Syria: The Assad Conundrum

Distinguished intellectual and former Obama administration official Philip Gordon has called for a fundamental Syria policy recalculation centering on the status of Bashar al-Assad. Gordon’s basic thesis is that if Washington and its partners drop their demand for preemptive victory—Bashar’s immediate departure—Iran and Russia may see their way clear to shuffling their noisome client off stage within a period of time broadly acceptable to all concerned. In truth, this approach has always been on the table. It is fully operative now. Neither the regime, nor Tehran, nor Moscow have demonstrated any interest in it.

Gordon was present at Geneva on June 30, 2012 when the Final Communique of the Action Group on Syria, convened by United Nations Special Envoy Kofi Annan, was signed. The permanent five (P5) members of the UN Security Council agreed on a strikingly direct approach to Syrian political transition from kleptocratic, violent despotism to the pluralistic, democratic system called for by two UN Security Council resolutions. Syrians representing the regime and the opposition would negotiate, based on mutual consent, a transitional governing body that would exercise full executive power. The name “Assad” was not mentioned in the document. This was no accident.

During the talks leading to the communique, representatives of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States argued that Assad—recognized even then as the author of serial war crimes and crimes against humanity—should be explicitly barred from partaking in Syria’s political transition. Russia objected. It did so as a matter of principle: Syrians should decide. The three allies offered a counter-proposal: anyone with blood on his or her hands should be excluded. The Russian objection was straightforward: “blood on his hands” would be seen as a synonym for Bashar al-Assad. No one at the table could disagree. In the end, it was agreed that the composition of the transitional governing body would be a Syrian decision, arrived at based on mutual consent.

According to the Geneva guidelines therefore—agreed to unanimously by the P5—it would be permissible for Assad to serve on the transitional governing body. Indeed, he could preside over it. All that was required was the consent of the opposition delegation. Similarly, delegates representing the Syrian Arab Republic—the regime and the government—could withhold consent to persons nominated by the opposition.

Is this, therefore, a wheel that requires reinvention? Gordon suggests that for “Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the other Sunni states supporting the Syrian opposition, his [Assad’s] immediate departure has been a sine qua non for even talking about ending the conflict . . .” This is actually not so. Whatever skepticism they have expressed about the readiness of the Assad regime to negotiate in good faith, they did not block the participation of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) in the Montreaux and Geneva conferences of late 2013 and early 2014. The SNC arrived at those talks fully prepared to proceed based on the 2012 Geneva Final Communique. It behaved professionally and creatively. The regime delegation make a mockery of the proceedings. Were the regime to show up now at Geneva prepared to do business in accordance with the P5 formula it would find the opposition—with the full endorsement and support of the London 11—prepared to negotiate the creation of a transitional governing body.

Gordon posits, “It might be necessary to put off agreement on Assad’s fate until the end of the process, rather than insisting on it being resolved at the beginning.” He is quite right, and this is exactly what the Geneva process envisions. Once all-Syrian negotiations create a transitional governing body, Assad will be either in or out. During the course of those talks, he would most likely retain the title and powers of President of the Syrian Arab Republic. Nothing in the Geneva formula requires him to step down in advance of the talks or before their conclusion. Indeed, nothing requires him to step down at any point provided the opposition consents to an ongoing role in the transitional governing body.

Still, Gordon wishes to drop the Geneva formula in favor of a “US-led contact group” that could “explore measures” such as local ceasefires, getting the regime out of “agreed parts of the country,” an end to regime air attacks “in exchange for an end to opposition offensives,” constitutional reforms, regime-opposition “entities” that could initiate dialogue, eventual elections “in which Assad might or might not be allowed to run,” and perhaps safe areas negotiated by the regime and the opposition. Yet what would prevent any of these things being pursued with the Geneva formula still fully in place and intact?

All of these “measures” go to the very heart of the Assad regime’s existence and its strategy for staying in power, at least in a part of Syria. It does not barrel bomb to blunt opposition “offensives.” It is not interested in handing over agreed parts of Syria. Its attitude toward “constitutional reform” has been well established for decades. It jails people seeking “dialogue.” Yet Mr. Gordon counsels trading-in Geneva for a “process” in which he thinks Iran and Russia might join the United States and others in forcing a “compromise” on the Assad regime. Geneva, per se, stands in the way of nothing Mr. Gordon would like to explore.

With Geneva defunct, why would Tehran and Moscow facilitate such a process? According to Gordon, because we would no longer be asking for the immediate departure of Assad. Yet immediate departure is not now and never has been a precondition for political transition negotiations. Gordon also asserts that Iran and Russia have no particular attachment to Assad personally, and that maintaining him in power “is a costly burden to both countries.” Yet Iran sees Assad as essential to maintaining its Syria-based link to its Lebanese militia, Hezbollah. Shall we work with Tehran to produce a substitute willing and able to help Hezbollah imprison Lebanon and keep its rockets and missiles trained on Israel? Russia’s Vladimir Putin sees Assad as a neon-lighted rebuke to Washington and is now investing heavily in trying to rehabilitate his client—the man who has made Syria safe for the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL)—as an anti-terror bulwark. Should we persist in counting on Putin to be agent for political transition in Syria?

No doubt, President Barack Obama will tell his Russian counterpart—just as Secretary of State John Kerry will tell his Iranian counterpart—that Assad is an asset of incalculable value for ISIL: the gift that keeps on giving. Russia and Iran already know this. They are fine with this. They have been fully witting and supportive of Assad’s survival strategy from the beginning: the mass releases of Islamist radicals from prison; the vacuum-creating collective punishment and mass homicide campaigns; the web of economic interactions between the regime and ISIL; the respective military focus of ISIL and Assad on common enemies rather than one another. The President and the Secretary will likely double down on Gordon’s point that continued Russian and Iranian backing of Assad “will only perpetuate their costly quagmire and lead to the growing extremism that threatens us all.” A similar talking point about making a big mistake was applied to Russia’s rape of Ukraine.

There is nothing in the Geneva Final Communique that forbids the external supporters of the various parties to the conflict from pressuring their clients to cease and desist in war crimes and crimes against humanity. There is nothing in that document that prevents external parties from working together to apply pressures on all aimed at general deescalation. There is nothing the P5 agreed to in June 2012 that blocks them from discussing among themselves various creative formulas they might press upon their clients to facilitate the rapid, mutually agreed creation of a transitional governing body. Doing so would unite Syrians under one flag to fight ISIL and other violent extremists while beginning the long march to reform, reconstruction, and reconciliation.

The danger in Philip Gordon’s approach is that Iran, Russia, and Assad may see it as an administration trial balloon, one signaling that instead of action soon forthcoming to protect defenseless Syrian civilians from barrel bombs, there is anxious readiness on the part of Washington to ditch the Geneva framework in the hope of currying Russian and Iranian goodwill.

The Geneva framework need not be dropped for Moscow and Tehran to block the ongoing mass murder of Syrian civilians: relentless and remorseless slaughter that voids any prospect of political progress while boosting the prospects of ISIL. On the contrary: US officials should be telling their Russian and Iranian counterparts that if they do not take steps to get Assad out of this ISIL-facilitating mass murder business, the United States will. Doing something beyond talking is essential for any of Philip Gordon’s laudable objectives to be achieved.

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

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