If it were not for the civilians bombed, starved and suffocated by Chemical Weapons, the latest twist in Washington’s predictions on Bashar Al-Assad staying in power beyond the Barack Obama Presidency in 2017, would make great material for a tragicomedy named “Politics à la Mode”. The twist as reported by AP yesterday, is unlikely a surprise for Syria watchers and sums up new realities in Washington and Damascus which transformed Assad from a “dead man walking” to a man filling the void until further notice.
An experienced Washington hand in the Middle East recently told me half jokingly that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad “is more likely to leave office choking on a peach” than being toppled by the rebels or through a political settlement. Thanks to global dithering on Syria and brutal war tactics, this statement holds true today.
There was never a plan
Washington’s new revelation coming 1603 days after Obama called on Assad to step down, is a loud acknowledgement of the administration’s failure in Syria.
It was Assad’s most ruthless actions in the conflict by using Chemical Weapons in 2013 in a Damascus suburb, that helped his regime regain international legitimacy.Joyce Karam
As Hisham Melhem recounted previously, when Obama asked Assad to step down on 18 August 2011, there was neither Plan A on how to execute such policy, nor a Plan B how to backtrack in an event that it fails. Obama’s call on Assad to step down heeded the whimsical and naïve approach of his junior aides in the White House, who predicted that the strongman of Damascus will meet the fate of his Tunisian, Yemeni and Egyptian counterparts. Four years later, it is Syria who is closer to collapse not Assad, and it is the U.S.’ credibility that has been dealt a blow while the killing machine exponentially grew in Syria.
Why Assad is still in power
When the Syrian conflict started, those who had visited Assad in Damascus came back reminding of the same equation that has kept the family in power for the last four decades: ignore outside pressure, execute with brutality and plan longterm. The Assads have outlived seven U.S. Presidents, and it is in that lens that they view the power balance and their survival.
On the ground, Assad has been looking more inward from day one of the conflict, shielding the core circle of the regime, maintaining his hold on the largest cities, and relying on the loyalty of his minority the Allawites and that of his closest outsideallies Iran and Russia. While his power has certainly been weakened as thousands of armed groups sprouted across Syria, and his army relinquished large areas in the North and the South, Assad has withered the “must go” and regime change mantra of 2011.
Ironically as well, it was Assad’s most ruthless actions in the conflict by using Chemical Weapons in 2013 in a Damascus suburb, that helped his regime regain international legitimacy. Then, Obama backed down on implementing his red line and punishing the regime, and sought instead Russia’s help in striking a deal with the same leader he considered illegitimate. It was that agreement to get rid of the Chemical Weapons stockpile that brought Assad from the cold, and extended his power lease until it's implemented.
What worked in Assad’s favor as well was his self fulfilling prophecy about some of his radical opponents. By freeing extremists from jails, and flattening houses on babies and children, Assad created the perfect environment for the Islamic State (ISIS), whose new capital is in Syria. This has also reshuffled Washington’s priorities, that now start with fighting ISIS and avoid weakening Assad. The fragmented and divided opposition also played into Assad’s hands, capitalizing on its failure to reach minorities earlier in the conflict, and getting hijacked by radicals in key territories later on.
The Vienna can
The latest U.S. calculus on Assad projects a new departure date for March, 2017, if all goes according to the plan in Vienna. While this may look appealing on paper, it is closer to a fantasy when juxtaposed with the ground reality in Syria and the regional schism.
As of now, U.N. envoy Stephan De Mistura is struggling to get the opposition on the table, or have a list of the attendees. His current visit to Riyadh and later to Tehran is clouded with the worst crisis between the two since 1988, and his vision for a ceasefire has not stood a chance even in one corner in Aleppo. The streets of Syria are being ruled by thousands of battalions who see little to no relevance for the Vienna process. Meanwhile, Russia and Assad are wasting no time, and diligently eliminating rebel leaders, as Iran carves its own militia space in the country.
Washington's new date for Assad departure proves how amenable the Syria policy is, and that Assad leaving in August 2011 or March 2017 is not a strategic occurrence. It is, however, a helpful tool to kick the Syria can down the road and masquerade a political process.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam
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