Syria's Assad Is Expendable But Regime's Survival Is Not

Map of Syria.
Map of Syria.

In an apparent dramatic policy shift, Russia announced that as a matter of principle it does not hold that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad should stay in power. Technically, Russia is not diverging from Assad's other key sponsor, Iran. In theory, both will maintain that ultimately it is up to the Syrian people to decide Syria's future. The bottom line is that over time Assad's status will prove increasingly expendable and his position negotiable, while the regime's survival is not. In essence, Assad may eventually be dangled as a diplomatic bargaining chip.

However, Assad's departure from power would be largely cosmetic. His replacement would be a pliant figure appointed to prop up the regime. Furthermore, any political transition would likely involve a phase-out period for Assad, possibly between six to twelve months. It would also be accompanied by a contrived election that provides a semblance of democratic legitimacy. In addition, it would provide the U.S. and its allies with a face-saving method to claim the key demand for Assad's removal was met. The final result would be a face-change, not regime change. The regime would largely survive in tact as would its vested interests and those of its external sponsors, primarily Russia and Iran. Russia is currently rushing to host talks between Assad officials and Syrian opposition leaders by mid-November. This would provide a follow-up to the meeting of major powers in Vienna on October 30. The conference marked the initial thawing, but not breaking, of the ice in trying to forge a solution to the Syrian conflict. No major breakthroughs were expected and none materialized.

Getting all the key players in the same room for the first time, particularly Saudi Arabia and its arch-enemy Iran, constituted a considerable diplomatic shift in dynamics. However, getting all on the same page remains a colossal, but not insurmountable, challenge. The fact that all agreed to resume discussions in the immediate future provides some sense of positive momentum.

Ironically, Syria's future was being discussed without the direct participation of Syrians themselves yet. Neither the Assad regime nor Syria's main political opposition body were present at the table in Vienna. More than ever, this underscores how the conflict, and its eventual outcome, will largely be influenced by external forces. After five years of war, over 250,000 dead and millions displaced, Russia is aiming to become the conflict's main power broker, both diplomatically and militarily.

Except for radical jihadists who thrive on violence and division, no regional or global power has any real vested interest in the conflict's continuation. Recent times have witnessed a growing international consensus and converging interest to settle the Syria conflict. Simply put, the spillover is impacting all sides. There is a broad realization that no one can escape the rising threats and resulting consequences. In particular, those directly engaged on the front lines, including Iran and Russia, who wish to avoid a quagmire.

Over time, Assad's departure is unlikely to remain a core stumbling block in attempting to solve Syria's conflict. Meanwhile, the body count and numbers of displaced persons will continue rising exponentially. Furthermore, Syria's opposition still remains fairly divided which adversely impacts the possibility of any viable settlement. Finally, ISIS' ability to wreak havoc across the region continues unabated with or without Assad.