New confidence in Damascus as Russian strikes turn the tide

Syrian civilians who volunteered to join local Self Protection Units to protect their neighbourhoods alongside the Syrian army attend training near a picture of Syria"s president Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez al-Assad, in Damascus countryside Image copyright Reuters
Image caption There are signs of renewed certainty in Damascus, our correspondent says

You notice it on the road to Damascus.

New posters of President Bashar al-Assad hang from the centre of soaring archways that welcome you into Syria and replace the once-fading images all along this route from the border with Lebanon.

You notice it on the main highway, the strategic artery that runs to the city of Homs and on to the Mediterranean coast. Military checkpoints have been bolstered and brightened by fresh coats of paint in the black white and red tricolour of Syria's flag.

And you sense it in the comments of President Assad's supporters - the new signs of confidence.

"The problem is not with the Syrian government," insists presidential adviser Dr Bouthaina Shaaban when I ask about the new international diplomacy gathering pace to find a negotiated way out of this war.

"The problem is with those who are truly targeting Syria. "

Nearly five years into a devastating conflict that has shattered large parts of Syria into a patchwork of rebel strongholds, there's an atmosphere of greater certainty in political and military circles in Damascus.

'We're glad the Russians are here'

Never mind that the economy is bad, and getting worse, that a spent Syrian army's accelerated recruitment drive is causing many young men to flee, and that a growing number of middle class professionals have left or are thinking of it.

"We're glad the Russians are here," is a phrase I heard time and again in the corridors of power.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Russian air strikes have targeted a range of opposition forces

The September surprise of Russia's sudden entry into the air campaign against the so-called Islamic State (IS), followed by the continuing despatch of advanced weaponry and Russian forces described as military advisors, have started to ease some of the pressure on Syria's army on key front lines.

It's been clear from the pattern of Russia's airstrikes that its definition of "targeting terrorists" extends beyond IS to other groups threatening President's Assad's position in strategic areas, including around Damascus.

"What kind of weaponry have they given you?' I ask an official in the Ministry of Defence.

"Everything," he says with a big broad smile, which underlines that the biggest gift of all was the very public signal that Russia is standing with them.

"They are more confident at the moment because they see the situation unfolding to their advantage," remarks a European diplomat who visits Damascus.

He points to Turkey's downing of a Russian military plane as another element that strengthens their narrative.

A 'summons' from Moscow

But the political price tag for Russia's extensive and expensive military backing remains unclear.

Much attention has focused on President Assad's very rare foreign visit which took him to Moscow in October - every photograph has been scrutinised for telltale signs of the nature of this increasingly critical relationship.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption All smiles - but Moscow doesn't want its Syrian engagement to become "another Afghanistan"

"He was told 'Don't say no to everything'," a Western official involved in the new diplomatic moves tells me.

"Putin made it clear there had to be a more constructive approach because military support was not endless."

Syrian officials have a different take on a meeting Western and Arab diplomats describe as a "summoning".

"He came back very pleased," is how a Syrian with close ties to the president's inner circle put it.

Afghan lessons

What seems clear is Moscow does not want its Syrian engagement to become "another Afghanistan" - the kind of long costly engagement after its 1979 Afghan invasion.

But among the lessons there is that once Moscow visibly withdrew backing for its ally President Najibullah, the system began to crumble from within, pressure mounted from outside and Kabul collapsed.

Avoiding precipitous collapse in Damascus, in a region already fraught with all too much chaos and crisis, is the only goal that now unites many sides in this conflict.

It has created small shifts in the position of Western and Arab states whose firm stance has long been simply "Assad must go".

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Outside powers are fearful of a collapse into chaos

"The political process can start with Assad but must end without him," is the new phrase I heard on a recent visit to Riyadh. But Saudi Arabia wants concrete proof that this is how any negotiations will finish, before they begin. For the opposition, it's the Syrian leader's presence that's fuelling this war, including the rise of IS.

But in Damascus, the narrative hasn't shifted.

"We don't care what the West says," declares Minister of Information Omran Zoubi who calls those demanding President Assad's departure "delusional".

Even officials who don't speak publicly for the president say in private his exit is not on the cards.

"He's the cement holding all the security and intelligence agencies together," says one well-connected businessman. "It's in everyone's interest that he stays."

'No negotiation with terrorists'

The looming question is still who or what will replace him at a time when minds in many capitals are focused on the growing threat from IS.

A senior Russian official told me last month that, in an effort to move this long deadlocked process forward, the word "transition" was being downplayed, as well as the president's future role.

That is what emerged from the second round of the "Vienna process" which brings together all the main outside players - both enemies and allies of President Assad - around the same table for the first time.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham walked out of opposition talks in Riyadh

Last week's opposition meeting in Riyadh was part of new efforts to forge a more cohesive leadership to attend Syria talks set to take place as early as he first week of January.

But the inclusion of Islamist forces such as Ahrar al-Sham only sharpened the derisory reply from Damascus. President Assad immediately retorted that he would not "negotiate with terrorists". That riposte resonates in Russia, which is calling for a clearer delineation of who is who in the opposition.

Sceptical but weary

There's talk in Damascus of more military offensives, now backed to the hilt by its allies. There's a focus on local ceasefires, such as the one in the last rebel-held district of Homs last week, which are closer to surrenders on the government's own terms. And there are many opposition groups who also still vow to fight to the end.

"How can anyone be blamed for scepticism?" a UN official asks. "But the alternative is another five years of destructive war."

There is some real progress in the political process. But unless and until it moves into the difficult detail of a real transition, the confidence in Damascus will remain undiminished.

More on this story