The West and Assad: A sad tale of failure

Syrian dictator is almost certain to outlast American president and British prime minister.


2016/07/03 Issue: 63 Page: 16


The Arab Weekly
Bernd Debusmann



Five summers after Barack Obama and David Cameron first demanded that “Assad must go,” the Syrian dictator is almost certain to outlast the American president and the British prime minister. Obama’s term ends next January; Cameron says he will step down in October after his failed campaign to keep Britain in the European Union.

Propped up by Russia and Iran, Syrian President Bashar Assad recently vowed to take back “every inch” of his war-ravaged country and does not look like a man on the way out.

Will the successors of Obama and Cameron, the most vocal “Assad must go” voices five years ago, be better in dealing with Assad and the Syrian tragedy he unleashed? There is reason for doubt, chiefly because no one in Washington, London, Berlin or Paris has a convincing answer to the key question in this complex, multisided conflict.

If Assad were to go, what next?

The most effective anti-Assad forces on the Syrian killing fields remain the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Nusra Front and assorted smaller Islamist groups, not the “moderate opposition” the United States had hoped to turn into a force that could fill a post-Assad vacuum.

In June, an unusual memoran­dum signed by 51 US State Depart­ment officials dealing with Syrian affairs provided insight into an internal policy debate that appears to be driven as much by wishful thinking as the “Assad must go” demand of 2011, when a senior official, Frederic Hof, described the Syrian leader as a “dead man walking.”

Leaked to the New York Times, the memorandum harshly criticised the Obama administra­tion’s policy on Syria, described Assad’s “systematic violations against the Syrian people” as “the root cause that continues to grip Syria and the broader region” and called for air strikes against the Syrian regime to force it to comply with the terms of a ceasefire agree­ment reached in February. Such strikes, the officials argued, would compel the Assad government to negotiate a political solution “in good faith”.

That has been absent for the past five years during which more than 400,000 people have been killed and 12 million driven from their homes. The flood of refugees triggered by the Syrian war stoked anti-immigrant fears in Europe and the United States and contrib­uted to the outcome of Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union.

A controversial poster showing a huge queue of Middle Eastern refugees over the words “Breaking Point — the EU has failed us all” may have helped tip the balance in the victory for the campaign to leave the European Union. The poster was issued by the anti-immigrant UK Independence Party and was meant to imply — falsely — that staying in the union would mean allowing thousands of refugees into Britain, as Germany did last year.

Among the side effects of Brexit: EU leaders will be too preoccupied with negotiations on the depar­ture of a key member to pay much attention to the bloodletting in Syria. Not that they have been particularly inventive in dealing with the war and the refugee crisis — by and large, they focused on efforts to keep refugees out rather than address the root of the problem.

The memorandum of the 51 does not address possible scenarios if the military strikes by “stand-off and air weapons” did lead to Assad’s departure. Do the possible successors of Obama, who has been reluctant to take on the Assad government militarily, have any clearer ideas on how to deal with Syria?

Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of State and presumed presidential nominee of the Demo­cratic Party, has advocated a no-fly zone in northern Syria that would provide a safe haven for Syrians fleeing violence and cut supply lines for ISIS. She has said the priority should be knocking out ISIS before tackling Assad.

The no-fly zone idea has been debated since 2011 and the Obama team rebuffed it, arguing that it would require a major military effort, from knocking out Syrian air defences to flying air patrols. Clinton has yet to explain how she would convince Russia, which has deployed combat aircraft in Syria, to participate in establishing such a zone.

Donald Trump, Clinton’s Republican rival, said in a recent interview that “the US has bigger problems than Assad” but he would “go after ISIS big-league”. Trump’s positions on foreign and domestic policy are subject to frequent change and there might be more detail once the rival candidates have been officially nominated and air their policies in formal debates.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for clear and workable strategies. Judging from the past five years, the most likely outcome comes in the final paragraph of the memo of the 51: “The… status quo in Syria will continue to present increas­ingly dire, if not disastrous, humanitarian, diplomatic and terrorism-related challenges.”


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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