Last week, Bashar al-Assad celebrated one of the most significant (at least from a symbolic perspective) military victories in the history of his government’s campaign against opposition groups battling for control of Syria.
With the help of Russia and Hezbollah, Assad’s army liberated the ancient city of Palmyra from Islamic State. Palmyra is a UNESCO world heritage site and over the course of the last nine or so months, ISIS has obliterated a number of priceless artifacts on the grounds that they are monuments to paganism.
Needless to say, it’s better that Assad control the city than ISIS. Even the US State Dept. was forced to (begrudgingly) admit as much.
But Washington’s reluctance to celebrate the liberation of Palmyra reflects growing concerns that Assad, Hezbollah, and other Iran-backed Shiite militias are now poised to march on Deir ez-Zor - and then on Raqqa.
With the “moderate” opposition in the west subdued, a victory in the east would mean Assad has conquered the entire country. Clearly, that raises the question of what happens next. That is, it’s rather difficult to depose someone who has just vanquished the last vestiges of the opposition. Still, you shouldn’t expect Washington, Riyadh, Doha, and Ankara to give up on the effort to oust the Alawite government just yet, which is why we weren’t surprised when London-based al-Hayat reported that the US and Russia had agreed on a plan that would see Assad take refuge in an as-yet unnamed country once a political transformation has had time to take hold.
On Thursday, The Kremlin denied the report. "Al-Hayat published information which does not correspond to reality," Dmitry Peskov said, in a call with journalists.
“Al-Hayat reported that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had told several Arab countries that Russia and the U.S. reached an understanding on the future of Syria's peace process, including Assad's departure to another country at some unspecified stage,” Reuters writes, recounting the story. "Russia is advantageously different from other nations because it does not discuss the issue of the self-determination of third countries either through diplomatic or other channels,” Peskov added, in what amounted to a pot shot aimed at deriding Washington’s interventionist Mid-East foreign policy.
For his part, Assad says he’s prepared for snap elections - depending on the “will of the people" of course. Here’s what he told Sputnik in an interview published this week:
"This depends on the Syrian people’s stance, on whether there is a popular will to hold early presidential elections. If there is such a will, this is not a problem for me. It is natural to respond to the will of the people and not to that of certain opposition forces. This issue concerns every Syrian citizen because every citizen votes for the president.”
"But I have no problem with this in principle because the president cannot work without the people’s support. And if the president is supported by the people, he must always be ready for such a step. I can say that this is no problem for us in principle, but in order to take such a step, we need the Syrian public opinion and not the opinion of the government or the president,"
"It has been proposed to hold parliamentary elections after the new constitution [has been adopted]. These elections will show the balance of powers on the political arena. Then, a new government will be formed in accordance with the representation of political forces in the new parliament… As for presidential elections, that is a an entirely different issue.”
Sure. While we'll be the first to decry Washington's efforts to destabilize the Syrian government by playing on Sunni fears of Shia proselytizing and highlighting the autocratic tendencies of the Alawite government in Damascus, we'd also note that the idea of Bashar al-Assad agreeing to hold free and open snap elections that could potentially see him lose the presidency is patently absurd. Government representatives in Geneva have continually said that discussions about Assad's grip on power are a red line.
The only question would seem to be this: does Assad really want to be President in perpetuity given the distinct possibility that guerilla efforts to overthrow him will persist as a war of attrition between government forces and the opposition drags on for years? One certainly wonders if perhaps there's some truth to Al-Hayat's report. That is, if Assad can restore his government and claim a military victory over all of those who opposed him, why not simply handpick a successor and live happily ever after in Moscow or Tehran? After all, no one wants to end up like those other two guys...