Obama administration lays out plans for ousting Assad
WASHINGTON - The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and its brutality have so dominated the world’s attention over the past year that the atrocities of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria have become an afterthought.
But the US Senate Armed Services Committee in July brought attention back to effecting change in Damascus as a way to defeat ISIS and bring about a credible political transition without Assad, whose presence, in the words of US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, is “fuel for ISIS”.
The media focused on Carter’s revelation that only 60 Syrian opposition fighters have been trained and equipped. Some senators shook their heads in disbelief. The chairman of the committee, Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., said “after four years, this is not impressive”. Under questioning from McCain, Carter confirmed that the US-trained recruits were being told they must fight ISIS, not Assad’s troops.
But Carter also laid out the administration’s strategy for a political transition in Syria. Although this part of the hearing received less attention than the news about how shockingly few fighters have been trained, it is worth examining, for if the administration’s plan succeeds, Syrians could see an end to a tragic period of history.
Carter said the US goal was to remove Assad and he offered a road map for doing that.
“Our strategy,” he said, “is to encourage the moderate opposition to partner with the structure of the government in Damascus, with those not directly associated with Assad and his deplorable behaviour. Then unify the moderate opposition and create a new government which is more reflective of the aspirations of the populace than Assad.”
In turn, Carter added, “They need to reclaim territory from ISIS, [and] the international coalition would be pleased to support them in that.”
The Pentagon is planning for the post-Assad era, including meeting with Syria’s neighbours, including Israel. US Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate committee: “Our Israeli and Jordanian counterparts believe that the possibility of the regime collapsing or having an enclave in Latakia, Homs and Hama is a possibility. They are having conversations with us about what that would precipitate.”
Both Israel and Jordan are worried about a post-Assad scenario in which ISIS and al-Nusra Front “converge on Damascus,” Dempsey said, adding, “We are talking to the Israelis, Jordanians and the Turks about this scenario.”
While Washington prefers the exit of Assad to be “sooner rather than later”, Carter said the Obama administration’s approach is “to try to find a political exit for Bashar Assad rather than a US-led military exit”. He said that a political, rather than a military, transition would be “less sectarian, less disruptive, less destructive” and that the danger of toppling Assad is that “we know what happens when countries disintegrate”.
The Iraq experience — and especially the dismantling of the Iraqi Army — is fresh in the American mind.
Joshua Landis, a leading expert on Syria and professor at the University of Oklahoma, dismisses the strategy laid out by Carter as merely “the talking points of the administration from day one. They created them because they do not want to repeat the mistakes made in Iraq”.
Landis called the strategy “completely unrealistic”.
“We know Assad is not going to leave. No one will tell him to leave and it is not clear that the people around him want him to leave. The idea is based on the failure to understand the Syrian government,” he said.
While Washington’s policymakers may hope that the Syrian Army can be preserved, Landis says this is not possible “because the army is dominated by the Alawites. The state in Syria is ruled largely by the Alawites, and no one in the opposition wants the Alawites to continue ruling the country”. He said opposition leaders “do not want the minorities ruling Syria anymore”.
Landis says the Obama administration has largely given up on finding a solution in Syria. “They pursue a narrow policy of counterterrorism,” he said, predicting continued fragmentation of Syria.
But whether or not the administration understands the intricacies of Syrian politics, the strategy described by Carter contains the seeds of its own demise.
The administration’s “train-and-equip” programme offers no assurances that once these fighters are introduced into the Syrian theatre they will receive coalition protection from Assad’s barrel bombs. The administration insists that it will make that decision when the time comes. McCain, however, told Carter that it is “shameful” to send fighters to Syria without “assuring them we will defend them from barrel bombs”.
The second problem is the administration’s insistence that the priority is to fight ISIS, not Assad. If Assad refuses to step down, how will Washington enforce its political approach? US Secretary of State John Kerry once spoke about the importance of convincing Assad to leave by changing the reality on the ground. But no one in the administration has been making this argument of late.
If the strategy is still based on waiting for Russian President Vladimir Putin to convince Assad to leave, good luck: Putin is in no mood to offer the United States and the West any gifts.
Some in Washington believe that Iran will abandon Assad and force him out as a result of the nuclear deal with the Tehran and the P5+1. This is worse than wishful thinking: It is delusional.
Just listen to Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, who proclaims that the road to Jerusalem passes through Zabadani, Qalamoun and other parts of Syria.
Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. who is seeking the Republican Party nomination for president, asked Carter who he thinks will leave office first, US President Barack Obama, whose second term ends in January 2017, or Assad?
Carter would only reply: “I hope it is Assad.” Graham responded: “Yes, I do, too, but I do not think it will be.”
That is a sobering thought for Syria.