Olek­sandr Bo­go­molov: Syria’s As­sad is ‘a dead man walk­ing’

Kyiv Post - - National - BY BRIAN BON­NER BON­[email protected]

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."

Ig­nor­ing Syr­i­ans

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...

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