Banking on the Generosity of Others

In an April 7 interview with Hassan Moawad of Al Arabiya, Secretary of State John Kerry’s imprecision on the political future of Bashar al-Assad and the nature of Syrian political transition illustrated with fine granularity some critical shortfalls in the administration’s approach to Syria. By downgrading the importance of recent Russian-Assad regime military gains and by inaccurately describing political transition, Mr. Kerry made painfully clear that which has hardly been a secret: that the political sidelining of the Islamic State’s (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) most important asset in Syria—Bashar al-Assad—depends entirely on goodwill and enlightened statesmanship from the likes of Assad, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Iran’s Supreme Leader.

In response to Mr. Moawad’s comment that Assad’s negotiating position in Syria has probably been strengthened by military gains, Secretary Kerry responded as follows: “No, I don’t agree with that, because it doesn’t matter what he does on the ground. The fact is Bashar al-Assad cannot possibly regain legitimacy in order to run Syria.” One heard this argument repeatedly in 2013 in the run-up to disastrous Geneva II negotiations that left Assad in power and fully able to inflict mass homicide.

In fact it does matter “what he does on the ground.” It matters profoundly. Bashar al-Assad has not sought to rule all or part of Syria by virtue of legitimacy, which would entail the voluntary agreement of virtually all Syrians that he has the right to serve as President of the Syrian Arab Republic. Assad has not sought the consent of the governed: consent that is at the heart of political legitimacy.

Instead Assad and his enablers, domestic and foreign, have employed mass homicide in various forms so as to collectively punish an unruly citizenry and hold onto power. They have bombed, starved, incarcerated, tortured, and terrorized Syrian civilians on an industrial scale. They have done so without the slightest regard for the rules of land warfare or any provision of international law. They have done so with an unblinking sense of impunity because that which today passes for leadership in the West has averted its gaze, taking indecent shelter in the argument that what is happening in Syria is not, strictly speaking, genocide: it is merely mass murder and therefore invokes no responsibility at all for the powerful to protect defenseless human beings.

Mr. Kerry’s point about legitimacy is, nevertheless, accurate: Bashar al-Assad will never rule Syria legitimately. Yet it is strikingly impertinent. He asks, “How can that man become the legitimate leader of the country in the future?” Fine: he cannot. But what does it matter? And what about right now?

Bashar al-Assad has, for five years, operated stark naked in terms of legitimacy. This has not prevented him from creating a humanitarian abomination. It has not stopped him from making much of Syria safe for ISIS while creating chaos in neighboring states and Western Europe. The fact that he is legitimacy-free has not prevented Russia and Iran from immunizing him militarily from a negotiated departure.

So looking ahead, what is it exactly—legitimacy or no—that would prevent Bashar al-Assad from continuing business as usual for the balance of this American administration and on into the next? The only thing that can safely be said about Assad’s lack of legitimacy is that it will indefinitely sustain opposition to him and likely prevent him from ruling all of Syria as he once did. But what is it exactly that will still this political wrecking ball? Surely not a proclaimed legitimacy deficit.

Kerry’s second argument for the irrelevance of military facts to diplomatic processes has to do with his understanding of Moscow’s position. According to Kerry, “So he [Assad] needs to understand the Russians and the Iranians support a transition in Geneva. That’s what they’re negotiating. And if Assad does not agree to have a legitimate transition, Russia has indicated they will not continue to support him.” Has the secretary of state really engineered a breakthrough of this magnitude?

A bit later in the interview, when asked if Assad would remain in power during the political transition period, Kerry responded in the affirmative. But he seemed to conflate the transition with the Geneva negotiations. He argued that Assad must be in power during the transition period so that the regime could eventually consent to the creation of a fully empowered transitional governing body. Yet Syria’s political transition would begin only when the transitional governing body—arrived at by mutual consent through negotiations—assumes full executive power: not before. Geneva talks can produce the terms of the transition; they are not the transition itself.

Does John Kerry know something that would come as a total surprise to virtually everyone following Syria? Have Moscow and Tehran actually signed up to Bashar, his family, and his retinue being excluded from the transitional governing body by virtue of the Syrian opposition exercising its mutual consent option? All that is clear is that Russia and Iran have endorsed peace talks in Geneva. These talks—useful if accompanied by a marked reduction in violence and the delivery of humanitarian aid to all who need it—may prove politically inconclusive. Transition per se only begins when the regime conveys full executive power to its transitional governing successor. Who will oblige it to do so?

If John Kerry has successfully talked Tehran and Moscow into guaranteeing Assad’s near-term exit he will have accomplished an unparalleled, leverage-free diplomatic tour de force. One suspects he was making no such claim in his recent interview. Indeed, even a Russian and Iranian ‘commitment’ to sideline their client if and when a negotiations exclude him from the transitional governing body could still depend on the Assad regime agreeing voluntarily to place its future in the hands of the opposition, as mandated by the June 2012 Geneva Final Communiqué. Leaving Assad free to make the choice would be to perpetuate his toxic presence.

Will Moscow and Tehran compel Assad to play by the Geneva rules? One prays that John Kerry’s power of persuasion will prevail. One hopes he has a “Plan B” in his pocket to increase his leverage. One suspects he does not. Saying that military facts on the ground do not matter and claiming the loss of legitimacy to be decisive will neither save lives nor advance the fight against ISIS. Depending totally on the goodwill and generosity of parties known to possess neither will not likely produce the results hoped for.

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

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