Leaving the door open for Bashar al-Assad

Dr. John C. Hulsman

Published: Updated:

In the foreign policy world, every once in a while a single fact emerges—standing starkly on its own—that completely sums up why some initiative isn’t working, despite all the usual happy talk that so can so obscure reality. One such moment occurred just weeks ago, as General Lloyd Austin, Head of U.S. Central Command, was asked during a routine hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee a specific question he simply could not get out of. When queries were made by the Senators as to how many ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels were now in the field as a result of the new $500 million U.S. training program, the General gulped, shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and devastatingly answered, ‘four or five.’

This is the pathetic state of the White House’s strategy on Syria.

But worse news was still to come. At about the same time the general let slip the awful truth on Capitol Hill, more catastrophic news appeared on the horizon. It seems that the 75 fighters with Division 30, a supposedly moderate Syrian rebel formed by the U.S. to take on ISIS in Syria, had all surrendered to Jabhat al-Nusra, the local al-Qaeda affiliate, the moment they returned to the country.

The West wants to feel good about Syria, but it isn’t prepared to make the sacrifices of blood and treasure to do good.

Dr. John C. Hulsman

Not hesitating for a second, the division betrayed their American backers and happily handed their U.S.-supplied weapons over—along with a huge amount of ammunition--to the perpetrators of 9/11. This was America’s first attempt, using training camps in southern Turkey, to somehow manufacture moderate Syrian boots on the ground to take the fight to ISIS. When asked why he did it, Division 30’s commander, Anas Ibrahim Obaid, blandly said he needed the weapons.

How many more such incidents do we need to correctly read the tea leaves in Syria? The Obama administration’s half-hearted efforts to concoct an effective policy to deal with the hell that is Syria have utterly failed.

Fruitlessly looking for moderates

The bankruptcy of Western policy in Syria reminds me of the time during the early days of the Cold War when President Truman sent General Marshall off to China, during the height of the civil war there. Marshall was to meet with Mao and Chiang Kai-shek, determining which of them was the moderate, the knight in shining armour that America could wholeheartedly support. The bemused general came back rightly saying no such moderate beast existed, to the perplexity of the White House. Given the hell that is Syria, the desire to both stop the fighting and halt the endless stream of refugees understandably fleeing the Hades that surrounds them, we are once more fruitlessly looking for ‘moderates’ to champion. Evidently America has found four or five.

The Obama administration is cynically going through the motions, half-heartedly advocating a tepid policy it knows has absolutely no chance of success, in order to keep Republican hawks as well as muscular Democratic do-gooders off its back. If it were not under political pressure from both these groups there is little doubt the administration would do even less than they are now.

And frankly, that would lead to a better outcome. For at present American foreign policy regarding Syria is the worst of all worlds. America is doing just enough so that its failure there is tarnishing the country’s credibility. At the same time the White House is not doing nearly enough to remotely have a chance at success on the ground.

Either honestly doing less—saying Syria is not a significant national interest and the blood and treasure expended to put it right are simply not worth it in terms of American interests—or doing more would lead to better outcomes than doing a very little, knowing that tepid response is doomed to absolute failure. We are back in the old moral trap: The West wants to feel good about Syria, but it isn’t prepared to make the sacrifices of blood and treasure to do good.

What the administration is practicing in Syria is not true morality—having an idealistic goal and then being willing to pay the real world price to see that vision realised--but rather the phoney moralism so characteristic of much of American and European thought in these dreary days. Even David Cameron wants to get in on the act, salving his conscience by reportedly obtaining parliamentary approval for bombing someone or other in Syria, as though such a mindless stance on its own will make one jot of difference.

Glimmers on the horizon

But in all this justifiable gloom, there is one spark of light on the horizon. Faced beyond any doubt with the simple but compelling fact that Western policy has utterly failed in Syria, there has at last been some diplomatic movement over the past few days. Both Chancellor Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Cameron of Britain have made it clear that firstly, the priority in dealing with the carnage in Syria must be taking on ISIS. Secondly, that while they abhor him, President Assad of Syria can be part of a transition process that could emerge from peace talks. This second point is a major move away from the previously held Western view that Assad must be shunned from such talks, having no role to play in any transitional arrangement.

Crucially, Secretary of State John Kerry cautiously echoed this shift, saying Assad could possibly be part of a transitional process. This new Western line tracks very closely with President Putin of Russia’s desire to take the war to ISIS more aggressively while safeguarding Russian interests in eastern Syria, in the guise of bolstering the Assad regime there. Highly significantly, Russian, European, and American differences over Syria seem far more bridgeable than they ever have been.

The two Presidents speaking yesterday at the U.N. General Assembly did not quite destroy the optimism. Putin, scornful and bombastic in tone, did make it clear he was serious about fighting ISIS. While Obama rightly described his disgust in dealing with Assad--a man with more than a little blood on his hands and one that could not stay in power--he did seem to leave the door open to him (at least by not disowning such a suggestion) playing a role in a transition, as long as it ultimately leads to his removal.

It is just possible Putin could live with that, if a succession led to the safeguarding of the Russian naval base at Tartous. With the two Presidents taking privately together in New York late Monday night, there is just an outside chance that the palpable failure of the West’s old policy in Syria may lead to a new one that actually makes things better there.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has also given 1490 interviews, written over 410 articles, prepared over 1270 briefings, and delivered more than 460 speeches on foreign policy around the world.

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