Can Putin Save Syria? Can Anyone?

by Aurélie Daher

The Russian intervention in Syria has triggered a wave of comments and critiques in the media on both sides of the Atlantic and all along the shores of the Mediterranean and the Gulf. Analysts freely speculate about which groups exactly are Russia’s intended targets, whether this intervention complies with international law, and whether Putin is trying to divert attention from the Ukrainian crisis and thus ease his ostracism from polite society. The most serious question, however, is: can the Russian strikes put an end to the incredible turmoil and violence that Syria has undergone over the last four years?

On this matter, all the analyses end up at the same question: Should Bashar al-Assad remain in power, even for a transitional period? Or should he have to go first before anything else can be resolved, since he is the very reason of the whole mess?

Advocates of the first option argue that Assad, despite the undeniable difficulties he’s facing on the battlefield, has shown unexpected resilience (thanks in large part to the help of Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, and some other foreign Shiite groups). Moreover, the Syrian opposition has not been able so far to put forward a credible candidate who could take charge of the country after Bashar’s departure. And the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) is a threat that must be addressed before getting rid of Assad. For these observers, Assad should be assisted to defeat IS, and only then should his disposition be addressed.

Removing Assad First

The partisans of the second option, who want Assad out before anything else, believe that IS and other Islamist threats in Syria owe their existence to the Syrian leader’s continued rule and repressive policies. In this view, Assad is the head of the snake. Getting rid of him will result in getting rid of the other problems, like killing two birds with one stone. Those with a more nuanced analysis concede that cause and effect may not be quite so automatic, but they argue that Assad’s departure will at the very least help any new government and its security forces against IS. “Syrians will never take back a tyrant that has been bombing them for four years” is their mantra.

Apart from the fact that no one knows, particularly those situated in cozy offices in Western capitals, what a war-weary and traumatized people would in reality be ready to accept to put an end to the horror show in Syria, I personally have a problem with both analyses. As a sociologist, I try to imagine concrete scenarios and realistic possibilities. I hear and read a lot of déclarations d’intention: “We are going to bomb Assad,” “We are going to bomb IS,” “We are going to gather the opposition around a negotiation table,” “We are going to train the ‘good’ rebels,” etc. Fine. Then what? What is going to happen then? Exactly?

Iran and Russia would like to keep Assad. (Or so a lot of people think. I personally don’t think either country cares about his fate so long as the new guy can secure Iranian and Russian interests in Syria.) Still, the scenario for change in the case of the pro-Assad faction is easy to understand: there is no scenario.

I do have some trouble figuring out what the “Assad-out-immediately” advocates have in mind. I love the idea of “Let’s get rid of the guy!” Assad is a butcher, should rot in hell. But how do we do it, if I may be so bold? What precisely do we bomb to start with? The barracks of his army, their facilities? But don’t we need them for the soon-to-be purged Syrian army to use against IS once we’re rid of Bashar? What about bombing his palaces instead? But are we sure that he’s not going to hide in some bunker somewhere? Assad is not Muammar Gaddafi. The latter built his dictatorship by force of his personality and power, neglecting to build a modern institutional state apparatus. You kill Gaddafi, you kill his regime: I exaggerate a bit, but there was basically no state in Libya apart from Gaddafi. The Assads have done exactly the opposite: they worked for decades on building a strong and sophisticated state apparatus that would carry out their will. If you kill Bashar al-Assad, another guy affiliated to his family will replace him.

Let’s suppose for the sake of the argument that the end of Assad’s reign is the end of the regime. So, we’re planning in this case either to kill Bashar through a clever hit and hope that the rest of the clan raises the white flag, or we expect him to simply declare one morning on the radio: “I’m fed up. I almost got killed in a bombing this morning, so I am stepping down.” Then what? A transition team takes charge. Who? And who decides who’s part of the team? The West? That means we’re putting Syria under Western tutelage. Are we talking about a second Iraqi case? If so, how long do we intend to stay there? And wouldn’t that give the lie to our pretensions that we want the Syrians to rule on their own?

By the way, if we want to follow the Iraqi example and purge the system on behalf of the Syrians, how far should we go? Last time, we cleaned the Baathists out of the state apparatus to the profit of the Shia, IS was the result of Sunni frustrations. Isn’t there a risk that a too-zealous purge might create an Alawite IS this time?

