Dear Obama, Assad Is the Problem
By refusing to address his fate, the United States is dooming the current round of peace talks to failure.
After nearly five years of war, world powers are close to opening negotiations to end the Syrian crisis. The U.N. Security Council endorsed peace talks in December, and the regime and opposition were initially scheduled to meet on Jan. 25, before disagreements over who could be invited delayed the talks, which are now likely to begin on Jan. 29. The many areas of dispute — who should be included, who should be excluded, the lack of confidence-building measures by Damascus — before the parties even touch down in Geneva suggest that the most difficult questions around ending the war will go unanswered.
Like all previous attempts at a peace deal, there is once again a conspicuous silence on the central issue at stake: President Bashar al-Assad’s future.
True, the prospects for peace have dimmed even further due to the escalating conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have been fighting a proxy war in Syria. But the United States and its allies think things might be different this time around: Maybe, just maybe, they hope, the Syrian regime is finally serious about ending the war. Unfortunately, the likelier scenario is that Assad is hoodwinking the world, and Washington, once again.
Since August 2011, when President Barack Obama first called on Assad to step aside, the United States has mostly been a passive observer to events unfolding in Syria. As of last fall, it officially modified its stance regarding the Syrian dictator: Secretary of State John Kerry said in September that Assad’s departure did not have to take place “on day one, or month one, or whatever,” meaning that Assad could now play a role in the transition and remain in power temporarily. With that statement, Washington effectively capitulated to Russia and Iran for nothing in return — except, of course, the decision by Assad’s two most important foreign patrons to actually show up to the negotiating table.
By refusing to make Assad’s departure a central part of the peace plan, the West has guaranteed the negotiating process will ultimately fail and Syria will continue to burn. The man at the top has no intention of negotiating his own departure: Assad’s only objective is maintaining his family’s control of Syria indefinitely, whatever the cost.
The Assad clan’s grip on power was always different from that of the rulers of other states that experienced revolts during the Arab Spring. Unlike the dictators who fell in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, Assad’s father and his family literally built the Syrian state. Prior to the outbreak of protests, the Assad family controlled virtually the entire Syrian economy; appointed security and intelligence chiefs who were either Alawites, the minority sect to which the Assad family belongs, or personally loyal to Bashar; and constructed a vast regime of torture that responded quickly and brutally to the slightest demands for change. When those demands were inevitably voiced — first for reform, later for democracy — Assad’s soldiers and sectarian bandits fired on the protestors.
Nothing has been able to stop the regime’s violence. The death count rose into the hundreds of thousands, despite worldwide condemnation of the Assad regime’s tactics. Obama declared a “red line” forbidding Assad from using chemical weapons; the Syrian leader crossed it and used sarin gas against children. Millions of Syrians were turned into refugees; Assad used barrel bombs to level more villages. Now, with peace talks scheduled to begin, the Syrian regime continues to lay siege to the town of Madaya, reducing the people there to living off grass and rehydration salts. In the town of Moadamiyeh, one of the targets of the regime’s 2013 chemical weapons attack, Assad’s negotiators told the residents in no uncertain terms: “Surrender, or you will be annihilated.”
The term “rational” is routinely misapplied to the Syrian president. A “rational” leader, however, would have agreed to a transition framework long ago. Instead, Assad has gone to irrationally violent lengths to maintain power, killing at least 180,000 civilians, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, and committing war crime after war crime while the world pretends it can talk him into enlightenment. Remaining silent on his fate amounts to an endorsement of a fascist dictator who has annihilated his own country.
The threat posed by the Islamic State, not the fate of Assad, is currently the priority of Western diplomats. But the Islamic State is not the root cause of the Syrian malaise; it is a symptom of Assad’s rule. The Syrian president released fanatical Islamists from prison and thus gave his mendacious claim about the protestors being terrorists a veneer of truth. He wanted the Islamic State to dominate the opposition so the West would come to his aid. As Bassam Barabandi, a defector from the Syrian Foreign Ministry, said: “The [regime’s] fear of a continued, peaceful revolution is why these Islamists were released.”
The Syrian security services are no strangers to the double game of strategically supporting terrorists. During the Iraq War, Assad let jihadis cross from Syria into Iraq to kill American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a former Iraqi national security advisor, recently said that prior to the Syrian uprising, he presented Assad with “material evidence, documents, satellite pictures, [and] confessions” proving that the Syrian security agencies were directly supporting the jihadi insurgency in Iraq. That insurgency, of course, was led by none other than al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of the Islamic State.
For all the hope about the Syrian war ending, the reality is that this war will never end as long as Assad remains at the helm of the state. The one thing the entire Syrian opposition agrees on is that Assad has to leave. The U.S. training program of Syrian rebels was such a disaster precisely because all of the vetted fighters had to pledge to fight only the Islamic State and not the regime. What unites Syrians is a desire to move beyond the carnage and chaos that has engulfed their country for almost five years. A political solution that involves Assad is thus not merely appeasement. It is suicide.
The Syrian opposition believes that the United States has softened its position in order to get any kind of political deal it can, regardless of the terms. The opposition knows, as Washington does not, that if Assad stays on, he will either hijack the transition — during consultations in Geneva, the Syrian delegation would not even use the “t-word” — or will nominally step aside and let his security agencies feign reform until he can take over again.
Rather than concede to Russian and Iranian demands and let Assad cling to power, the United States and its allies should enforce their own policy in Syria, which has been one of regime change. The term “regime change” understandably raises anxieties after the Iraq fiasco, but it shouldn’t. In Iraq, diplomacy could have avoided a war; in Syria, it took a war to get the world to try diplomacy. In Iraq, there was no organic uprising for democracy; in Syria, ordinary townsfolk and regime defectors alike protested Assad’s brutality while demanding their inherent right to be treated as citizens, not chattel. In a world of imperfect options and bloody realities, the alternative to regime change is a continuation of the status quo and the eventual dismemberment of Syria.
The terms of diplomacy are currently set by Russia and Iran, both weaker powers which have made Assad’s continued rule a non-negotiable position. Putin is certainly amenable to a transition — he reportedly asked Assad to step down at the end of 2015 and the one-time ophthalmologist rebuffed him. Both Russia and Iran must be informed that Assad staying on during a transition is out of the question because, in addition to letting a war criminal remain in office, it prolongs the war and therefore extends IS’s terror and appeal.
There’s a better option that the United States should pursue — to preserve the shell of the regime while extracting its rotten core. Within the second tier of the regime, outside of Assad and his family, are Alawite officers who have been as disgusted by their government’s massacre of civilians as anyone else. U.S. intelligence agencies are reported to have already reached out to these discontented officers. Whether they depose Assad from within or are assisted from the outside, a Syrian government consisting of Alawites, Sunnis, and possibly even Kurds could steer an actual transition in a democratic direction and partner with the United States in degrading and destroying the Islamic State.
Anything short of regime change will only empower the jihadis and leave millions of Syrians left in the country at the mercy of Assad’s barrel bombs. The despot of Damascus thinks Syria belongs to him and his family — the same notorious clan that turned the country into a problem from hell in the first place. Their strategy was apparent when pro-regime graffiti began appearing all over Damascus. “Assad, or we burn the country,” it read. A deal that turns this slogan into a reality will have buried Syria long before incinerating it.
DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images