Is Assad’s Departure a “Legitimate Concern?”

CIA Director John Brennan told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Friday, March 13 that the near-term collapse of Syria’s Assad regime raises “a legitimate concern” about the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and other jihadist extremists capitalizing on it. “The last thing we would want to do,” said Brennan, “is to allow them to march into Damascus.” When combined with Secretary of State John Kerry’s regrettably misleading words to CBS on Sunday about negotiating with the Assad regime, Brennan’s statement can only encourage and embolden a regime whose daily atrocities provide ISIS a recruiting tool of incalculable value.

For more than three years, the Obama administration has been qualifying and quibbling with respect to the president’s August 18, 2011 call on Bashar al-Assad to step aside. In the summer of 2011, the White House thought Assad would be gone any minute. It raced to put President Barack Obama on the right side of history by calling on Assad to jump before being pushed.

Once it became clear that Assad would be going nowhere quickly in the absence of an American push—a shove not to be forthcoming—the vaunted strategic messaging of the administration began to change. It seems that there were, after all, downsides to too hasty a departure. The prevailing alibi for all of 2013 and half of 2014 employed an Iraq analogy: if the regime collapses, government employees and soldiers will be out on the street without incomes or prospects, thereby creating the conditions for a massive insurgency. Since June 2014, when ISIS consolidated its hold over large parts of Syria and Iraq, a new story has come into vogue: were Bashar al-Assad to disappear prematurely, the caliph’s janissaries might march straight into Damascus.

One can almost channel administration rationalizing. A massive, Iraq-like insurgency? ISIS barbarians looting and pillaging Damascus? Who would wish either of these things on the long-suffering people of Syria? Yes, Assad has lost all legitimacy. Yes, he is a mass murderer and war criminal. Yes, he should really go away. But who or what would take his place? Yes, President Obama meant what he said in August 2011. But what he really meant to say was that Assad should depart only after graciously handing the presidential palace keys to a successor identified through extended, good faith negotiations. War, after all, is not the answer to Syria’s travails, which is to say that Iran and Russia are free to pursue a military solution without fearing interference from us. Perhaps, after securing their client militarily in Damascus, they will do us the favor of obliging Assad to negotiate his own departure in good faith anyway. Besides, the opposition, which we have kept at arm’s-length since recognizing it in late 2012 for the sake of a conference headline, is useless.

All of this rationalizing seeks to justify the absence of a link between words and action. It persuades and reassures only those already at ease with a humanitarian abomination in Syria and with Iran on the march in the region. It alienates allies waiting in vain for US leadership. It convinces millions of Syrians that there is a secret handshake between a Nobel Peace Prize winner and a mass murderer. It propagates the message—all for the sake of upholding policy nothingness—that Bashar al-Assad, of all people, is providing Syria with a stabilizing service. Is it any wonder that Assad himself, after hearing the latest utterances of John Brennan and John Kerry, says, “We are still hearing the declarations and we should wait for actions and then decide”? Assad, who has dined out on empty declarations by the West, sagely demands action before accepting the verbal blessings of US officials.

It is, in fact, highly unlikely that the Obama administration sees any value at all in the Assad regime—meaning a rapacious clan and its inner circle of official and gangland enablers—continuing to breathe oxygen. It is hard to imagine the administration trying to restrain Bashar were he to board a plane for Belarus or Venezuela. It is unlikely that the administration would mourn his loss were the maestro of Syria’s destruction to meet a sudden and violent end. Even if the operational emphasis—such as it is—focuses now on defeating ISIS, no US official could pose any real objection to the disappearance of a regime whose behavior made ISIS in Syria possible and whose daily atrocities recruit foreign fighters to the loathsome, ersatz caliph. The administration knows Assad and his toxicity only too well.

The Brennan thesis is the latest version of an excuse for inaction. It would hold water were Assad and ISIS fighting one another instead of acting in tandem to erase Syrian nationalists fighting them both. It would be analytically sound if the regime—the family and its tight circle of enablers and enforcers—represented the totality of governance (actual and potential) in western Syria. It would be morally defensible in the absence of nonstop regime war crimes and crimes against humanity committed with the support of Iran and Russia.

The Assad regime has criminalized the entirety of Syria, including those parts of the country secured for it by foreign fighters imported by Iran. Were it to go down hard and fast it would not be opening an express lane for ISIS to enter Damascus. Yes: there could be confusion and even panic in some quarters. But to claim that those Syrians whose lives and fortunes have been bound, in the absence of a credible alternative, to the political survival of a single family would simply disappear upon the departure of the regime is to misunderstand Syria and Syrians.

Unlike in Iraq, there is little popular support for ISIS in Syria. Syrians will fight and eventually eliminate the bogus caliphate. They will be much better able to do so when the Assad family and its ruling clique have abandoned politics and left Syria. If the Obama administration has no appetite for doing the kinds of things that would hasten that day, fine. It should, at the very least, refrain from volunteering the kinds of statements that sustain a regime whose survival tactics have literally put ISIS on the Syrian map.

Frederic C. Hof is a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: CIA Director John O. Brennan joins CBS News' Charlie Rose to discuss the agency's global mission and approach to emerging and persistent threats. (Photo: Screenshot of event at CFR)