When we began to document the ongoing battle for Syria’s second-largest city Aleppo, one of the things we were keen to point out is that the fight amounts to the final push to effectively restore the Assad regime.
That’s not to say there won’t still be a dizzying array of rebel groups and Sunni extremists operating in the countryside, it’s just to note that once the country’s major cities in the west are under government control, it will then simply be a matter of Russia and Hezbollah conducting search and destroy missions in order to eradicate whatever remains of the opposition. That will invariably entail an assault on Raqqa, which should be particularly interesting given that by that time, the US will have troops in the vicinity.
In any event, the point is that once the government retakes Aleppo, you can expect Moscow to begin angling for elections or some manner of political settlement.
The US and its regional allies will be negotiating from an impossibly weak position. With their proxy armies driven back and with no desire to commit to full-fledged military operations to counter the Russians and Iranians, Sergei Lavrov will essentially be able to dictate terms to Washington, Riyadh, Ankara, and Doha and you can bet those terms will involve the restoration of the Assad government in one form or another.
Well sure enough, Interfax is now reporting that Assad is prepared to “negotiate” with some opposition groups in Moscow. Here’s Reuters with more:
Syrian government officials and members of the country's splintered opposition could meet in Moscow next week as Russia pushes to broker a political solution to the crisis, a senior official said on Tuesday.
"Next week, we will invite opposition representatives to a consultation in Moscow," Interfax news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov as saying.
"The meeting ... will possibly be with the participation of government representatives," Bogdanov said. He did not say which opposition members could attend.
After initially dismissing Syrian opposition groups fighting its regional ally President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow has shown increasing flexibility as it steps up diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict that has killed some 250,000 and displaced millions.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura in Moscow on Wednesday to discuss attempts to start a dialogue between Damascus and the Syrian opposition, Moscow's foreign ministry said.
The list included mostly former and current members of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC), Syria's Western-backed political opposition block, Kommersant newspaper reported on Tuesday.
Among those named were former SNC head Moaz al-Khatib and incumbent president Khaled Khoja, the daily reported, as well as representatives from a diverse range of political, religious and ethnic groups including the Muslim Brotherhood and a Christian pro-democracy movement.
Of course as Reuters also notes, the SNC isn’t even relevant at this juncture:
The SNC has been accused of slipping into virtual irrelevance on the battlefield in Syria as Islamist and Kurdish groups have grown stronger.
So in other words, Assad is going to “negotiate” with one of the weaker players here, which underscores our contention that there’s little chance of any actual power sharing. As always, that’s not necessarily an attempt to disparage the government in Damascus, it’s just to say that anyone who believes this is going to end in a Russia-brokered, fair and open election where Bashar al-Assad has some chance of losing probably needs a reality check.
Meanwhile, The Kremlin's Western foreign policy critic extraordinarie Maria Zakharova is out on Tuesday denying that Moscow has insisted on Assad's restoration. Here's AP:
In an apparent effort to set the stage for transition talks, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman said on Tuesday that Moscow does not consider it a matter of principle that Syrian President Bashar Assad should stay in power.
Asked whether it was crucial for Moscow that Assad stays, Maria Zakharova said on the Ekho Moskvy radio station: "Absolutely not, we've never said that."
"What we did say is a regime change in Syria could become a local or even regional catastrophe," she said, adding that "only the Syrian people can decide the president's fate."
Right. So Russia isn't saying Assad's ouster is necessary, they're just saying it would lead directly to a "regional catastrophe" and that Syria needs to hold elections. Got it.
But again, it doesn't seem likely that Assad would lose an election for any number of reasons. Here's what we said last month:
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."
So we shall see what comes of next week's "negotiations" in Moscow, but no one should hold their breath for Russia and Iran to agree to a political future for Syria that doesn't include Assad or at least the vestiges of his government. The country is just too critical for Tehran. "Russia may not care if Assad stays in power as we do", Reuters quotes the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, as saying on Monday. But he added: "We don't know any better person to replace him."
We contend that Russia does care - and quite a lot. Remember, Syria is now home to both a Russian naval and air base.
Finally, note that once the government is restored, one shouldn't expect Damascus to tolerate US boots on Syrian soil for very long.