Misjudging Assad at the Expense of Syrians
“It is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end.”
That is what US President Donald Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said at a meeting of foreign ministers in Rome in April. The assertion echoed a confident prediction in 2011 by former US President Barack Obama’s top Syria expert, Frederic Hof: “Our view is that this regime is the equivalent of a dead man walking. I do not see this regime surviving.”
The two statements, five years and four months apart, highlight the key role of wishful thinking and flawed assumptions in the United States’ policy on Syria and its iron-fisted leader, Bashar Assad. As it turned out, the “dead man walking” outlasted Obama in power and his continued reign is a testimony to the limits of US influence on the bloodletting in Syria.
In the period between the “dead man walking” and the family reign “coming to an end,” more than 450,000 Syrians were killed, half the population was driven from their homes and the war morphed from a local conflict to a geopolitical nightmare of overlapping proxy fights stoked by outside forces, including Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United States.
Ever since Assad assumed the presidency on the death of his father, Hafez Assad, in 2000, American politicians have underestimated the Syrian leader’s political skill, ability to keep powerful foreign backers on his side in the conflict and, last not least, his utter ruthlessness — a trait inherited from his father.
Under Obama, the official line on Syria was that there could be no solution to the war and the huge humanitarian crisis it caused as long as Assad held power. Obama repeatedly termed Assad a leader who had lost legitimacy and should step down, but as the conflict dragged on that gave way to tacit recognition, never spelled out openly, that his government would have to be involved in efforts to end the carnage.
In April, the Trump administration moved a step further. Senior aides, including Tillerson, said dealing with the Syrian crisis required accepting Assad as a “political reality.” It is a matter of debate whether those statements encouraged the Syrian strongman to launch a gas attack a few days later on a village in the north-western province of Idlib.
More than 70 people died, including at least 11 children. Horrific video of children gasping for breath in the throes of death prompted Trump to say that his attitude towards Syria and Assad had “changed very much.” Sixty-three hours after the gas attack, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson struck al-Shayrat airfield, from where the aircraft carrying sarin gas had allegedly taken off.
It was the first direct US attack on an Assad regime target, meant as punishment for the use of a chemical weapon prohibited under international law — not as a change of policy from waging aerial war on the Islamic State in Syria to making war on the Syrian government. As Trump’s chief spokesman, Sean Spicer, put it in response to a question about ending Assad’s reign: “We would look… rather silly in not acknowledging the political realities that exist in Syria.”
Those realities include the role of the main players in the geopolitical contest for influence now playing out. While Washington has had little success in finding a way to deal with what some officials call “the problem from hell,” Russia emerged as the leading power broker in Syria after it dispatched combat aircraft in September 2015 to turn the balance of military power in favour of the Assad government.
In May, representatives of Russia, Iran and Turkey met in Kazakhstan to agree on a Russian plan to create “de-escalation zones” intended to stop fighting between government forces and rebels in four specific areas.
The plan went into effect on May 6 and stipulates the beginning of a 6-month ceasefire and an end to Syrian government flights over the safe zones — Idlib province in the north, Homs province in the centre, East Ghouta outside Damascus and southern Syria along the border with Jordan.
The deal followed three rounds of talks in Kazakhstan since December and a telephone call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin early in May when he outlined the plan. Trump sent an observer to Astana but the United States was not involved in the discussions.
Unlike in five years of stuttering UN-brokered negotiations on Syria in Geneva, the question of Assad’s future — often a sticking point — did not come up in Kazakhstan.
Firmly backed by Russia, Iran and to a lesser extent China, Assad looks more secure now than he did as a dead man walking. An end to Assad family rule, now in its 46th year, is probably not nearly as near as Western policymakers wish it to be. Pity the people of Syria.
Bernd Debusmann is a writer on foreign affairs based in Washington. He has reported from more than 100 countries and was wounded twice while covering the civil war in Lebanon.
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