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Two options, but neither is appropriate: What does Bashar al-Assad hope for?

The Syrian government and opposition have not met vis-à-vis during the ongoing UN-mediated talks in Geneva. The sides are negotiating with Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy for Syria, who presents the stands and questions of one side to another. When will the sides start direct talks is not clear, though the situation “on the Earth” depends on the outcome of these talks. According to Reuters, Damascus is dragging feet.

Within the week, the sides have just agreed to maintain the territorial integrity and rejected a federal model, nothing else, Staffan de Mistura said. Damascus representatives refuse to sit at a negotiating table with High Negotiations Committee (HNC) that was set up in Riyadh.  

According to Reuters, they keep asking who will be representing the opposition, what rights they have. The Syrian government has submitted a document entitled "Basic elements for a political solution". However, it says what everyone have already agreed with: territorial integrity of the secular Syria and the fight against terrorism, for instance, Reuters says. According to it, they are expecting quite different things from Damascus, for instance, its proposals concerning the transitional period and Bashar al-Assad’s fate.  Damascus is trying to avoid discussion of this issue, especially with the opposition, according to Reuters' sources.

"He (the head of the government delegation, Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari) has to have control. If he gives up 1 percent, he loses 100 percent. He's designed like that," a western diplomat said describing the inflexible stand of Assad's representatives in Geneva.

Damascus’ last proposal was to postpone the talks until mid-April when parliamentary elections will be held in Syria. The High Negotiations Committee does not recognize it and refuses to postpone the talks. It is not clear what Damascus seeks by dragging feet. The trick with the elections that will enable it to declare that the parliament represents the entire country and will determine Syria’s future will hardly work. Furthermore, it will make the situation even tenser. What else does Damascus seek by delaying with the solution to the most painful issue for Bashar al-Assad?

Opposition split and ousting of Al Qaeda

Meantime, peace has come to Syria, at least, where there is no “Islamic State” (a terrorist organization banned in Russia - EADaily). Besides the statements by U.S. and Russia, one can make sure that there is real ceasefire in the country from social media. Specifically, during the recent days, the Islamic groups have posted almost nothing about military engagements. As for the “moderate opposition,” it has been discussing the conflict between “Brigade 13” and the Syrian Al Qaeda more and more frequently lately.  Al Qaeda has not ceased fire, but it is mainly in the territories of “moderate opposition” and is one of the most powerful striking forces.

We have already reported that Jabhat al-Nusra seized the arms depot of the group that is supported by the United States. This sparked a wave of protest in Idlib province and protesters set to fire several offices of Jihadists. According to Al-Arabiya’s sources, the Jihadists retaliated severely. They dispersed the protests, killing eight people in Maaret al-Numan. Afterwards, they started disseminating rumors to justify their actions. In particular, they claimed that the colonel of “Brigade 13” stepped on their flag during the protests, while another fighter raped the wife of a jihadist. Later, more clashes occurred, and Al Qaeda published the story of a journalist telling about the dialogue of the commanders of “Brigade-13” and Jabhat al-Nusra. They say, the first hinted that they received an order to destroy al-Nusra Front.

“Brigade 13” is not a rival for Syrian Al Qaeda and that incident could be considered as unique, but for the other examples. According to Al-Arabiya, Ahrar al-Sham and its former allies are falling apart. In addition, the Army of Islam that is participating in the Geneva talks like Ahrar al-Sham has declared that the “moderate opposition” is creating an “umbrella” against possible attacks by Assad. However, this will not shelter the Syrian Al-Qaeda.

In other words, the former allies are ready to break up with the followers of Osama bin Laden. Damascus is happy with such split in the “moderate opposition,” the more so as Al Qaeda considers itself as part of it.  Perhaps, Damascus hopes the militants will clash and degrade each other. However, according to Al-Arabiya, this is not likely to happen soon. Jabhat al-Nusra is still popular, as it is strong enough to resist the government troops. There will be no serious split, unless Damascus guarantees that after ousting Al-Qaeda it will not take advantage of the situation and will not destroy the remaining groups of the militants.

Kurdish maneuver

Syrian Kurds are another headache for the “moderate opposition.” Like Turkey, they consider the Kurds as their enemies. They call PYD (Democratic Union Party) movement and its military unit YPG (People’s Protection Units) as terrorists. This enmity is natural. The Syrian Kurds along with the government troops have blocked one of the two supply routes of Jihadists from Turkey and now there is battle in the north of Aleppo. If Kurds advance deeper towards ISIL and liberate Raqqa, it will mean an encroachment upon the lands of Sunnites, while the opposition claims these lands belong to them.  By some data, U.S. that supports the Syrian Kurds is not happy with such ethnic split either.   

According to Nicholas Heras, a Middle East analyst, U.S. policy makers have concerns that Kurds will fail to govern Raqqa due to the inter-ethnic animosity. Heras says U.S. is not sure that Kurds are able to liberate Raqqa on their own.

“If they [US-led coalition] make big air support and shoot at everything shooting at us, I am confident we [YPG] will win, but without big support from the US it would be a bloodbath. We would have to be ready to lose 3,000 or 4,000 people,” Heval Ernesto, a French volunteer in Kobane, told ARA News. “In Kobane alone we lost 1,500, and Raqqa is much bigger,” he said.

The Syrian opposition has not even such possibilities to liberate Raqqa now. Its main forces are on the Western front and it will not shift them, unless it is clear that the ceasefire with Damascus is forever. So far, the “moderate opposition” is fighting against ISIL within its own “borders” with doubtful and insignificant results. For instance, in the north, near the border with Turkey, they took several villages, but lost as many in Aleppo.

Damascus will hardly be happy with the reinforcement of Kurds. Their intention to create a federation and the response from the capital city have allegedly resulted in armed clashes of these informal allies in the north of Syria. However, if Kurds take Raqqa, discussion of Bashar al-Assad’s fate may pale into insignificance. Then even such geopolitical actors as Turkey and Saudi Arabia will involve into a new conflict. In such case, no one will care for Assad. Perhaps, Damascus pins hopes with such scenario as well.

Assad has two options, but neither is appropriate for him

If the negotiations are further protracted, the advancement into Palmyra may become a third triumph card. ISIL extremists are now on the mountains that separate Palmyra from the government troops. Damascus is suffering big losses and the outcome of the offensive is not clear. In case of success, Damascus will get a chance to show real victories over ISIL and expand its territory.

However, all the three options for Bashar al-Assad to replay the situation theoretically and postpone the decision on his own fate are imperfect. First, it will take time and the result is not guaranteed. The second is the position of geopolitical actors. Russia, U.S. and the Middle East countries have already told Damascus that Syria’s future will be decided at a negotiating table. Moscow has actually reaffirmed its stand by withdrawing its main forces from Syria. Therefore, Assad’s tactical games will probably be in favor of only one of the two options – the one the geopolitical actors have agreed upon.

The West and the Eastern countries agree to keep Assad until the elections, and Moscow insists that the Syrian people decides the fate of its president. The only thing Assad can do now is to buy time and try to weight down the scale before the choice is made.

EADaily Middle East Bureau 

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