In a potentially game-changing development in the protracted civil war between the Syrian government and armed rebels, on Tuesday a number of news outlets cited unconfirmed reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had left his presidential palace and was residing on a navy warship off the coast of Syria under Russian security.
The media hubbub began when the Saudi Arabian newspaper al-Watan stated that Assad had been joined by his family and senior advisers on a Russian-operated warship in the Mediterranean, and was using a helicopter to travel back and forth between the vessel and his home base. The report claimed that when Assad flies to his war-torn country, he lands at undisclosed locations and is transported to the presidential palace under heavy guard.
The Saudi-disseminated report elaborated that the Russian-guarded warship offers a safe environment to Assad, whose confidence in his private security team has greatly diminished. It further suggested that the Syrian leader has been granted political asylum by Russia, though there was no official comment from Moscow.
According to al-Watan, the possibility that Assad was effectively in asylum on a Russian warship reinforced Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s remark on Sunday that the Syrian president’s removal from power is “impossible to implement.” The report posited that such a scenario could be an indication of looming negotiations on the civil war in Syria. “It is necessary to make everybody, including the opposition, which is still categorically denying any dialogue, to sit down at the negotiating table,” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty quoted Lavrov as declaring during a visit to the Ukraine.
The news item was reported by YNet News, Business Insider and UPI, all of which cited the same unconfirmed source.
However, experts on Russian foreign policy and the behavior of Assad, including the State Department, have looked into the situation, and say that these reports are most likely untrue. “There’s no reason for [Assad] to be on a warship in the Mediterranean,” commented Syria specialist Michael Weiss, a columnist with Middle East news website NOW Lebanon. “He has to be in Damascus, because that’s where he’s running the whole war machine.”
At press time, Al-Watan was the only news service that reported on the rumors independently. According to private intelligence company Stratfor, Riyadh has a personal interest in creating the impression that Assad — who has been a persistent critic of the Saudis as an authentic ally of the United States – does not feel sufficiently safe in his home country.
“If things had come to that point, then he would have lost Damascus,” noted Kamran Bokhari, Stratfor’s vice president of Middle Eastern affairs, who added that the Saudi Arabian government is striving “feverishly” to overthrow the Syrian leader and his Iranian allies.
Syria specialist Weiss asserted that the Russian government backs Assad’s efforts to decimate Syria’s rebellion, through such methods as printing currency for the regime and supplying it with weapons. Nevertheless, said Weiss – who previously served as co-chair of the Russian Studies Center at the London-based Henry Jackson Society – giving sanctuary to the Syrian president in order to protect him from his enemies would run counter to Russia’s own interest. “If he were looking to flee, it’s possible the Russians would give him safe passage out of Syria. They would not host him, they would take him somewhere else,” the expert emphasized.
“To host him on a warship sends the kind of signal his hold on power is kind of slipping and the Russians are preparing some kind of exit strategy for him,” Weiss added. “Things aren’t dire enough for him to leave just yet.”
Rebel fighters seeking to topple the Assad regime have captured about 70 percent of Syria, most of which is only rural territory. The fighters continue to be entrenched in intense fighting with military forces loyal to the government in and around urban centers like Aleppo and Damascus, Syria’s capital. According to expert observers, an attempt by Assad to escape would most likely entail a retreat to the strategic mountainous stronghold of Latakia, which he could utilize as a base to carry out a chemical weapons campaign.
Joshua Landis, a recognized expert on Syria with the University of Oklahoma, predicts that the Assad regime will be able to hang on until 2014. The academic, who is the author of the politics newsletter Syria Comment, correctly projected that President Assad would remain in power through 2012.
The Syrian regime continued its harsh military campaign against its citizenry on Monday, heavily bombing areas around Damascus in an effort to put down rebel fighters, the AP reported. This comes on the heels of the regime’s deployment of Scud missiles and cluster bomb attacks. Human rights organizations, including the United Nations, are convinced that more than 60,000 people have been killed since the intense fighting began in March of 2011.
Assad strategically works to ensure that the daily body counts resulting from the fighting do not go higher than 100, Weiss explained, to attract the least amount of attention from Western countries who may be considering active intervention in the conflict. The United States has provided the Syrian population with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of humanitarian aid, along with non-lethal supplies such as cameras to document atrocities committed by government troops and post them to YouTube. However, the U.S. has held out on any actual military intervention. “The U.S. government has given Assad every reason to believe he can carry on this way, and there will be no consequences,” said Weiss.
The United States, Germany, and the Netherlands have shipped six Patriot missile batteries and hundreds of troops to the Turkish border with Syria to prevent or defend against missile strikes. It is not clear if those countries’ forces are willing to go forward with a preemptive strike.
One of the worst outcomes of the ongoing violence in Syria has been the hundreds of thousands of refugees escaping into adjoining countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Many of them did not receive sufficient resources during a harsh winter and have since died of exposure.
In related developments, Russia stated on Tuesday that it would be “counterproductive” to report war crimes committed in the Syria civil war to the International Criminal Court, as has been proposed by dozens of states led by Switzerland. “We view this initiative as untimely and counterproductive to solving today’s main goal — an immediate end to the bloodshed in Syria,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
On Monday, Switzerland sent a petition demanding referral of war crimes from the 15-member U.N. Security Council — the only body that can file the case with the International Criminal Court, but where Russia wields veto power. The petition’s signatories included a large number of European and Latin American countries, as well as Australia and Japan.
The Security Council is the sole entity allowed to refer the issue to the ICC because Syria is not an ICC member. But Russia, which has traditionally been an ally of Syria and has vetoed three previous Council resolutions sanctioning President Assad, argued that a war crimes referral could only aggravate the human rights crisis.
“We are convinced that speculation on the subject of international criminal prosecution and a search for the guilty will only entrench the two sides’ irreconcilable positions and complicate a search for a political settlement of the Syrian conflict,” the Russian statement declared.
The Russian government also reaffirmed its support for a Syrian transition plan agreed upon by world powers in June that has yet to be implemented because of the fighting. That arrangement planned for the swift creation of an interim government in the Middle Eastern country with full powers. But it never set out a clear role for Assad and was interpreted in different ways by Russia and the West.
Russia argued this week that Assad’s removal from power could not be implemented because outside parties had no right to intervene in the conflict under the terms of the June pact. That comment and Tuesday’s decision to withhold any referral of the Syrian case to the ICC are likely to aggravate the already complicated relations between Russia relations with Western and Arab nations that consider Moscow to be Assad’s last ally of any real significance.