Syria: Talk to Assad?

Commenting recently to The New York Times, Ryan Crocker (the former United States ambassador to Syria and several other places) suggested, “We need to start talking to the Assad regime again… It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.” Whether or not one agrees with the advice offered by one of the true diplomatic all-stars produced by United States Foreign Service over the past half-century, the words themselves speak volumes about the success Bashar al-Assad’s regime has had in creating and marketing the narrative it needs to survive in at least part of Syria. The regime deserves full credit for boldness and bloody-minded determination: it set Syria ablaze, only to present itself as the fire brigade.

Ryan Crocker is no friend of the Assad regime. He is an unsentimental foreign policy realist. He seems to have come to the conclusion that the regime has prevailed over the United States and the West, and it is now time to sue for terms. Gone, if not entirely forgotten, is the talk about Assad stepping aside and red lines not to be crossed. Replacing it is a hoped-for Geneva conference at which an otherwise victorious regime is being asked to memorize a script mandating its exit. Then there is a chemical weapons agreement which, as US President Barack Obama mentioned to the recent Saban Forum, “does not solve the tragic situation inside of Syria.” That situation—hardly tragic in the classical sense of the word—features a regime fully engaged daily in war crimes and crimes against humanity: the regime with which we should start talking.

There are those who would disagree with Crocker’s observation that the alternative to the Assad regime is jihadist. The regime would agree entirely: this has been its argument ever since opening fire on peaceful demonstrators in March 2011. Yet Crocker would no doubt argue he is being utterly realistic: that the failure of the United States and the West to render meaningful assistance to Syrian nationalists has left the field open to those whose supporters have endowed them with resources sufficient to attract young Syrian males desperately in need of ammunition and a pay day.

One might differ with Ryan Crocker by arguing it is not too late to support those willing to fight on two fronts: against the regime and al-Qaeda. Yet given President Obama’s light-hearted Saban Forum performance and his evident belief that it is the arms control aspect of the Syrian crisis that most directly impacts on US goals and American security, what are the chances—realistically speaking—that this administration will change course? Just as Bashar al-Assad has uttered not a word of regret about what has happened to his country, Barack Obama has hinted at nothing gone wrong in terms of Syria policy. Two national leaders seem unfettered by doubt in the courses pursued. One is winning. The other seeks to define the game narrowly enough to avoid being saddled with a loss. The only undoubted losers are 23 million Syrians and all of their neighbors.

Ryan Crocker is a realist. He would probably agree that the Assad regime has created, by emptying prisons of extremists and through its ongoing contacts with al-Qaeda in Iraq, the very threat it now points to as justification for its continued existence. As a realist he would probably counsel those who decry the regime’s cynicism, hypocrisy, and the profound criminality, to get over it. Yes, the Assad regime—in its eagerness to erase anything that looked like sensible, secular opposition—turned major parts of Syria over to sectarian extremists whose passage to Iraq it once facilitated. But that was then, and this is now. Al-Qaeda and other extremists need to be neutralized, and the Assad regime may be useful in that regard. The regime, after all, has hoses; it may as well be the fire brigade.

Talking with the regime and its enablers is not, however, the issue. The United States has never severed diplomatic relations with the regime’s government, atop which Bashar al-Assad sits as president. Indeed, Washington has gone out of its way to discourage the Syrian National Coalition from establishing a free Syrian government inside Syria—this despite having recognized the Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in December 2012. Recognition puts the regime’s hands around the windpipe of UN humanitarian assistance. The real issue, as Ryan Crocker and other professionals would point out, is what to say.

As a practical matter of top priority the Obama administration wants the chemical weapons agreement implemented fully. President Obama was correct when he told the Saban Forum that “removing those chemical weapons will make us safer and will make Israel safer, and it will make the Syrian people safer, and it will make the region safer.” Getting it done is of transcendent political importance to the administration.

The Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian supporters understand this fully. They understand that if the regime throws everything it has at civilian population centers beyond its physical control the United States will avert its gaze, provided chemical weapons remain holstered and the chemical agreement continues to be implemented. In this way the regime can solidify and maximize its position going into Geneva, increasing the chances that any opposition delegation would be humiliated and discredited. Regime survival and expansion depend on accommodating the United States on the chemical front.

If, therefore, the United States were to open direct communication with the regime, the one thing it might usefully say that could save lives and perhaps even set the stage for a civil exchange at Geneva would be something like the following: “We want the massed fire terror attacks and starvation sieges on populated areas to cease forthwith. We want the United Nations to be granted absolutely unrestricted access for its humanitarian relief operations everywhere in Syria. We demand that these two steps be implemented right now. If they are not, we reserve the right, at a time of our choosing, to destroy those military systems that are engaged in mass murder and mass terror.” In this manner the kind of credible threat of military force that made the chemical weapons agreement possible could be restored.

The likelihood of such a message being passed is not much higher than zero. President Obama no doubt agrees with the bottom line of a recent editorial in The Los Angeles Times: “As [UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi] Pillay observed: ‘The lack of consensus on Syria and the resulting inaction has been disastrous, and civilians on all sides have paid the price.’ But in the absence of such a consensus, this country [the United States] can do only so much.” Similar arguments were advanced and often prevailed in episodes of mass murder in faraway places during the twentieth century. They are prevailing now. By all accounts President Obama is satisfied with his Syria policy.

It is this reality of self-satisfaction that no doubt instructs the views of those who, like Ryan Crocker, know the administration well. Crocker would, no doubt, like to see the senseless slaughter and mass destruction stopped. In terms of speaking with the regime, perhaps there are those who would offer normalization and cooperation against al-Qaeda in return for UN access and a humanitarian truce. Yet even here reality might intervene. Talking to the regime would entail domestic political consequences for the administration, none of them positive. There is nothing the Assad regime needs from the United States that Washington is able or willing to provide, except perhaps communication itself: the one thing Assad has assured his enablers from the beginning would be forthcoming once the West was defeated and recognized the error of its ways.

Until Washington has something to say to the Assad regime that it is willing to back up with action, there is, in effect, nothing to say. Secretary of State John Kerry has said, in effect, that Bashar al-Assad should read the June 2012 Geneva Final Communiqué and pack his bags. The derisive response of Assad’s information minister to the effect that Assad will run Syria just as long as he likes may not be the last word. However, it is the kind of response the United States had better get used to hearing if it opts, under current conditions featuring the regime doing as it pleases, to engage the Assad regime in dialogue.

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

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Image: Aleppo neighborhood in rubble after mass fires by Assad regime batteries. (Photo: Flickr)