After saying, “Assad must go,” the administration did a minimum to achieve this goal.
After U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s statements last week signaling a change in U.S. policy on Syrian President Bashar Assad, most of the followers of the U.S.’s Syria policy have been trying to understand whether there has been a real change in the policy of the Barack Obama administration and, if so, should it be taken seriously, after all the rhetorical maneuvers of the administration over the last three-and-a-half-years. After saying, “Assad must go,” the administration did a minimum to achieve this goal. But at least there was some form of rhetorical commitment, which still has relevance because of the status of the U.S. in global politics.
While everyone was expecting some sort of satisfactory response from the administration, some anonymous administrative officials started to leak information about possible changes. A few days ago in an article, Leslie Gelb said that there was a real debate within the administration about this option and “…the main official flirting with the idea of a working arrangement with Assad is President Obama himself.” Referring to some anonymous officials, Gelb provided several different explanations for President Obama’s reasoning in this debate. Accordingly, Obama “…realizes that the Islamic State [of Iraq and al-Sham, ISIS] cannot be checked, or in the end defeated, without strong ground troops.” And “as much as he despises Assad, he understands more than his colleagues do that the jihadis are a far greater threat to American national security and to our allies than Assad ever was or will be.” For Gelb, because of reasons such as these, Obama is approaching some sort of “de facto and informal battlefield cooperation with Assad’s forces.”
After Kerry’s statement, these leaks also require an explanation and clarification from Obama and his inner circle. If this is an attempt to test the reaction of U.S. allies and the Syrian opposition, it was tested before by Russia and did not get a very favorable response. If, on the other hand, this is the new line of the Obama administration on the conflict in Syria, it will be the continuation of a series of mistakes, just in this case, on a monstrous scale.
First of all, if Obama is planning to cooperate with Assad in order to “revise” his strategy to defeat ISIS, it will demonstrate that after five months, he has also begun to recognize that his strategy against ISIS is not working, something that has been said by numerous security analysts. In a recent hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee, both former national security advisors, Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, accepted that the current strategy is likely to fail. In the same hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham said that he had just returned from a Middle East tour and nobody in the region believed that the strategy against ISIS was working. So after opposing those that expressed the view that the tactical and operational actions against ISIS will not work without a clear strategic objective, including Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Obama has finally recognized the failure of the current strategy.
However, in order to fix the current strategy, if the media reports are accurate, he is trying something that may have far reaching negative consequences not only for the situation on the ground, but also for U.S. relations with different actors in the region. Unlike previous problems that generated huge concerns about confidence in U.S. judgment in regard to the developments in Syria, to cooperate with Assad in order to defeat ISIS will be a failure that will not only totally alienate the Syrian opposition, which was expected to play a role in destroying ISIS on the ground, but also the U.S allies in the region. In the meantime, the breach of international norms such as the use of chemical weapons and committing war crimes and crimes against humanity as well as killing hundreds of thousands of civilians with conventional weapons will be actions that one can get away with impunity. After embracing Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, cooperating with Assad will bring out old Cold War memories about the U.S. policy of supporting dictators in different parts of the world and military juntas that committed violent human rights abuses in order to fight communism.
Of course, Assad is also watching what is being discussed in the U.S. and in some other Western countries recently. Since the horrible Charlie Hebdo attacks he has launched his own charm offensive by giving multiple interviews in a very short period of time. In these interviews he is trying to present himself as a potential savior of the Western world from the threat of terrorism without acknowledging any responsibility for the creation of the situation in the first place. His assertions about the situation in Syria and his role in the conflict sound ridiculous. It is the same denial and disillusion we see in caricaturized dictators. However, with all his opportunism, he seems to have discovered a window of opportunity in the midst of all this ambiguity in the West. He has never hesitated to use force or to kill civilians and, now on top of this, he seems to be more relaxed than ever.
This article was originally published in the Daily Sabah on January 31, 2015.