Russia on Tuesday vetoed a US-drafted United Nations Security Council resolution that would have extended by a year an investigation into the usage of chemical weapons in Syria, the ninth time Moscow has used its power in the forum to block action targeting the Assad regime.
Russia opposed renewing the mandate of the UN-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) task force—known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism—ahead of the scheduled release this week of a report detailing a sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, Syria, which is expected to implicate Assad’s forces. The April 4 attack killed scores of people, including children, prompting US President Donald Trump to fire cruise missiles at a Syrian air base from which the West alleges the chemical assault was launched.
In response to the Russian veto, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley issued a statement condemning Moscow for “once again demonstrat[ing] it will do whatever it takes to ensure the barbaric Assad regime never faces consequences for its continued use of chemicals as weapons.”
Under the terms of a US-Russian-brokered deal in 2013—which followed a massive chemical attack in Ghouta, Syria that killed as many as 1,800 people—Assad agreed to completely destroy his non-conventional arms and accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention. However, one year after the mid-2014 deadline to dispose of these weapons, the OPCW revealed that traces of sarin and VX nerve agent were found at a military research site that had not been declared.
The OPCW is currently reviewing more than 60 cases in Syria, including multiple chlorine attacks that regime forces have been accused of perpetrating through the indiscriminate dropping of barrel bombs on civilian centers.
Russia’s diplomatic assertiveness in support of Assad comes amid increasing gains by the Syrian army, in conjunction with Iranian-supported Hezbollah and other associated Shi’ite fighters. This follows the liberation of Raqqa from the Islamic State terror group by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has created a vacuum that many analysts believe will largely be filled by pro-regime entities. Such a development would allow Assad and his allies to further consolidate their grip on the country, while entrenching Moscow as a new regional kingmaker.
Accordingly, the question begs: Has Assad effectively won the war?
“If the aim of the rebellion was the destruction of the Syrian regime, then Assad has absolutely ensured his survival and in this respect he has prevailed,” Dr. Jonathan Spyer, the Director of the Rubin Center in Israel and a fellow at the US-based Middle East Forum, told The Media Line. “That said, the regime does not control all of Syria’s territory and even in the regions it does there is a question of how much influence Russia and Iran maintain.”
Dr. Christopher Phillips, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House who specializes in the Syrian conflict, agreed that “Assad has won the war, in the sense that he has not been defeated by the initial uprising and subsequent fighting against rebels.
“But he remains under pressure and does not exercise full sovereignty, including in the ‘de-escalation’ pockets [where ceasefires have been agreed to] and vis-a-vis the Kurds,” he elaborated to The Media Line.
While Dr. Phillips suggests that conventional warfare indeed appears to be winding down in Syria, “the conflict is likely to evolve into low-intensity fighting and some skirmishing between Syrian forces and armed opponents.” As a result, he envisions a potential “post-war Lebanon or post-war Iraq situation, whereby there is some form of central government that exerts influence but whose control does not extend throughout the country.”
Similarly, Dr. Spyer holds that “there is no real chance to return to the pre-2011 status quo, as the Russians are not interested in reconstituting Syria but rather seem to be eyeing a long political process with an uncertain conclusion. These tend to last indefinitely and could lead to the ‘Balkanization’ of a semi-frozen conflict.”
In the interim, both analysts believe that political and military jockeying will continue in Syria, especially as the fight against Islamic State nears its conclusion. “There is a race between regime forces and the SDF to capture ISIS territory in the Euphrates valley,” Dr. Spyer stated, “and once this ends, the regime will refocus on consolidating its control over areas of the country. This will likely only be achieved in a limited way, as the Kurds are strong in the east and there are still large anti-Assad rebel enclaves in the north and west, and then there is Israel’s interest in preventing pro-regime forces from reaching the southern border.”
Aside from Russia’s evolving long-term policy in Syria, perhaps the key determinant in shaping the country will be the US’s position after ISIS’s total defeat. “If the Americans solidify their backing for the Kurds it will give them strength [and could prolong the fighting and even lead to the formation of an independent political entity],” Dr. Spyer contended, “but if Washington declares ‘mission accomplished’ then the SDF will be forced to cut a deal from a position of weakness and the Russians will have carte blanche to do as they please.”
With the latter scenario increasingly possible, some of the focus is gradually shifting to what a post-war Syria will look like. That Assad will play an integral role is now widely accepted by the international community, a realization that could facilitate a political solution to formally end the fighting. Then there is the issue of reconstructing the country, with Russia and China reportedly in line for massive contracts. Perhaps most important, though, is the fate of the Syrian people: Will they turn a blind eye to six-plus years of horror and allow themselves to again be subjugated by the regime?
“Assad will never submit his political fate to the people—it is a non-starter,” Dr. Spyer concluded, “so the probability that there will be democratic elections in Syria any time soon is next to zero.” Dr. Phillips likewise is skeptical of any such transfer of power, “because if you look at who holds the cards in Syria it is still Assad and his allies.
“The door seems closed on altering the trajectory of the conflict.”
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