World·Analysis

Syria's Bashar al-Assad looks like clear winner of U.S.-Russia duel at United Nations

If anyone is feeling more comfortable after the duelling speeches by the leaders of Russia and the United States at the United Nations on Monday, it would be the man sitting in the presidential palace in Damascus.

U.S. line is still that Assad must go, but the message has been watered down

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stands to benefit from speeches Monday at the UN by the Russian and U.S. presidents. (Vadim Ghirda/Associated Press)

If anyone is feeling more comfortable after the duelling speeches by the leaders of Russia and the United States at the United Nations on Monday, it would be the man sitting in the presidential palace in Damascus.

Bashar al-Assad's position as Syria's leader seems more secure, as he's being talked about as part of the solution to end the war in Syria that has claimed at least a quarter of a million lives.

President Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama once again highlighted the difficulty of solving the Syrian crisis.

The line from the United States and its allies, including France, is still that Assad has to go.

But it's been watered down.

Obama backed away from the insistence that the Syrian dictator cannot be a part of any political solution to end the war.

He stood before the UN General Assembly Monday and branded Assad a "tyrant." But then he added: "Realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader."

"Managed transition" clearly opens the door to Assad's inclusion in the political process, which bolsters his regime and gives it legitimacy as he clings to power, after a number of military setbacks that have depleted the forces that fight for him.

Putin told the UN that turning away from Assad in the battle against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) would be "an enormous mistake."

More skin in game

He chastised those calling for Assad's ouster, saying: "They aren't citizens of Syria, and so should not be involved in choosing the leadership of the another country."

Russia has more skin in the game now, after sending warplanes, tanks and soldiers to a key regime airbase in northwestern Syria. The move is widely seen as an attempt to prop up Assad after the losses his forces have suffered recently.

Some Syria watchers, however, say that while the Russians continue to offer their support publicly, behind the scenes Moscow may in fact be open to a political transition that will see Assad go, but on terms more favourable to the Russians.

Syria's opposition has always maintained it won't negotiate a transition while Assad remains president.

"He has killed too many of his own people," Noura al-Ameer, a top figure in the National Coalition of Syria, recently told CBC News.

Assad leads in killing

While much of the focus of the conflict in Syria remains on ISIS, it is the forces of president Assad who have killed by far the most civilians.

This year, according the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the regime is responsible for 7,894 civilian deaths, compared with 1,131 attributed to ISIS.

In Canada, there was no mention of Assad by the three party leaders in Monday  night's foreign policy discussion organized by the Munk Debates.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said in 2013 that Canada wants to see Assad "depart power."

Since then, Canadian fighter and support aircraft have joined the U.S.-led mission against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. They are, by default, on the same side as Assad in the fight against the so-called Islamic State.

That uncomfortable reality perhaps helps explain why no one wanted to mention Assad, who these days seems a little more secure in that presidential palace.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.

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