Putin’s KGB background helps to explain why Syrian President Assad will never face trial.


A carnival float depicting from left: Russian president Vladimir Putin, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as Angels of Peace during the traditional carnival parade in Cologne, western Germany, February 8, 2016. Photo: AP

In the ongoing debate over the future of Syria, Russia has remained steadfast in its support of Syrian President Bashar Assad, despite international calls for his removal from power. The Kremlin keeps supporting Assad not only due to its desire to gain geopolitical leverage in the Middle East, but also because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal principles.

This is very important to take into account given Assad is currently facing mounting pressure to step down both inside and outside of Syria. And now that pressure includes the looming threat of an international trial to punish him for war crimes against the Syrian people.

Assad and war crimes in Syria

The New Yorker magazine recently published a thought-provoking account of a group of dedicated volunteers who are determined to collect what could become the most comprehensive documentation of war crimes in Syria. The Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), an independent investigative body established after the civil war began in Syria in 2012, is set to collect as much evidence as possible to implicate key decision makers in the Damascus government, including Syrian President Bashar Assad himself, in the murder of civilians.

Throughout the Syrian conflict various human rights groups, journalists and foreign governments have claimed that Damascus is involved in crimes against humanity. The use of barrel bombs remains probably the best-known alleged crime of the Assad government and the most atrocious method for the indiscriminate killing of civilians. According to some reports, only 1 percent of those killed by barrel bombs are rebel fighters, while the rest are civilians. The thousands of instances of the use of barrel bombs are well documented and are accessible to the public.

Other alleged crimes include the use of chemical weapons, the killing of medics by the army in Syria and the torture of prisoners. In international criminal proceedings, however, the filming of barrel bombs being dropped on schools and hospitals does not link these crimes to the country’s leadership and would not be used as evidence in court.

CIJA officers explain that, “One needs to establish their [the regime’s] individual criminal culpability,” which means finding a paper trail that leads all the way up to key officials. This is the reason why the Commission has a specific focus of collecting documents that contain orders signed by government officials.

Moscow’s leverage in Syria

While there appears to be over 600,000 documents already smuggled out of Syria that may help the CIJA establish individual criminal culpability of Assad’s associates, it is highly unlikely that the Syrian president himself will ever face trial over war crimes. The stakeholder that holds the key to Assad’s future at the moment is Russia and a lot depends on what Moscow is able to present as a trade-off for his freedom to the West.

Before October 2015, when Russia launched its military operation in Syria, the Kremlin was seeking a more important role in the political process for itself. However, it struggled to spearhead the negotiating process because it had too little leverage on the ground in Syria. Several rounds of what Russia was presenting as talks between the government and the domestic opposition held in Moscow failed to produce any meaningful results because Syria’s real opposition forces dismissed these talks as a sham.

All in all, Assad’s foes inside and outside the country essentially brushed Moscow off as a second-tier power that should not be allowed to have any say in the resolution of this conflict. The only real power that the Kremlin had at the time was within the UN Security Council where Russia’s veto right helped it block several resolutions on Syria, including the one that could have the Syrian crisis referred to the International Criminal Court.

Everything changed when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the launch of a military operation against Assad’s enemies. Russian jets not only helped the Syrian Arab Army regain control over recently lost areas that were crucial for the stability of the regime but also secured Assad’s presidency at least for the short term. And this is exactly what guarantees the Syrian leader’s survival: As long as the Kremlin is involved in the Syrian crisis, Assad should not worry for his life, let alone about trials.

The relationship between Putin and Assad

Putin’s relationship with Assad is surrounded by legends, myths and rumors. One particular legend that circulates in diplomatic circles in Moscow has it that the Russian president is not too fond of his Syrian counterpart. Putin’s personal unfriendliness, which borders on a sharp dislike of Assad, dates back to the early 2000s. When Assad succeeded his father as the president of Syria, Moscow was very supportive of this move thinking that this young and charismatic politician would deepen the existing partnership.

The Western-educated Assad, however, had little in common with the Russian leadership, which finds it easier dealing with Cold War-era politicians who have stayed loyal to Moscow even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the Syrian president has no experience in the security services or the army.

No wonder, Putin famously made a disrespectful comment about Assad during a press conference in 2012, noting that he “had spent more time in Paris and other European capitals than in Moscow.” One might think that the Russian president would have no second thoughts about having the Syrian president tried for crimes against humanity. Yet Putin’s line of thinking is more complex.

Putin’s KGB background

Putin built his career working for the Soviet security services where all agents are guided by the principle of loyalty. In the security services, each officer can confide only in a tiny group of people. The acquaintances that the Russian President made during his time as an officer have made it with him through thick and thin and have risen to prominence along with him - people like Putin’s long-time ally and Head of the Presidential Administration, Sergey Ivanov.

The famous Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar, who knows very well the Kremlin’s decision-making process, wrote a book called “All the Kremlin’s Men” in which he explains the intricacies of Putin’s relations with his friends and foes. This can shed light on why Putin will never allow the West to have its way with Assad. In one episode, Zygar talks about how Western sanctions against Putin’s aide Vladislav Surkov saved him from being sacked as the official in charge of Ukrainian affairs within the Russian government in 2014.

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“The West rescued Surkov by placing him on the EU’s first list of sanctions and Putin would never punish a person who had already taken a blow from his enemies,” the author writes. It seems that a famous saying from the Cold War era – “We don’t abandon our people” – is at work here.

Why Putin won’t abandon Assad

The same logic applies to Assad: He has been cornered by the West and the domestic opposition in Syria, which is why Putin’s mentality does not allow him to give up supporting the Syrian president. For Putin, it might be less about Assad himself and more about remaining true to a principle. Hence, Putin will go the extra mile to make sure that Assad stays in Syria or is at least guaranteed a safe transition.

As per the Kremlin, there are only two scenarios that could save the Syrian president from an international trial. First, he might remain as the president during and after the transitional period in Syria, which is a desirable outcome both for Damascus and Tehran. This is an unlikely scenario, however, because both the anti-Assad international coalition and the opposition will not allow this to happen. But even if Assad stays as the president, he will eventually need to confront his opponents in new elections, which will leave him exposed in the long run.

The second scenario – the one that Moscow is lobbying for – is to have a smooth and safe transition from power from Assad to a new elected leader. There is no doubt that any agreement between the Syrian president and the opposition that is brokered by the Kremlin will include a clause on his diplomatic immunity.

As long as Assad has powerful backers like Russia who are willing to negotiate on his behalf, he has the best possible guarantees against an international trial. However, even with Russia’s support, he has likely doomed himself to becoming one of the world’s most infamous political outcasts like North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.