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Assad and the Struggle For a Political Solution in Syria

Credit: james_gordon_losangeles/CC by 2.0

Credit: james_gordon_losangeles/CC by 2.0

The Syrian conflict will end, and it will end in a political solution, but President Bashar al-Assad can’t and won’t be a part of it – not if it has any hope of succeeding. Succeed it must, because the stakes in Syria have never been higher. Since 2011, the conflict has claimed more than 200,000 lives and displaced millions more. The massive exodus of civilians fleeing the country has instigated a refugee crisis of unprecedented proportions.

Syria, as a state, is dissolving before the eyes of world. The allure of waging jihad is attracting foreign fighters from across the globe, transforming Syria into the epicenter of regional instability. But the battle for Syrian hearts and minds is evolving into more than just another civil war; it’s become the frontline in a struggle for dominance between regional powers and the opening salvo of a Middle East “cold war.” Bringing an immediate and lasting end to the Syrian conflict is critical to not only the future of Syria, but also the stability of the entire region.

Assad is a survivor but his stranglehold on power is not the product of his brilliant political maneuvering or military guile. Over the last four years, fundamental disagreements and conflicting strategic interests among major international powers have prevented any meaningful advancement in achieving a political solution. The Assad regime is operating with complete impunity in Syria. His brutal war against not only an amalgam of armed opposition groups, but also a defenseless civilian population has exacerbated sectarian tensions and fueled extremist ideology. Assad, despite the targeting of civilians with barrel bombs and chemical weapons, has become the “least worst option” in Syria.

In the early days of the Syrian uprising, U.S. President Barack Obama took a hardline against Assad and was vocal in his desire to see him step down from power. “The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way,” President Obama said. “His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing and slaughtering his own people. We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

As reports surfaced that chemical weapons were being used against the Syrian opposition, President Obama’s words became even more grandiose, as he made it clear that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that could lead to U.S. military action against the Assad regime. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.  That would change my calculus. That would change my equation,” President Obama said.

Following a negotiated agreement with Russia, Assad wisely chose to comply with calls for the destruction of his chemical weapon stockpiles. The actions taken by Assad seemed to placate the U.S.. Statements coming out of the White House became less boisterous. President Obama began backing away from its ultimatums, his language softened, and it became obvious that he no longer had any interest in seeking a confrontation with the Assad regime.

When the U.S. finally decided to act in Syria, it wasn’t in response to Assad’s indiscriminate murder of civilians or his use of chemical weapons. It was a reaction to ISIS storming across the Iraqi border, seizing territory and announcing the establishment of an Islamic State. Now the Obama administration is struggling to reconcile its initial desire to see Assad step down, with the emergence of well-armed jihadists groups that have seized territory throughout the region.

Fearing that Syria could become a terrorist safe haven, the U.S. shifted its priorities away from regime change and toward a counterterrorism strategy focused on combating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This policy shift alleviated pressure on Assad and gave him some welcomed breathing room in his fight against ISIS and other Islamist militants. The U.S. foray into the Syrian conflict also helped free up vital regime assets and allowed Assad to focus his attention on securing regime positions in and around Damascus.

By not pressing Assad on his political future, the U.S. has ensured greater flexibility to operate inside Syria; and while publicly the Obama administration will continue to down play questions about coordinating with Assad, there exists an implicit understand that as long as the U.S. doesn’t interfere with regime operations, the U.S. has carte blanche to target ISIS and other extremist groups. This deal with the devil, however, has resulted in a whole host of unintended consequences.

The Assad regime has benefited from the ambitious revisionist goals of a resurgent Iran and a belligerent Russian president simmering with contempt for the idealistic promotion of democratic reforms by western nations – the U.S. chief among them. And while the intervention of these provocateurs, each with vital strategic interests in helping Assad, should come as no surprise to anyone; it’s been the erratic and indecisive policy positions being espoused by the Obama administration that have been the most surprising and tragic. The inability of the Obama administration to implement a consistent strategy for dealing with Assad has further complicated the political dynamic on the ground.

The Obama administration believes that achieving a political solution requires the cooperation and participation of Assad. Unfortunately, this narrative being propagated by top U.S. officials is not only wrong, but also incredibly dangerous. The reality of U.S. action in Syria differs greatly from the comments and statements being made by the Obama administration. And while calls for a political transition of power remains U.S. policy on paper, very little is being done to support it. If anything, U.S. policy is actively working against it.

The U.S. has chosen to consign the fate of Syria to Iran and its hired thugs, Hezbollah. Iran has been the single largest contributor to bolstering Assad’s political position. The deployment of Hezbollah militants and Quds Force assets helped rescue Assad from the brink of collapse. These units provided vital assistance to recapturing strategic territory and have been invaluable in helping to bolster the ranks of regime forces. With Hezbollah keeping rebel forces at bay, Assad has established a comfortable power center in western Syria. And as long as Assad controls Damascus, the situation in far flung desert provinces are of little concern to him.

