Late last year, Vladimir Putin sent a trusted envoy on a delicate mission to Syria. Colonel-General Igor Sergun, head of Russia’s military intelligence, was tasked with the job of telling President Bashar Assad that he must step aside in order to facilitate negotiations to end the bloody civil war.
Reportedly, Assad angrily refused. Then, just a few weeks later on January 3, Sergun died. The circumstances of his death are shrouded in mystery, but some reports have him passing away in Beirut—a playground for Assad and the Syrian secret police.
Russia’s failed gamble in Damascus left Mr Assad more entrenched than before, and hopes for a diplomatic solution to the vicious civil war appear again to be ebbing away.
UN officials have spent the past week lowering expectations that the talks between the warring factions planned for January 25 in Geneva will go ahead, let alone produce a breakthrough.
It is a dramatic reversal of fortunes. News of the secret proposal delivered by Sergun — a choreographed transition of power that would maintain the Alawite regime but open the door to realistic negotiations with moderate rebels — added to a growing mood of optimism among western intelligence agencies in late 2015.
For the US-led coalition fighting Isis, it seemed that accommodating Moscow could break years of diplomatic deadlock over Mr Assad’s removal — a move Washington views as a precondition to cooling the sectarian tensions in Syria and Iraq that have fed the jihadi insurgency.
Moscow’s military intervention in the conflict in support of Damascus in late September, many in Europe and the US reasoned, had reached its limit. “Mr Putin had taken a look under the bonnet of the Syrian regime,” one senior European intelligence official told the FT “and found a lot more problems than he was bargaining for.”
However, Russia overplayed its hand, the official said, and Mr Assad made clear to Sergun that there could be no future for Russia in Syria unless he remained as president.
Assad routinely murders those who might replace him, or challenge his authority. At least a dozen Lebanese opposition MPs, journalists, and members of powerful families have been assassinated over the last decade. With his Hezbollah allies in control of Lebanon, and the Syrian secret police everywhere, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Assad wanted to send a message to Putin by murdering Sergun.
Regime change is not going to come from the sycophants and grovelers in the Syrian military. And it’s doubtful the rebels or ISIS will ever be strong enough to overthrow his rule.
Assad is going to outlast President Obama—the man who told him he must step down 4 years ago.