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Assad might have run out of luck at last

Somewhat eclipsed by the global COVID-19 pandemic, the trial of two men accused of committing crimes against humanity on behalf of the Syrian state began in Germany this week.

Witnesses, victims and a military defector gave evidence about the alleged atrocities that could lead to wider accusations. In addition, under “universal jurisdiction” Germany is investigating dozens of other Syrian former officials accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

On Thursday, Germany designated Hezbollah a terror organization and banned it from carrying out any activity on its soil. All this comes at an unfortunate time for Bashar Assad who, after ruthlessly regaining control of most of his territory, is looking to revive his international legitimacy.

Yet the risk to Assad of being directly implicated or accused by an international court will not depend on the evidence of victims or witnesses, but on a delicate geopolitical balance; the need for him to continue his role and involvement in a number of Middle Eastern issues is his best defense.

This has been the survival equation for the Assad regime for as long as one can remember. Even before the Syrian revolution in 2011 that led to the current conflict, the Baathist regime has always capitalized on regional balances for spoils and to secure its continuous reign.

Regional balances, for example, allowed Syria to invade Lebanon in 1976 as a reward for turning a blind eye to Israel’s takeover of the Golan Heights, and reap the spoils of war — namely Lebanon’s riches.

The outbreak of the Gulf War in 1990 and the stand the Syrian regime took against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait provided it with a lifeline at a time when it was under extreme pressure.

The occupation of Lebanon lasted until 2005, when Syrian forces were forced out of the country in the face of massive international pressure following the assassination of Rafic Hariri.

Yet, the occupation did not end completely. It was continued by Hezbollah, the proxy of Iran’s mullahs, for different masters and stakeholders, mainly serving to maintain a balance between Iranian and Syrian interests.

There was a sharing of influence and spoils that continued to deplete the Lebanese state and drown it in corruption, as part of a bigger Iranian agenda. This why today people are dying in Tripoli during protests.

Where Hafez Assad was always able to leverage his influence to be treated as a partner or ally of Iran, especially during the Iran-Iraq war, his son Bashar was unable to maintain this status and Syria is now less of a partner and more of a vassal state. Even Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah seems to rank above Assad in the Iran-Syria power structure.

Iranian preeminence has nevertheless saved Assad many times, especially since 2011. First, US President Barack Obama wanted to agree to a nuclear deal with Iran. As a result, Washington did not put pressure on Assad during the Syrian uprising because, with his heavy Iranian backing, it could have been perceived as an escalation that might have derailed the negotiations.

This allowed Assad’s regime to bring in Hezbollah and other Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-sponsored fighters to support his regime in the fight against the revolution.

Assad’s next lifeline came in the form of the fight against Daesh. Some analysts even suggest the Syrian regime contributed to the creation of Daesh through intelligence infiltration.

This was done purposefully in the knowledge it would attract international support for the regime and help build a narrative that there is no choice other than Assad to fight terrorism, while depicting Iran as a positive contributor to stability in the region.

Yet, despite support from the IRGC, the Syrian regime was still losing battles and territories to Syrian opposition factions and other groups. When the situation reached crisis point, Assad turned to another historical ally, dating back the days of the Cold War: Russia.

It is thanks to President Vladimir Putin and the Russian military that the IRGC and the Assad regime began to regain control of Syria. This laid bare Iran’s lack of capacity to settle the fight, along with the obvious superiority of Russian forces on the ground.

Similar to what happened in Lebanon after the withdrawal of Syrian forces, there now exists in Syria a balance and sharing of power, this time between Russia and Iran, with shared influence and agreements on some issues and competition and conflicts in others.

The relationship is not, as many depict it, a full alliance between Russia, Iran and Syria, but instead more of a dynamic joint venture or partnership. To put it simply, Putin and the Russian generals are not likely to feel like sharing much influence or decision making with the IRGC, especially given it was Russian forces that saved the day.

Assad and his sponsors are looking to turn the page on the revolution and begin a new era for Syria. Yet, it appears that Russia is displeased with Assad’s actions. Indeed, the Western media have highlighted negative articles about the Syrian president and his regime that were published in newspapers close to or affiliated with the Kremlin, and suggested that Moscow is unhappy with his unwillingness to open up to the opposition and create a new political structure to govern this new Syria — a Syria awaiting billions of dollars of reconstruction projects.

This might be partly correct, but I would guess that the Russian frustration is more a result of Assad’s unwillingness or incapacity to reduce Iranian influence within his inner circle. Some conflicts have indeed appeared within the regime, especially on the business side.

Also, despite Arab countries becoming more open to the regime to rebalance relations, these efforts will only bear fruit if Iran’s influence is reduced.

Therefore, this reduction of influence seems to reflect the interests not only of Russia but many international stakeholders. It also converges with the interests of Israel, who do not want to see IRGC and Hezbollah bases and camps at its border, and neither does Turkey, which made that point clear during the Idlib agreement.

Yet, after decades of servitude, is Assad capable, or even willing, to support Russian efforts to limit Iranian influence in Syria?

COVID-19 and a looming global recession might be to his advantage, allowing him to continue playing for time and set one side against the other. Yet, he is now also under growing pressure from Turkey, a NATO member that can potentially strike a larger deal with Russia and the US, especially after the Idlib agreement.

Strangely enough, big shifts in the geopolitical order have always tended to favor the Assad regime — in a “Godfather”-like, Corleone family sort of way — and always at the last minute.

Yet, with members of his regime on trial in Germany for crimes against humanity, and Putin’s patience wearing thin, Assad might finally find himself out of luck this time, even with Tehran’s protection.

Last Modified: Saturday، 02 May 2020 12:14 AM