GENEVA – Even as he fights to hold on to power, Syrian President Bashar Assad has agreed to destroy a significant part of his arsenal and to join negotiations whose stated aim is to remove him from his post.
These seemingly contradictory moves may point to a shrewd strategy: negotiate, play for time and hold the West at bay while his troops wear down an increasingly divided and dysfunctional rebel force on the battlefield, no matter the cost.
So far the strategy has been working.
Since peace talks began in Switzerland on Jan. 24, Assad’s forces have stepped up the pace of aerial bombardment against opposition-held areas and increased attacks in the north and around Damascus. Opposition groups say nearly 1,900 people were killed during the first week of talks last month — including more than 800 in the northern city of Aleppo alone — by dozens of crude helicopter-dropped “barrel bombs.” Some 220 others died in fighting between Islamic extremists and other rebels.
In addition, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented 2,454 deaths so far in February, making it likely to be one of the deadliest months so far in the Syrian civil war.
“You want to negotiate from a strong position. You want to show exactly how immune you are internationally. And I think nothing says that more than conducting attacks during peace talks. It creates an impression of non-vulnerability,” said Firas Abi Ali, an analyst with the think tank IHS Jane’s.
For Assad, protracted, U.N.-brokered peace talks are a chance to engage with the international community — much of which shunned him soon after the uprising began in March 2011. Peace negotiations sponsored by the U.S. and Russia offer Assad a means to claim relevance — just as the deal last year to destroy his chemical weapons to avoid U.S. military strikes helped bolster his standing.
That agreement, brokered by Moscow, called for destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal by mid-2014 and took armed U.S. intervention off the table. Assad signed on, but has already missed several deadlines with no consequences.
“The Syrian regime which pretends it is coming to Geneva kicking and screaming in fact loves nothing more than a process because it can claim that it’s the only side with which the world can negotiate,” said Rime Allaf, a political commentator who specializes in Middle East affairs.
The talks’ objective is finding a political solution to a three-year-old conflict which has killed more than 130,000 people and displaced millions from their homes. The Syrian war has fanned regional sectarian hatreds, attracted thousands of jihadi foreign fighters and extremists and destabilized neighboring countries like Lebanon and Iraq.
But the two sides have been unable to agree even on an agenda. The opposition — backed by the U.S. — wants the talks to focus on establishing a transitional governing body that excludes Assad. That’s a non-starter for the government which has not budged from its demand that halting “terrorism” must be the priority.
For negotiations to have any hope of success, analysts believe they must reflect the reality on the ground. Assad has little incentive to give major concessions when his forces still hold 13 of 14 provincial cities and continue to make slow but steady headway against arms-strapped rebels in Homs, Aleppo and around his seat of power in Damascus. The rebels are more fractured than ever, bogged down by infighting against an al-Qaida splinter group.
More importantly, Assad can still count on the unwavering support of his strong allies Russia and Iran.
“Assad still thinks he can regain control of Syria even after all these events,” Allaf said.
This line of thinking is perhaps justified in light of the international community’s unwillingness to get involved. Military action against Assad appeared all but certain last year following a chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds. The weapons deal removed that option, leaving the U.S. and its allies with no alternative but a political process which Assad has no interest in wrapping up quickly.
Many Syrians have little faith in the seemingly toothless process, which is already drawing comparisons to the so-called Oslo talks on interim peace deals between Israel and the Palestinians which have dragged on intermittently since the early 1990s.
Opposition spokesman Louay Safi rejected such parallels Tuesday, saying the talks will not go on indefinitely. “There will come a time when it will be clear that the regime does not want a solution and we will ask the international community to act,” he said.
Western diplomats have sought to play down such doubts. “This is not a time-wasting exercise,” said one diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. Others have expressed quiet concern that the government will continue to block negotiations, forcing the opposition to withdraw at some point with no Plan B in the wings.
Mohammad Ballout, an analyst with the Lebanese daily As-Safir newspaper covering the talks in Geneva, said the world has no choice but to engage with Assad because it fears the collapse of the Syrian state.
“The alternative to Bashar Assad is not a democratic one, with all due respect to the opposition,” he said. “The alternative to Bashar Assad is chaos at best and Islamic fiefdoms with no central government at worst.”