Russian obstructionism in the U.N. slowed attempts to provide an adequate response to the conflict. Utilizing its veto power in the Security Council, Russia was able to blunt western efforts to marshal support for increasing pressure on the Assad regime. And while Russia proved helpful in motivating Assad to begin the destruction of his chemical weapons stockpile; Moscow now occupies a position of influence in Syria – leverage that Putin will assuredly use to his advantage.

Syrian opposition groups and regional U.S. allies won’t accept a strategy that allows Assad to remain in power. It’s widely believed that Turkey, Qatar and other Arab Gulf States have been providing various levels of support to the myriad of Islamist militant groups that have been expanding their strategic position in Syria. The capture of Idlib, a provincial capital 20 miles from the Turkish border, by al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and allies is yet another troublesome development that promises to further complicate efforts to end the conflict.

Popular opinion across the region is overwhelmingly against any political solution that allows Assad to remain in control of Syria. In November 2014, Zogby Research Services completed a poll gauging prevailing attitudes and opinions of eight Middle East countries on a variety of challenges confronting the region. When asked about the Syrian conflict, a plurality in four of the seven countries said that Assad remaining in power would be the worst outcome for Syria. Respondents from only one country, Saudi Arabia, expressed any confidence that a political solution was possible.

One of the cornerstones of U.S. strategy in Syria is an ambitious plan for building, training, and arming a western backed resistance force that is capable of combating ISIS, Nusra Front, and their various allies. However, the efficacy of this vision are quite bleak. The possibility of producing a fighting force capable of making a significant impact on the battlefield is unlikely at this point in the conflict. The remaining elements of the western backed opposition groups are fading. As the conflict has escalated they have marginalized and pushed to the periphery of the conflict. The stigma of being associated with the U.S. has made it difficult for them to attract recruits to fight alongside them. Their inability to make meaningful strides in converting adherents to their vision for Syria has made it difficult for them to gain foothold outside of all but a few scattered territories. The disbanding of Harakat Hazm, one of the first rebel groups to receive U.S. military support, is evidence that the so called “moderate” rebel factions are growing weaker the longer the conflict drags on.

The robust political and military support from Russia and Iran has allowed Assad to not only remain in power, but also strengthen his strategic position in the process. Whatever pressure Assad may have felt at the begun of the conflict has greatly diminished. And while regime forces still face numerous challenges from Islamist rebels, Assad is well positioned to dictate the terms and conditions of any political solution.

The Obama administration has abdicated military and political leadership in Syria to Iran and Russia, and in doing so, he’s willfully chosen to sacrifice long-term U.S. strategic interests for short-term national security objectives. The emergence of ISIS in Syria has altered the Obama administration political calculations. By ignoring the threat Assad represents, the Obama administration is choosing to allow an authoritative regime to operate with impunity because it fears the collapse of central authority.

President Obama has no stomach for nation building in Syria and he’s clearly demonstrated an unwillingness to dive headlong into another protracted Middle East quagmire – and who can blame him. He was elected on a platform promising a change from the adventurous militarism of the George W. Bush presidency. President Obama is still trying to extricate the U.S. from Iraq and Afghanistan; for him to reverse course now, would be political seppuku. President Obama has been steadfast in his desire to avoid allowing the U.S. to become mired in complicated foreign entanglements – it’s much easier to “lead from behind”, where it’s unlikely he will stumble into another failed national building experiment.

Western intervention in Libya highlights the dangers of removing dictators from power, especially when you have, at best, a haphazard strategy for filling the power vacuum left in their wake. Past experience has shown that individuals and groups that move to fill that void are far from altruistic in their motives and interests.

So, in a way, President Obama’s strategy is prudent, in so much as it aligns perfectly with his policy of minimal military commitment. But the decision to pursue this policy track has had devastating consequences. U.S. credibility in the region has been significantly diminished, while, at the same time, regional and international adversaries continue to grow in strength and influence.

There are no incentives for Assad to come to the negotiating table, and he has nothing to gain from acquiescing to the demands from opposition forces that he relinquishes power as a prerequisite for negotiating a political solution. Assad will remain intransigent until such time as he is forced to alter course, and this will only occur if he feels the situation on the ground threatens his own well being or if he is forced to step aside. Whether that occurs with a friendly nudge from an ally or at the tip of a sword remains to be seen.



Joseph Karam
Joseph Karam

Joseph Karam is a foreign policy and national security observer with a focus on the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Joseph graduated from Lycoming College with a Bachelor's degree in Psychology and Norwich University with a Master's Degree in Diplomacy Studies concentrating on International Terrorism. You can find Joseph on Twitter @Joseph_Karam

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