At a meeting between Bashar al-Assad and a Lebanese Hezbollah delegation in Damascus in April 2013, Assad assured his guests that "the Americans are pragmatic" and "won’t fully commit" to a policy to put an end to his regime. They will, he claimed, eventually "side with the winner." Policy statements and recent revelations about the Obama administration’s deliberative process on Syria raise the question: Is the United States proving Assad correct?
The U.S. State Department is currently grappling with the problem of the Geneva II peace conference scheduled for late November. For Geneva II to succeed, Washington must somehow find a way to make the conference a step toward the exit of Assad and his inner circle, but this intended result makes it highly unlikely Assad will participate to that end. As U.S. officials in Foggy Bottom contemplate this thorny puzzle, their bosses at the White House could help by reconsidering the public messaging of their Syria policy.
U.S. policy toward Syria has been confused and full of sharp reversals. Remarks made by Secretary of State John Kerry illustrate this confused public messaging. Not long ago, Secretary Kerry described Assad as a "thug and a murderer," and labeled the authoritarian state structure as "a dictator and his family’s enterprise." After the Assad regime unleashed its chemical arsenal on innocent civilians, and subsequently was forced to agree to surrender those chemical weapons, Kerry’s words reflected a dramatic but unsurprising reversal. He said that the United States has been "very pleased" with the progress and level of compliance with the agreement. Kerry added that the quick progress on the chemical weapons agreement was "a credit to the Assad regime…It’s a good beginning, and we should welcome a good beginning."
Kerry made this final statement with Lavrov at his side. On October 22, scrambling to salvage the peace conference with disgruntled Syrian opposition figures and representatives of frustrated allies at his side in London instead, Kerry swung back to the previous line that Assad "has lost all legitimacy, all capacity to govern the country."
This is just a recent case in a point. Another notable example is the rhetorical shift away from the phrase "Assad’s days are numbered," prolifically featured in the speeches and remarks of top U.S. officials for almost two years. It was replaced with "Assad will never ever again rule all of Syria," by White House spokesman Jay Carney in July of this year. The administration has retracted some of these statements, but their issuance and retraction only compound the negative effects of mixed messaging.
U.S. policy equivocations lend weight to the Assad regime’s own spin that Bashar al-Assad is cunning, rather than delusional. Washington’s mixed messages can only help Assad’s fortunes as he convinces those around him to stay at their posts, and thereby maintain cohesion within his ruling clique and delay the internal unraveling of his regime.
The policy of ambivalence has at the same time confused Syrians, U.S. allies, and even the U.S. Congress. As a senior Arab diplomat commented earlier this year, "we’re confused, and we’re not sure what this administration wants. Kul sa’aa fi akel (they keep blowing hot and cold)." In early September, a Democratic colleague in Congress admitted he was having trouble convincing other Democrats to support the president’s request to authorize the use of military force in Syria because, a few days into the president’s bid to win votes, some Democratic lawmakers thought that even "the boss himself doesn’t seem convinced."
Combine U.S. policy ambivalence with overly-wishful trips to Damascus by U.S. academics and former political figures like former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and former Representative Cynthia McKinney, and Assad’s propaganda machine has all the ‘evidence’ it needs to support its narrative. While these figures do not represent the U.S. government, most Syrians do not understand how they could travel to Syria without Washington’s permission, and it has been easy for the Syrian state media to push the regime’s line that the "weakened United States" is still willing to do business with the regime, due to "the wisdom of Syria’s exceptional leader."
The confused message the United States is sending Assad and his inner circle is a major reason why top defections have become rare. Major ruptures within the regime will only resume when those around Assad abandon all hope of any future restoration of normal relations with the outside world and feel compelled to make other arrangements. Fractures within the regime will open space for real negotiations.
Even as the United States stands reluctant to intervene militarily, it should remain steadfast in its diplomatic posture. The Obama administration could start by adopting a more forward-leaning policy and consistent messaging, an easier approach capable of accelerating a resolution to the Syria crisis with minimal U.S. investment.
A clear and consistent stance would convey to the Assad regime and its supporters that the United States is seriously committed to not allowing Assad to play a role in a future Syria and that Washington is not hedging its bets. It further signals that the United States can help shape events, rather than simply comment on them after they take place. It was the serious debate in Washington about the use of military force that forced Assad to agree to surrender his chemical weapons and finally — for a moment — forced Russia from its intransigence. A serious change in tone can make a difference, but it must be genuine and convincing.
In particular, Washington’s messages should make it unambiguously clear that the United States does not deal with regimes implicated in gassing their own people, or other heinous crimes against humanity. It must articulate that the chemical weapons agreement is a step toward the full transition of executive authority away from Assad and not a step toward reintegrating the regime into the international community. This is essential if Geneva II is to be taken seriously by both sides.
Mohammed Alaa Ghanem is the Senior Political Adviser, Government Relations Director, and Strategist for the Syrian American Council in Washington D.C and a fellow at the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies.