In his Brisbane, Australia press conference at the end of the G20 summit, President Barack Obama sought, through a simple rhetorical expedient, to put an end to rumors that the United States would collaborate with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS and the Islamic State). He bluntly labeled Assad a murderer. He then pointed out that to work with Assad would be to “turn more Sunnis in Syria in the direction of supporting ISIL…” Will this be enough to end the conspiracy theorizing and encourage anti-regime Syrians to support the US-led anti-ISIL coalition in its battle against the self-anointed caliph in Syria? Unfortunately, it will not.
The president’s words were strong and categorical. They should, at a minimum, suffice to silence those in the US government who have inexplicably counseled collaboration with a mass murderer who brings little or nothing to the table in terms of objective military, non-terror capabilities. Bashar al-Assad’s regard for human life may be similar to that exhibited by the late Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. But Stalin had the Red Army to use against Hitler. Assad leans heavily on Iranian-provided foreign fighters and specializes in aerial and artillery assaults on civilians. US officials who could actually see their way clear to working with Assad at least now have the unambiguous policy guidance of their commander-in-chief.
Yet the president’s direct and unmistakable language may not be enough to satisfy Syrian doubters—people whose support the US-led coalition would like to enlist in the fight against ISIL. It is precisely because it is language—not action—that it may not suffice. The Assad regime is killing, terrorizing, torturing, and stampeding the very people whose backing President Obama desires. Will they, in the end, turn to ISIL for the protection the civilized world has not offered? The United States has the key vote on this proposition. To date it has abstained.
For Americans the president’s words will be dispositive. Indeed, this writer has, since the beginning of ISIL’s June 2014 eruption, dismissed categorically the possibility of the administration opting for US collaboration with a regime marinating in war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Yet consider the vantage point of Syrians inside Syria: those who fight the regime and those who support it. Here is what they see: coalition aircraft pounding ISIL personnel attacking a Syrian Kurdish city and hitting terrorists embedded with the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Here, by way of contrast, is what they do not see: coalition aircraft engaging regime or ISIL forces that are bombing and besieging neighborhoods containing armed anti-regime Syrian nationalists—the kinds of people the administration wants to attract to an anti-ISIL ground component.
Given this striking disparity, is it so outlandish for Syrian friends and foes alike of the Assad regime to conclude that the regime is benefitting from the US-led anti-ISIL aerial campaign? Beyond words, what can the White House cite as hard evidence to refute Assad’s assurances to his backers that the fix is in with Washington—that a division of labor is in effect? Beyond words—including especially empty words about support to the “moderate opposition”—what can Washington cite as hard evidence to victims of ongoing regime atrocities that it is doing something to save them from mass murder, starvation, and flight?
The Obama administration has been impervious to pleas for an armed humanitarian intervention that would neutralize the Assad regime’s instruments of mass murder and terror. There is evidently a Syrian exception attached to the words “never again.” With Aleppo now hanging by a thread, perhaps past presidential words about the efficacy of robust lethal assistance to nationalist rebels being a “fantasy” will be self-fulfilling. In their current straits, Syrians forced to fight both Assad and ISIL with the United States operationally indifferent to their plight see a $500 million train-and-equip program slated to begin vetting and recruiting in 2015 as the emptiest of gestures.
How to stop the slaughter? The principal author of barbarity in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, can stop the barrel bombing of residential areas with an order. He has the authority to lift starvation sieges and let the United Nations and others deliver humanitarian relief. He can begin to empty incarceration centers, where torture, starvation, and sexual abuse are ubiquitous: perhaps he could begin with women and children. Regime initiative in backing away from the shedding of blood was the essence of Kofi Annan’s 2012 six-point plan. No one has improved upon it. Assad accepted it once in word, though not deed. If he wants to keep his powder dry for ISIL, he can stop expending it on fellow Syrians.
Yet Assad is, according to President Obama, a murderer. The US president and his Turkish counterpart, President Erdogan, have enriched the lexicon of anti-Assad adjectives over the past three-plus years. The combination of US air power and Turkish ground power can protect a chunk of northern Syria from both ISIL and the regime. That combination can spur the creation of an all-Syrian stabilization force able ultimately to neutralize any combination of enemies. Washington and Ankara can give Syrian nationalists a chance to govern inside Syria rather than languishing in exile. They can protect innocent civilians. Critics of the Obama administration tend to blame the US president for keeping the protected zone idea on the back burner or off the stove entirely. Yet is Turkey truly willing to do more than hold Washington’s coat if the United States agrees to ground Assad’s air force?
The mass murder alluded to by President Obama in his Brisbane remarks has not met whatever criteria the administration may have for an armed humanitarian intervention. Yet continuing to treat this humanitarian abomination mainly with words for the perpetrator and bandages for the victim may well undermine the coalition’s battle against ISIL in Syria. President Obama has never lacked for strong language in the Syrian context. Neither, for that matter, has his Turkish counterpart. Syrians living and dying on regime and ISIL bull’s-eyes have long since stopped being impressed by words.
If the idea is to kill ISIL on the battlefield and keep it dead in Syria through legitimate, inclusive, and decent governance, the respective priorities of the Presidents of Turkey and the United States need to be harmonized and operationalized quickly, lest words spoken with utter sincerity by each inadvertently pave the road to policy failure for both.
Frederic C. Hof is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.