By George Friedman
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have reached a sufficient agreement on Syria to go forward with a meeting on Friday of something called the International Syria Support Group, a group of nations that are committed to doing something for (and in some cases, to) Syria. The issue on the table now, as it has been from the beginning, is the fate of the Bashar al-Assad regime, and therefore of Assad. The Americans want to see Assad and his government gone, in a planned transition. The Russians do not want the Assad regime gone, although on occasion they have hinted they may be open to the regime staying, and Assad leaving.
This is about far more than just Assad or his regime leaving, because if the regime is displaced, there is the question of what will replace it. The Russians are protecting his regime with a very small force of aircraft inadequate for the job of more than helping out the Assad regime, but not saving it. The Russians have created the perception of a major commitment and the media has bought it, but they have less than 50 operational aircraft in theater, and huge maintenance problems given the number of sorties they try to maintain. The United States has a similar problem. They officially want Assad and the regime gone but have not committed any serious ground forces to the effort. The U.S. air capability is far more robust than the Russians but neither has a ground capability beyond some special forces teams supporting various Syrian factions that are unlikely to defeat Assad and certainly not Islamic State.
The Americans are historically hostile to Assad, since 1970 when his father Hafez al-Assad seized control in a Soviet-backed coup. Russian support for him goes that far back and transcends ideology. But the Americans and Russians both see IS as the primary enemy. The Russians support Assad because they fear that without that regime and its army, IS is likely to become the dominant force in Syria. The Americans also see this threat but don’t want to admit that they do so and are pretending that a defeat of Assad will not be a victory for IS. The American vision is that the Assad regime will agree to a transition in which a coalition government forms and defeats IS. Given the loathing on both sides, this is a fairly creative fantasy.
The truth is that the Russians know that to save the Assad regime, Assad himself must go. The Americans know that if the regime collapses the other factions, which hate each other as much as they hate IS and each other, could never form a coherent regime let alone create an integrated military force to face IS. Therefore, the Americans and Russians are very much in core agreement. The regime, and particularly the Syrian army must remain intact and even enhanced, with the regime staying in place to fight the war against IS, but with Assad gone.
This assumes two things. The first is that the hostility of the non-IS rebels is simply toward Assad and not to his apparatus, and not to the Alawite sect that has been in power since 1970. The idea that the absence of Bashar al-Assad would solve the problem is untrue. There are endless officials in the government at least as hated as Assad. If you tried to purge them all there would hardly be a government or an army. So the basic idea itself is unrealistic.
But there is a deeper problem. Assume for the moment that this plan or some variation on it would work. The deeper problem, and the one almost never mentioned in these discussions publicly, is the International Criminal Court (ICC), located in the Hague. If Assad were to leave office, he would certainly be subject to arrest and trial in the Hague, and the chances of conviction on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity are substantial. Others in Syria would be subject to the same thing, but since they are not about to walk away from the protection of their armed forces, they won’t be tried.
Assad knows this and he also knows that whatever guarantees anyone makes, they cannot provide immunity. Even if Iran provided him sanctuary, he would still face several challenges. First, he would be, in effect, a pawn to be used by the Iranians. Second, he would live a life shaped and dictated by the Iranians. Third, since life can be long and regimes short, a change of regime could land him in the Hague. He is friendly and dependent on the Iranians, but the Iranians are neither to be trusted nor can their guarantees be permanent.
The only entity that can grant him immunity would be a vote by the United Nations Security Council. Whatever promises are made, it is hard to imagine the British and French, or the U.S. for that matter, resisting the outrage of not just human rights groups, but Turks, Israelis, Saudis and the general public at giving a moral monster the right to walk free. Assad would insist that the vote take place before he stepped down and out — since staying in Syria would be unacceptable to his opponents. He would demand the right to settle where he wished with immunity. All hell would break loose, and the opponents would point out that the issue is not merely one man, but the entire regime. The deal would unravel as governments would not want to endure the political heat unleashed by publicly voting for amnesty.
Until the ICC was created, it was relatively easy to get rid of bloody dictators. They got villas on the French Riviera or Switzerland, an ocean front house in Miami, or a nice Dachas outside of Moscow. Without an international body that could outlast a regime, they knew that with enough money — already stolen — they could live out their lives in decent style. A powerful argument can be made that rulers such as this ought not be allowed to escape answering for their crimes. But the counter argument is that by not allowing them an out, the endless slaughter of innocents will continue. Granting a murderer amnesty is morally less offensive than permitting ongoing slaughter punishing the guilty.
That is an interesting point to contemplate. At the moment the problem is that removing Assad and keeping the regime is a strategy flawed in many ways. But the way in which it is most flawed is in imagining that Assad would put himself at personal risk of life imprisonment. There is also the fantasy that he will be overthrown by those wanting peace. If that had been possible it would likely have happened. However, Assad possesses an excellent internal security service and this service — and others in the army and elsewhere in the government — know that this agreement would in the end mean their deaths. They are loyal out of knowing they share Assad’s fate, and they know that neither the Russians nor Americans will or could protect them.
Assad is safer in Damascus than anywhere else in the world. The large security and military force know that they are safer with Assad in Damascus rather than in the Hague. The status quo is not being imposed by one man but by a cohesive regime. And the idea that these people can agree to the plan for their personal staged destruction is not one they will agree to, or if they agree, they will not keep it. Many of them are evil, but the choice is now between them and IS. The fantasy of a third force emerging united enough to resist IS and the remnants of the Assad regime is unreasonable.
But we can save time by saying Assad is not going to the Hague, and if he went Syria would be no closer to a solution.
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