Or let’s say the Syrian people choose the new team. How? Most of the population looks down on all the different Councils of the Revolution, whatever their names, as phonies. We have a problem of representation here: Who is going to speak in the name of the Syrians? So the population would have to choose a totally new team—via elections. How would those be organized, especially in areas where IS or Jabhat al-Nusra is dominant? Or will those unfortunates be excluded from the new Syria, at least until their regions have been liberated? And should we consider, as some seem to suggest, that Jabhat al-Nusra, a group somewhat less radical than IS but nonetheless part of al-Qaeda, should be given the chance to be part of the leading team and hence present their own candidates? And what about the refugees? Do they get to vote? How? Before they come home or in their host countries? Or only later, for those who want to return?

And what about the guys who want to keep Assad? What candidate should be theirs? Because, contrary to what many Western experts seem to think, those guys do exist and not in such small numbers. The fiercest anti-Assadists insist as I said that “the Syrians will never take back a tyrant that has bombarded them for four years.” But what I hear from most Syrian refugees in Lebanon is that, even if they did want Assad out at first, the violence of the last years made them regret the time when, as long as they kept quiet, they could enjoy a largely normal life in their home country, something they suspect that no alternative will provide.

Transitional Challenges

Also, can we safely assume that the new transitional team will promulgate a new constitution, organize legislative elections, restructure the state and purge those elements closest to Assad in both the state and the army… and then launch a decisive offensive against IS? But even if feasible, such a plan will take time. And what will IS do in the meantime? Wait quietly for months for a serious team to come to power in Damascus and ready itself for battle? Or more probably launch a preemptive assault on Damascus the minute Assad steps down in hopes of taking what’s left of Syria—at least the center of power, Damascus?

Or do the anti-Assad experts think that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is going to launch attacks on both Assad and IS and bring them down at the same time? Even Hezbollah with all its expertise and weaponry can’t fight more than one battle at a time. The FSA, according to some reports, has been losing more and more men every day to the more powerful jihadists. The United States has already tried to train groups of fighters, and with this top-of-the-line training (as in Iraq) and cutting-edge weapons and technology, they were supposed to prove invincible. But didn’t it turn out that they handed their weapons to IS or al-Nusra, fled the field, or joined IS? Anyway, didn’t President Barack Obama just announce that the United States is done with this strategy?

Don’t think I am defending the guys who want Assad to stay. Even the advocates of keeping Assad for a transition period are not very clear. What does that mean exactly, “keep Bashar for a while?” Will he remain just long enough to organize democratic elections after which he says goodbye and a democratically elected team takes over? Who guarantees his departure? Who can force Assad into doing anything? His Russian and Iranian mentors? Okay. How can we be sure that they will not try to put some friend of his in power as Putin did with Medvedev? Can the West guarantee that? How exactly? Killing the new guy if he doesn’t do what he’s told? Would a good spanking on the butt in the form of new sanctions be sufficient?

In other words: pro- or anti-Bashar, is there anyone with clear, detailed and realistic ideas to save Syria? Because this abominable mess, this catastrophe has to end. It has to end. So, how do we do it?

Photo: Street scene in Aleppo courtesy of Freedom House via Flickr

Aurélie Daher

Aurélie Daher is co-head of the Master’s Program in Peace Studies at Paris-Dauphine University, Paris, France. She held a postdoctoral fellow position at the University of Oxford from 2016-2017 and from 2010-2011, and a postdoctoral research associate position at Princeton University from 2012-2013. Her work focuses on Hezbollah, Shiism, Lebanese and Middle Eastern politics. Her doctoral dissertation was published in French in 2014 (Hezbollah. Mobilisation et pouvoir, PUF editions, Paris) and in English in 2019 (Hezbollah. Mobilisation and Power, Hurst/Oxford University Press, London/New York).



  1. Good comment, Virgile. My recollection is that President Al-Assad tried to institute just what you propose in late 2011, but the “dissidents,” goosed by our neocon Ambassador Ford and the entire crazed US foreign-policy shambles, put the kibosh on that. Chaos, and endless misery, have been the wonderful Syrian people’s lot ever since.

  2. Reconciliation committees and elections which somehow seems to no longer appear in the Democracy pushing West’s discourse any longer.

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