakia began, this is now out of Washington’s hands for all intents and purposes. The Kremlin will allow for some degree of “dialogue” with The White House, but that’s about as far as it goes. To the victor go the spoils and the US had its chance. The various Western-backed rebel groups couldn’t finish the job in time and now, either Washington, Riyadh, Ankara, and Doha engage directly with Russian and Iranian troops, or the battle is lost for the rebels. Amusingly, it appears that Kerry has now resigned himself to the reality of the situation. Here’s WSJ:
The U.S. and Russia will meet for their first face-to-face talks on Syria since Russian warplanes began flying combat missions there at cross purposes with an American-led campaign.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet his Russian counterpart as well as top diplomats from Saudi Arabia and Turkey on Friday in Vienna as the Obama administration grasps for a way to salvage its Middle East agenda.
Mr. Kerry will voice U.S. concern about Russia’s airstrikes against the Assad regime’s foes and what Washington sees as a need to move toward a political transition in Syria that would remove Mr. Assad from power.
However, U.S. expectations have been tempered by Russia’s military campaign.
“The secretary is a pragmatist, here,” said John Kirby, the State Department spokesman. “He recognizes that not everybody shares that view.”
It would be difficult to overstate the significance of this shift. The US appears to have all but abandoned the “Assad must go” line in favor of an approach wherein Kerry will simply voice his opinion about the political transition and Lavrov will say something akin to “sorry, no can do.”
This likely reflects the fact that Washington is cornered. As we’ve said, the US needs to strike some manner of conciliatory tone here or else risk telegraphing America’s support for Sunni extremists to the public.
The last thing the administration needs is for Americans to begin questioning why the US is supporting the very same Sunni extremist groups that Washington has for years held up as the biggest threat to humanity since the Reich. And so, it looks like Kerry may be willing to walk back the anti-Assad line.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, isn’t ready to throw in the towel. As Reuters notes, Riyadh is still clinging to the utterly absurd idea that in order to defeat ISIS, Assad must be removed. That’s amusing for any number of reasons, not the least of which are i) if Saudi Arabia and Qatar were interested in eradicating ISIS, they might have considered not supporting them in the first place, and ii) the only person actually fighting ISIS is Assad (via Russia and Iran of course).
Meanwhile, Putin and Assad have already decided how this is going to go. As Bloomberg reports, Assad will likely call for new elections, “decide” to run, then win in a landslide. Here’s more:
Russia is pushing for early presidential elections in Syria that may give President Bashar al-Assad a fresh mandate, hardening opposition to demands for his ouster from the U.S. and its allies.
Assad would decide himself to run or not, a senior official in Moscow said, asking not to be identified because the matter is confidential. The wartime conditions that much of Syria is suffering under shouldn’t be an obstacle to conducting a poll, the official said.
The U.S., the European Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council all refused to recognize the previous election, last June, when Assad won another seven years in power with 89 percent of the vote. Assad has lost control of most of the country during a civil war that’s left more than a quarter million dead and triggered Europe’s worst migrant crisis since World War II, but the areas he still holds contain a majority of the population.
“There’s no alternative” at the moment to Assad’s government when it comes to “countering Islamic State and other terrorist groups and safeguarding Syrian statehood,” Ilyas Umakhanov, deputy speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, where he oversees international affairs, said by phone from Moscow on Thursday.
Assad, 50, will probably call early elections both for parliament and for president, which he would run in and win, a person close to the government in Damascus said. Putin has repeatedly said that Syria’s future must be decided by its own people and that Assad is prepared to share power by inviting some of his opponents into government.
An early presidential poll could be used to “dress this up as part of the political resolution,” said Elena Suponina, a senior Middle East analyst at the Institute of Strategic Studies, which advises the Kremlin. “Assad is sure of himself,” she said by phone. “It’s clear that he has many supporters.”
Make no mistake, these "elections" will be farcical. We've always said that the West has a vested interest in demonizing the regime in Damascus, but at the same time, we've also noted that Bashar al-Assad is hardly the most benevolent leader in the history of statecraft. He is not someone most citizens will want to vote against now that Russia and Iran have put the SAA (or what's left of it) on the path to victory. Between the likelihood that the regime will be restored, and the fact that any civilians left in Syria would far prefer Assad than the bloody anarchy that reigns across the country currently, there's little doubt the President will prevail. That, in turn, will alow Russia to effectively close the book. That is, Moscow will be able to say "see, we held an election and Assad won. He is the legitimate leader and any further attempts to destabilize his legitimate government will be egregious examples of illegitimate meddling in the affairs of a sovereign country."
Once again, things are moving along quickly and the ground has shifted too fast for Washington, Riyadh, Doha, and Ankara to keep up. Derailing the Russia-Iran freight train will now entail direct military intervention or nothing. We anxiously await the soundbites from tomorrow's summit in Vienna.