What to do about Bashar al-Assad? It is still the Gordian knot, the conundrum that western and other leaders are not really prepared to answer. Should he stand aside, eased out, forced out, or be negotiated with?
If only he had made life easy for them by simply taking a golden handshake and retiring to a myriad of exotic destinations that were on offer. Assad remains in power. The U.S. won’t intervene militarily so the great regional fear remains that Washington will eventually talk to Damascus.
So when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a CBS interview on March 14 said that “We have to negotiate in the end,” this was widely seen as another U.S. U-turn, another sign of Obama frailty and betrayal.
But was it really new? After all at Geneva II last year, this had already happened. John Kerry was there with the Syria National Coalition and the Syrian regime all gathered together alongside half the world’s diplomats and a media circus in Montreux.
What Kerry didn’t say
Assad might as well have been in the room. He had all his senior foreign policy minions there to gush forth the spurious regime mythology led by the regime’s ever faithful stalwart, Foreign Minister Mouallem.
Much of the criticism and nervousness among Assad opponents was more about what Kerry did not say than what he said. He did not utter the magical mantra that Assad had to go, or that there was no future for Syria that included Assad.
Having repeated this so many hundreds of times, he is too experienced a statesman to just forget.
Some tough questions need to be answered and hard unpalatable realities need to be swallowed
So what was going on? Kerry has more than once trailed controversial ideas to withdraw them later as needed or have his spokesperson, as in this case, explain them away. In 2013, he floated the chemical weapons deal as an idea at a London press conference.
Last year he told many senior world leaders, without a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel risks becoming an “apartheid state.” He rapidly withdrew the comment but Netanyahu and his supporters got the message.
If this was a Kerry trial balloon, it is far from clear what he learned. Various states lined up to distance themselves, with France and Turkey in the lead. The Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, would not be rushing to the front of the queue to talk to Assad. “There’s no difference between shaking hands with Assad, or with Hitler, Saddam, Karadzic, Milosevic.”
One can understand - the record of the Syrian regime is atrocious, using chemical weapons, starvation as a tool of war, and the barrel bombing of Syrian cities.
But who was Kerry’s message for this time? Perhaps it was a ‘get real’ wake-up call to regional actors who will not engage in any political solution and a reminder, if they did not already know it, that the Assad regime had to be involved.
But if Syria does not really matter to this U.S. administration surely Kerry had a further target - Iran. Was not Kerry showing that the U.S. did not rule talks with Assad further down the line if the Iran nuclear deal progresses?
Willingness to negotiate
The Iran talks are what really matter to the White House not Syria. Was it an Iranian demand that Kerry indicated in public a willingness to negotiate? For certain, Syrian opposition leaders fear being betrayed in their eyes for the prize of an Iran deal and an Obama-Kerry legacy.
In some ways one wonders what all the fuss is about. The United States has shown that it actually has precious little influence on the ground either to keep Assad in power or to remove him.
Much of that is -self-authored as the Obama administration has given a credible image of not caring one jot about the future of Syria.
Right from the outset, four years ago now, in 2011, Obama in particular was never enthused about the Middle East especially Syria. He was in mid-pivot to Asia.
So even if the U.S. did talk to Assad, even though Kerry never said it, directly to the man personally, it would not end the conflict.
Moreover the regime is not one man. Assad is not even the most hardline or the most brutal. At some point, key parties have to agree how to get to a transition and just how much of the regime leadership survives.
Can there be regime collapse without state collapse? Can there be a transition from an autocratic regime to a democratic power-sharing arrangement?
Some tough questions need to be answered and hard unpalatable realities need to be swallowed. The U.S. is worried about ISIS not Assad. Many EU states feel the same.
Syria is not a grand strategic concern. Assad looks impregnable in Damascus. The western-backed Syrian opposition has been one of Assad’s greatest assets in its tragicomic opera of dysfunctional incompetence.
Russia and Iran have shown no fatigue despite the costly nature of backing the Syrian regime.
Ashes of a once great country
The Syrian people cannot be expected to endure eternal horrors. Surely their fate should not be left to some blood-soaked waiting game as the regime and regional powers test each other’s resolve and staying power in a fight for the ashes of a once great country with the vultures of ISIS circling to pick at the Syrian cadaver.
How long does the outside world have to sit watching this spectacle? Doing nothing should be not an option though it seems to be the option of choice.
John Kerry has highlighted the challenge. He, like so many others, asserts that there is no military solution, only a political one.
Is it time for many in the region and all those myriad parties in this lose-lose disaster to come to terms with that too? If so, how can this be achieved if the Syrian regime is not included?
Supporters of the regime have to agree to a power-sharing formula and an end of repression. There has to be a transition away from a president will full powers and unaccountable security services.
This conflict has to be brought to an end. Kerry has floated a suggestion. Let’s hear alternatives. Those who reject this have to produce an alternative that is not just never-ending war and suffering. Don’t 22 million Syrians deserve that and not another four more years of hell?
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.