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The Syrian president’s speech at the Damascus Opera House shows that he still thinks he can win this war.
Only the setting of Bashar al-Assad’s Jan. 6 speech was new. The Syrian president spoke from the Damascus Opera House, a cultural landmark built by Assad that many mistook as a sign of his progressive outlook — a pose now belied by his responsibility for the deaths of more than 60,000 people.
Unsurprisingly, the tone, substance, and theatrics of his address echoed the provocation, defiance, and political maneuvering that has defined his public remarks since his first address to parliament in March 2011. "Is this a revolution? Are those revolutionaries?" he asked the assembled crowd. "They are a bunch of criminals."
What was Assad thinking? Some will agonize over the president’s words, searching for a political opening — they will argue that he is escalating his rhetoric to build leverage ahead of possible negotiation. Unfortunately, that’s too optimistic: It is about time we accept that Assad believes what he says, including that he will prevail and that any dialogue can only occur on his terms.
Last July, three Syrian and Lebanese regime sympathizers — two of whom had just returned from meetings with senior Syrian officials — told me in Beirut that the regime had settled on a "2014 strategy." Assad’s objective was to survive militarily and hold key cities, roads, and infrastructure until then. In the meantime, the regime could at best propose an improbable multi-year process designed to keep internal and external actors distracted by hollow politics rather than the fate of Assad himself. The "peace plan" laid out by Assad in his speech seems designed to do precisely that.
Why 2014? The muddled reasoning I heard was as follows. A presidential election is scheduled to take place then, at which point the regime could come up with an elaborate show of arguably fabricated legitimacy (my question about the feasibility of holding such an "elaborate show" under current circumstances was ignored).
More importantly, the regime expects the opposition to fragment and falter within that timeframe. The armed rebels will come to blows over territory, resources, tactics, and ideology, they believe, and the political front will bicker among each other as they struggle for power. Assad and his aides probably realize that they cannot decisively reverse the rebel advance, but checking it may be enough to generate discord within rebel ranks. This may not be Assad’s preferred option — but he can afford to be the country’s strongest warlord as long as he benefits from foreign assistance, faces a divided opposition, and can blackmail his foreign foes into inaction.
Assad seems to be sticking with this game plan: His war talk, his insistence on blaming all the violence on takfiris and Salafis — code words for his Sunni opponents — and his jabs at the Gulf states and Turkey were enough to rouse loyalists. Even as the regime behaves like a militia, Assad also still aims to embody a functioning Syrian state, thus placating urban fence-sitters who are still attached to that illusion, as well as Syrians who have been alienated by the rebels. It costs him little to inundate this audience with promises of political progress, however meaningless they may be.
Even as Assad demonized his opponents, he proved he could also brandish the language of reconciliation, ticking off several boxes in his speech: national conference, constitution, referendum, and "broadened" government. If any of this sounds new, it shouldn’t. In the past two years, he has repeatedly uttered the same words, and Syria has gone through exactly the same process, with negligible impact. This is because power in Damascus never resided in formal institutions, which have become even less relevant as the uprising has dragged on and Assad increasingly depends on clan and sectarian loyalties.
The process of "reform" Assad announced Sunday is also aimed at keeping the international community busy with meaningless motions, preempting any new discussion about his fate. His speech comes after weeks of frenetic diplomatic activity centered on the Geneva plan, a transitional framework drawn up by the former U.N.-Arab League joint envoy Kofi Annan in June.
In his speech, Assad ridiculed the ambiguity of the Geneva plan over the transition. He is right: Leaving out the crucial matter of Assad’s fate was Annan’s only way to get international powers to agree on the rest. The Syrian opposition and its Gulf and Turkish backers insist on Assad’s resignation prior to any transition, lest he hijack the process. The United States, anxious to get any ball rolling, seems content to have Assad "step aside" (note: not "down") and remain in a ceremonial capacity while his deputy negotiates. Russia refuses any such precondition, insisting that Assad’s departure from power can happen only as an outcome of any agreement.
Assad has turned this ambiguity into a tool to pressure Lakhdar Brahimi, who took over from Annan after the latter resigned in frustration in August. Brahimi, whom Assad contemptuously reminded in his speech, "Syria accepts advice but not orders," can reject Assad’s dialogue process. But doing so would likely mean the end of the diplomatic track, which goes against the instincts of the eager diplomat, and would rattle Moscow and Washington. Assad probably hopes that Brahimi, with some Russian prodding, will reluctantly adopt it as a parallel initiative to his own Geneva plan, and that the Assad plan will eventually cannibalize Brahimi’s.
This isn’t a last-ditch effort on Assad’s part. To be sure, the regime’s capacity, resources, and support base are eroding steadily, even accelerating at times. But lost in the endless talk of an imminent endgame is the reality that the regime is not yet in a state of panic: It can still make rational decisions about its allocation of resources, and its forces often choose which area to defend, pummel, retake, or abandon.
Barring some inside job to take out Assad, rebels are not about to overrun the presidential palace. Even with better organization and a political-military strategy — two things their northern counterparts sorely lacked when they launched their ill-conceived assault in Aleppo — rebels in Damascus still face a superior enemy. If, as seems likely, the battle for Damascus is many times more destructive and bloody than Aleppo’s, then any rebel strategy will probably crumble in the process. The resulting stalemate would bolster Assad’s own 2014 strategy.
At the political level, the progress of the Syrian opposition has also been tenuous. The anti-Assad coalition faced near collapse when its feuding members met in Doha in November — but since then, the seemingly more competent Syrian Coalition has gained international recognition. Tangible impact on the ground, however — in terms of leadership, local governance and control over the armed units — will take time to materialize. As long as Western states don’t increase their material support, the coalition will remain extremely vulnerable — and Assad knows that. The coalition has to prove itself and offer an inclusive message. He doesn’t.
As long as Assad remains in Damascus, fence-sitters and regime loyalists can turn only to him. He can stomach losing supporters as long as they sit out the crisis and don’t join the opposition — an increasingly popular choice for many soldiers and bureaucrats currently in wait-and-see mode in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. The most abused word in the uprising must be defection: A deserter becomes a defector not when they abandon the regime, but when they join the other side.
Despite Brahimi’s hope that changing conditions on the ground and new assessments by great powers would blow some air into his sail, the time, energy, and jet fuel expended by the veteran negotiator haven’t amounted to much. Moscow continues to obstruct substantive action against Assad — and as my colleague Samuel Charap has noted, Russian behavior is based on its principled opposition to any U.N.-sanctioned effort to depose a sitting leader. Consequently, a change in Russian assessment of Assad’s prospects doesn’t equate to a change of Russian policy. Even then, Russian leverage over Assad has been overstated and Assad has clearly signaled that no U.N. action would sway him.
Does that mean Brahimi’s mission should end? The diplomat, undercut and outmaneuvered, may decide to resign — but the world has an interest in keeping a line of communication open to Damascus. A political solution will be needed at a later stage — not with Assad, but with the remnants of his regime. Maintaining contacts and floating ideas in Damascus now may prove useful then.
More importantly, Western states should get off the sidelines. The illusion of a negotiated settlement is a consequence of Western indecision, not the cause for it. The United States in particular has squandered precious time and opportunities: The risks of greater involvement in Syria are certainly great, but the conflict has already overtaken the Iraq war in terms of regional and strategic impact, and Washington is at best marginal to its dynamics. U.S. Sen. John McCain only slightly exaggerated when he said last month: "In Syria, everything we said would happen if we didn’t intervene is happening because we didn’t intervene." Judging by Assad’s speech, Syria’s civil war is indeed about to become even more tragic as the world stands idly by.