Obama, Putin and Assad’s future
Will Syrian President Bashar Assad still rule over what remains of Syria when US President Barack Obama hands over the American presidency in January 2017?
The question comes to mind after a series of events that show how badly US policy has failed to stanch the bloodletting in Syria’s multisided civil war, a conflict that has killed 240,000 people, drove 4 million Syrians to flee the country and spurred the biggest refugee crisis since World War II.
The United States’ Syrian strategy, or the lack of a clear strategy, created a vacuum that has been filled by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has dispatched combat aircraft, tanks, artillery and 200 marines to Syria with the obvious aim to establish a military outpost in the Middle East and prop up the Assad regime.
The deployment of Russian military forces is “a major geostrategic inflection”, according to an analysis by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think-tank, and the American Enterprise Institute. It could herald “a new era in global geopolitics and security”.
In Syria, the analysis argues, the mere presence of Russian forces virtually guarantees that the United States or a proxy force would not attack the Assad regime, if Washington were to decide on that course.
That does not seem to be in the cards. Instead, the Obama administration is gingerly stepping back from its insistence that “Assad must go”, an oft-repeated exhortation over the past four years. In his speech at the UN General Assembly on September 28th, Obama described the Syrian leader as a dictator who slaughters his own people and talked of the need for “a managed transition”.
That echoed US Secretary of State John Kerry’s remark a few days earlier that the United States would go along with a resolution of the Syrian crisis that would allow Assad to stay in power for a time. How long? He would not have to leave “on day one or month one or whatever”. The “whatever” would be subject to “a process by which all the parties have to come together and reach an understanding of how this can best be achieved”.
No understanding is in sight, nor is a process, nor are there answers to the question “What next if Assad were to go?”. The strongest anti- Assad military forces on the Syrian killing fields are the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Nusra Front (an al-Qaeda affiliate) and various smaller Islamist groups.
The “moderate opposition” the Americans had hoped to form remains a figment of wishful thinking. The Pentagon has admitted that a $500 million project to train and equip moderate forces yielded only a handful of fighters.
All this explains why Putin’s idea of a new coalition to fight ISIS, which would include Assad’s military and Iran, is beginning to gain some traction among American allies and hard-headed pragmatists in the United States.
In his UN speech, Putin said, “It is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces,” a charge he repeated in his first meeting with Obama in almost two years.
Some of the United States’ European allies are beginning to question the wisdom of policies that have failed spectacularly to slow the spiral of violence in Syria. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the main destination for tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, said: “We have to speak with many actors. This includes Assad.”
Those who oppose the idea of including the Syrian leader in any process to end the bloodshed occupy the moral high ground. After all, he is the man who ignited the war by ordering pro-democracy demonstrators gunned down when the “Arab spring” belatedly reached Syria.
The government’s brutality prompted an armed uprising that morphed into the present nightmare, a magnet for the world’s jihadists.
Those who advocate new ways forward that would include Assad, point to history and deals with evil for the sake of saving lives. The Khmer Rouge, architects of the Cambodian genocide, were part of the UN-sponsored peace process that ended the war. The United States made a pact with Stalin, responsible for starving tens of millions of Soviet citizens to death, to beat a greater evil — the Nazis.
While world leaders grapple with these issues, Syrians keep dying. And Assad stays on.