The recent US missile attack on a Syrian regime air base may or may not have been a turning point in American foreign policy, but it surely put the thorny issue of President Bashar Assad’s future back on the diplomatic agenda. By hitting the air base in the wake of the chemical attack on Idlib, US President Donald Trump enforced the “red line” declared and abandoned by his predecessor Barack Obama.
Will Trump also try to enforce another loudly declared and quietly dropped Obama position, that Assad has no role in Syria’s future? Obama started his “Assad must step down” mantra in 2012, to the delight of State Department and Pentagon officials who believed that unless the dictator left, Syria would not calm down. By 2013, however, Obama had reformulated his mantra to read “Assad must step aside.”
Track-II secret talks were held about a formula under which Assad would remain head of state but hand over power to one of his vice presidents, who would lead a Cabinet of technocrats tasked to work on a new constitution, followed by elections. Yet by 2015, Obama had forgotten all that, accepting Assad’s presence well into an undetermined future.
The Syrian tragedy is, in great part, a result of Assad’s opportunistic and cowardly decision to adopt the position of the most radical elements of his Baathist regime. Between 2011 and 2015, dozens of Syrian officials, some with decades of service under Assad’s father, tried to develop formulae to help all parties in the civil war forge a compromise. Assad, maybe under duress, refused to budge, ensuring that the carnage continued.
Many of those officials either quietly faded into the background or fled into exile. Assad remained at the center of a coterie of sanguinary sectarians increasingly beholden to Iranian mullahs and, from 2014 onward, the “big bear” in the Kremlin. Today, in terms of actual power, Assad has become largely irrelevant. He is little more than a mask of pseudo-legality for Moscow and Tehran for their common, yet contradictory, designs for Syria.
Outside Russia and Iran, some, including the usual suspects in the perennial anti-West movement, use Assad as a theme to confuse public opinion regarding the Syrian tragedy. Some advocates of realpolitik, such as Julian Lewis, who chairs the defense committee in the British House of Commons, start with a prologue about how evil Assad is, but end up saying the world should nevertheless work with him.
In terms of actual power, he has become largely irrelevant. He is little more than a mask of pseudo-legality for Moscow and Tehran for their common, yet contradictory, designs for Syria.
Since the “work” Assad is doing largely consists of killing people, Lewis should also say how the British could help him do that. Lewis says during World War II, Britain forged an alliance with Stalin to fight Hitler, forgetting the Soviet despot’s blood-soaked record. But the MP forgets that Stalin had signed an alliance with Hitler, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and was dragged into the war only after Germany invaded the USSR.
When that happened, it was Stalin who begged the British, and later the Americans, to help him stop the Nazi juggernaut. He controlled vast expanses of land and millions of young men to be used as cannon fodder. Assad has neither. He barely controls about 15 percent of Syrian territory, and has publicly admitted he lacks the manpower to extend his rule.
Without the estimated 60,000 Lebanese, Afghan, Pakistani and other mercenaries mobilized by Tehran, Assad would not be able to defend even his lair in Damascus. And without Russia’s air force enlisted to carpet-bomb Aleppo and other Syrian cities, Lewis’ putative Syrian ally would have never been able to hoist his flag there. More importantly perhaps, Assad is fighting the majority of the Syrian people, who could hardly be called “Nazis.”
What interest does Britain or any other democracy have in letting the carnage continue in Syria? In realpolitik terms, Assad is a diminished figure; each day that passes sees him shrink further into insignificance.
Another argument used in defense of the “we must work with Assad” formula is advanced by Francois Fillon, the beleaguered right-wing candidate in the French presidential election. He says the West should “work with Assad” because he represents Syria’s legal government.
But how did Assad gain legality? There has never been a genuine election in Syria, and Assad was simply declared president to succeed his father, in violation of the constitution. But even if Assad’s legality were not doubtful, such legality should not give carte blanche for the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity. After all, Hitler’s government was legal because he had once won a general election.
Russian President Vladimir Putin advances another argument: Assad is fighting “terrorists” and deserves to be supported. But it is now clear that Assad’s forces, and their Russian and Iranian backers, have taken no meaningful action against Daesh, the arch-terrorist group still in control of large chunks of Syrian territory. It is far-fetched to suggest that 80 percent of Syrians who oppose Assad are all terrorists.
The millions of refugees and displaced persons — most of them women, children and the elderly — are ordinary human beings who want a bit of freedom and security to live their lives. Assad and Daesh, and other smaller terrorist groups, have deprived them of that. Assad no longer has a place in Syria. Even if he were handed all of Syria on a platter, he does not have enough supporters to establish control and recreate a minimum of government.
As a state, Syria has already died. A new Syrian state must be created. Neither Assad, Daesh nor the two-dozen or so armed groups fighting him can assume that task on their own. But Assad’s departure could open a space for all Syrians, including the minority that backed him, to come together to tackle that awesome task. In both moral and realpolitik terms, “Assad must go” is a reasonable formula for ending the Syrian tragedy.
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He worked at or wrote for innumerable publications, and published 11 books.
— Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.