As Syria stumbles into its third year of conflict, President Assad continues to bank on his belief that the longer he remains in power, the more likely that the opposition will be seen as a combination of Islamists, carpetbaggers, proxies and miscreants, and that the West will somehow reluctantly agree to his remaining in power as an ostracised, but anti-Islamist figure. This remains unlikely, but it is certainly less unlikely than it was a year ago.
In the lead-up to the Geneva II talks (if they ever occur), Assad has certainly been trying to position himself as the only person who can fix the ‘foreign fighter’ problem that so concerns the West. Syria has claimed that Western governments have opened talks with him about the Islamist problem, and Assad himself has portrayed Saudi ideology and funding as a global security threat (thereby positioning himself as a bulwark against it).
Assad also knows that Islamist groups’ unity is only ephemeral and sooner or later they split as rivalries, agendas and ideological differences come to the surface. This analysis from Europe is a good backgrounder on this particular issue. He also knows that, with his own chemical weapons neutralised, the West is more concerned about the security threat from the Islamist opposition than from any external threat posed by the Syrian regime.
Even supporters of the Islamists (such as Turkey) are feeling the heat from the people they have hitherto supported, and Turkish President Abdullah Gul has signalled his belief that his prime minister’s Syria policy, predicated solely on the removal of Assad, has not worked and needs to be changed.
For all the death and destruction already heaped on Syria as a result of the fighting, 2014 offers little hope that anything will change. Assad and his allies are banking on the fact that the West will see his continuing hold on power as less threatening than the Islamist threat; indeed he is positioning himself as the solution to that threat. While this may be too bitter a pill to swallow for the West, the Assad option is certainly less distasteful than it was this time last year.