By Liz Sly
9 March 2014
Syrian President Bashar Assad is taking advantage of the rift between Russia and the United States over Ukraine to press ahead with plans to crush the rebellion against his rule and secure his re-election for another seven-year term, unencumbered by pressure to compromise with his opponents.
The collapse last month of peace talks in Geneva, jointly sponsored by Russia and the US, had already eroded the slim prospects that a negotiated settlement to the Syria war might be possible. With backers of the peace process now at odds over the outcome of the popular uprising in Ukraine, Assad feels confident that his efforts to restore his government’s authority in Syria won’t be met soon with any significant challenge from the international community, according to analysts and people familiar with the thinking of the regime.
On Friday, tensions between Moscow and Washington showed no sign of abating, with Putin angrily rejecting the Obama administration’s attempt to bring about a withdrawal of Russian troops from Crimea by imposing sanctions. The Syrian war is only one of a number of contentious issues in the Middle East that expose the vulnerability of US interests to a revival of Cold War-era tensions with Russia such as those that have surfaced in Ukraine. The nuclear accord with Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, both of which rank higher on the Obama administration’s foreign policy agenda than Syria, are also dependent to an extent on Moscow’s cooperation.
It is in Syria, however, where strains between the US and Russia are likely to have the most immediate impact. For most of the three years since the Syrian uprising began, the Obama administration’s Syria policy has been predicated on the assumption that Russia would be a willing partner in efforts to convince Assad to relinquish power. That policy, perhaps unlikely ever to work, has now been exposed as unrealistic, said Amr Al-Azm, professor of history at Shawnee State University in Ohio. Even if the Russians had ever been inclined to collaborate with the US on a solution for Syria, “they’ll be unlikely to do so now, because they won’t want to hand Obama a victory,” said Andrew Tabler, of the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs.
Two other areas of US-Russia cooperation in Syria will now also be put to the test; last summer’s agreement to destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons and the recent United Nations resolution calling on Syria to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid and halt attacks such as the deadly barrel bombings that have claimed hundreds of lives in the past two months.
There are no indications that Assad is in a hurry to comply with either. Instead, Assad is stepping up preparations for presidential elections due to be held in June under the terms of the current constitution. Though no date has been set and Assad has not yet officially announced his candidacy, Syrian government officials have repeatedly stressed that the elections will go ahead, that Assad will run and that he expects to win.
The preparations coincide with slow but steady gains on the battlefield by forces loyal to Assad, including advances in the northern province of Aleppo, which was once regarded as having slipped far beyond the reach of the government. The advances have been aided by significant support from Russia, which has sustained a steady supply of arms to the Syrian military — routed mainly through the Ukrainian port of Odessa.
A significant shift in US policy in favor of more robust support to Syria’s rebels could yet tilt the balance of power on the ground, analysts say.
The Washington Post