If Assad steps down as head of Syria, it will come with a high price. Recent leaks to the media suggest that Russia continues to maneuver for the best possible outcome to a difficult situation.
Al-Baath University students hold a rally in Homs in support of Russia's military operation in Syria. Photo: Sputnik
It does not seem improbable that the President of Syria Bashar al-Assad hopes to stay in power. According to the accounts of Russian journalists and politicians who have met with him, the Syrian President is genuinely optimistic and willing to fight to the bitter end.
Assad is likely counting on the loyalty of the Alawi community that could face full-fledged genocide if it loses the Syrian civil war. He might believe that the West will see his regime as a lesser evil compared to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and will leave him alone. However, this looks more like an attempt to raise the stakes.
The recent leak that provided Financial Times journalists with information about the head of the Main Intelligence Directorate Igor Sergun's visit to Damascus in an attempt to persuade Assad to step down (if we assume that it actually happened, given the Kremlin denies this) looks more like a provocation because its only outcome is the opportunity to portray Russia in a negative light.
This makes sense, especially since Moscow lately has been trying to convince the global community that Russia holds the key to solving the Syrian crisis. And all previous negotiation attempts over Syria show that the main point of contention is the fate of Assad.
So, the Financial Times article looks like a message: See, Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot actually influence Assad. From an outsider perspective, it looks like an attempt to kill the deal on the Syrian crisis resolution that was discussed by Russia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Each country has its agenda. Doha and Riyadh seem to be looking for an honorable way out of a long-term and expensive conflict with unclear perspectives, while Moscow, in its current difficult situation, is trying to collect political dividends. All parties are looking for a formula that would let them claim the victory.
For some, Assad's resignation could be a symbol of success. For others, it is important that the resignation appear voluntary and as natural as possible. On multiple occasions, Putin and other Russian high-ranked officials said that Assad would step down only in the result of a presidential election.
These statements should be taken to mean that Moscow does not object to the change of power in Syria if it is done in a civilized way and takes into account the interests of the current ruling elite. But even the Kremlin has been cautiously indicating that Assad will not remain President.
The Financial Times journalists believe that Assad is not about to surrender and is even trying to blackmail Moscow. Allegedly, he positions himself as the guarantor of Russian interests in Syria and wants to use it to his advantage, which means that either he is confusing Russia with the Soviet Union, or the confusion is brought on by those who are wording the issue in such manner. However, Moscow, unlike the Soviet Union, is focused on the post-Soviet space and does not have long-term interests in Syria, be it military, political or economic.
Current military involvement in Syria is strictly situational and is supposedly being used to negotiate with the West, especially the U.S., as a way to trade Syria off for Ukraine. To put it simply, the plan is as follows: We help you save face in Syria, and you assist us in easing the tensions around Donbas. That is why Moscow prioritizes the Syrian conflict resolution where it is intending to play a significant and preferably key role. Assad's future and the fate of his regime are not nearly so important.
So far the Kremlin has been trying to talk Assad into stepping down voluntarily and with dignity. For example, now he has the option of leaving his post with his head held high being hailed as the president that saved his country from ISIS. But Putin has enough tools to put pressure on Assad if need be.
If negotiations come to a halt on Assad's account, the Russian Air Force may leave Latakia as abruptly as it got there. Why spend the money and resources on a project that promises no political return? Moreover, abandoning Assad is also a political commodity that can prove quite profitable.
So if Assad takes a nonconstructive stance, he may lose Russia's support, in which case he can only turn to Iran. For Tehran, the loss of Syria would signify a serious defeat in its regional standoff against Saudi Arabia. However, it appears that now Iran is also interested in putting a quick end to the crisis in order to start restoring the national economy upon the lifting of international sanctions.
Still, such drastic measures as the withdrawal of the Russian military are not going to be necessary. With Russian support from the air, Syrian generals felt what is was like to win, so they are not likely to welcome the prospect of fighting ISIS on their own yet again. Even a decrease in the intensity of Russian air strikes will create problems for the Syrian advance and have an adverse effect on the government forces’ morale.
Many current proponents of Assad have not forgotten his careless conduct in 2011 during the Daraa events when the authorities triggered the crisis by choosing to suppress the protests of outraged locals instead of looking for a peaceful solution. If those close to the Syrian President or top military officers see that his stubbornness is hampering actual conflict resolution, they may very well orchestrate a coup.
Still, these scenarios are not very probable at the moment. News from Syria indicates that the Russian Air Force is not going anywhere any time soon. On the contrary, Russia is exploring the opportunities for expanding its military presence. In particular, Moscow is considering opening another air force base close to the border with Turkey, which gives us reason to believe that major bargaining over the fate of Syria continues.
Assad, who should read other players' motives extremely well, is moving to capitalize as much as possible on his main commodity, which is his resignation. We are now just witnessing another round of the bargaining. The question here is not whether al-Assad steps down, but how and when it is going to happen.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.