Oleksandr Bogomolov: Syria’s Assad is ‘a dead man walking’
When the subject turns to who in Ukraine knows the most about the Middle East, one name comes up all the time: Oleksandr Bogomolov.
From his second-floor office overlooking Hrushevskoho Street, the director of the Institute of Oriental Studies in Kyiv had a front-row seat to the EuroMaidan Revolution that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 22, 2014. The academic center’s windows still have bullet holes from the clashes, it was raided twice by police and served as a makeshift hospital for the wounded.
But there’s another revolution happening in which, while not having a front-row seat, Bogomolov has an inside track to understanding what is happening.
He’s been studying the Middle East since Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s time in 1980, learned Arabic fluently and Persian well and has traveled extensively in the region, although, to his regret, not to Syria.
“There’s no Syria anymore,” Bogomolov said of the situation after more than seven years of a civil war in which many foreign nations are interfering: Russia, Iran, the United States, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel and others.
While the fighting goes on and Syrians keep fleeing and dying, bringing the estimated population of Syria down to 18 million from 24 million people, Bogomolov finds it hard to be optimistic about the future of a reunited and rebuilt Syria.
Besides the staggering cost of reconstruction, estimated at hundreds of billions of dollars, Syrian refugees living abroad for the most part are unwilling to return to their homeland as long as Assad stays in power.
"The regime is hopeless. It has expired," Bogomolev said. "Assad is a dead man walking."
Bogomolev doubts whether areas claimed to be under the Assad government's control are really secure. He says Assad is being propped up mainly by Russian and Iranian military strength.
"Russians and Iranians are not interested in removing Assad," he said. "Assad is the key to legitimacy of their presence. He is 80 percent puppet and 20 percent hoping to squeeze himself out of this situation. His freedom of maneuver is the fact that he has two different sponsors, not one."
The best that can be hoped for, at this stage, is for the West and NATO, including Turkey, to take strong enough military action to protect parts of Syria, allow refugees to return and persuade Assad to leave power.
It's a long shot.
Connection with Ukraine
Russian military intervention in both Ukraine and Syria is the obvious common element in both wars. The aims of the military interventions are also similar. So getting Russia out of both places will help.
If Russia is removed from Ukraine, the war goes away. If Russia is removed from Syria, prospects for peace will be brighter, Bogomolov said.
Iran's military intervention in 2013, two years after the 2011 uprising to topple Assad began, helped keep the dictator in power.
But it wasn't enough and the regime was collapsing.
The decisive edge came in 2015, after ex-U.S. President Barack Obama decided not to punish Assad for using chemical weapons — despite declaring a "red line" in 2013 — and instead tried to get an agreement with the Kremlin on removing Syria's chemical arsenal.
Once Russian President Vladimir Putin knew the U.S. posed no military threat, he decided to intervene with overwhelming strength and massive aerial bombardments to bolster Assad, creating a global refugee crisis that weakened and divided the European Union.
Aside from Russia's tolerance or even support of Assad's use of chemical weapons, "the mass killings occurred when people were bombarded by barrel bombs. It's an absolute barbarian, indiscriminate means of killing people," he said.
Given Russia's obstinance, including vetoing United Nations Security Council resolutions that threatened Assad, "how could American diplomacy hope Russia would be cooperative as a guarantor of this process to get rid of the chemical weapons? It was the very big miscalculation of the Obama administration. It looks like they didn't care."
He says the roots of Russia's desire to intervene militarily in Syria lie partly in the EuroMaidan Revolution, which the Kremlin claimed was a Western plot aimed against Russia.
"Things were unfolding in a manner that prompted a negative reaction. It was already in the back of their minds: A Western plot against them. That's how it played out (in the Kremlin's view). So the feeling was growing to repay this, to show their strength by going deep into Syria."
Dating back to Soviet times and Assad's dictator father, Hafez al-Assad, (1930–2000), the relationship between Moscow and Damascus has been strong. So given the military stalemate in eastern Ukraine by 2015, Russia decided to "show its strength" in Syria.
In many ways, the Russian strategy worked, Bogomolov said: Instead of remaining a pariah for its actions in Ukraine, Russia became quickly the indispensable diplomatic force to broker peace since the Kremlin has ties with all parties in the conflict — and are cynical enough to take advantage of regional animosities.
"They are in contact with everyone. This is the single participant in the conflict that has that kind of leverage," Bogomolov said. "This is their strength on the ground. This is a major asset."
Bogomolov is dismayed that, while geopolitical rivals battle each other, the interests of Syrians are being ignored.
In Arabic, he said, Syrians consider themselves to be involved in a revolution against Assad. He thinks that Assad's grip is weak even in areas he claims to control.
Assad, meanwhile, has forfeited his ability to unify the nation by dividing Syrians into those who support him and those who must be killed or deported.
"Arabs already talking about second ' nakba' or disaster," equating the Syrians' mass deportations to the mass dislocation of Palestinians in the formation of Israel in 1948.
It also appears that Assad is putting into place controversial legislation, such as Land No. 10, to ensure that only regime-loyal Syrians get to return and reclaim land and property.
Just as Palestinians are shunned, "a similar situation is evolving with Syrians: A frustrated population which will never be accepted as equals into the hosting countries," Bogomolov said.
The dislocation is more acute in the Arab culture, where generations of families are tied to specific plots of lands and homes, making them reluctant to leave ancestral settlements and unwelcoming of others.
"The true story of Syrian suffering is drowned," Bogomolov said. "The language of the local is not heard at all." Consequently, foreign powers are using Syria for their own reasons that have "nothing to do with the interests of Syrians themselves."
Oleksandr Bogomolov, director of the Institute of Oriental Studies in Kyiv, speaks with the Kyiv Post on June 13. Bogomolov is one of the featured speakers in the Kyiv Post's "Bringing Peace to Syria & Ukraine" conference on June 18. For information on how to obtain a free ticket, go to the Kyiv Post website, www.kyivpost.com. (Pavlo Podufalov)