Last week’s US missile attack on an airbase used by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s air force may or may not have been a turning point as far as American foreign policy is concerned. Nevertheless, it has put the thorny issue of Assad’s future back on the diplomatic agenda.
By hitting Assad’s airbase in the wake of the chemical attack on Idlib, President Donald Trump has enforced the “red line” declared and abandoned by his predecessor Barack Obama.
Will Trump also try to enforce another of Obama’s loudly declared and quietly dropped positions: that Assad has no role in Syria’s suture?
Obama launched his “Assad must step down” mantra in 2012 to the delight of experts at the State Department and the Pentagon, who believed that unless the dictator left, Syria would not calm down.
By 2013, however, Obama had reformulated his mantra to read “Assad must step aside”. Track-II secret talks were held about a formula under which Assad would remain head of state, but hand over power to one of his vice presidents leading a cabinet of technocrats tasked to prepare for a new constitution followed by elections.
Yet, by 2015, Obama had forgotten all that, accepting Assad’s presence well into an undetermined future.
One fact that remained obscure is that the Syrian tragedy is, for a good part, a result of Assad’s decision, out of opportunism or cowardice, to adopt the position of the most radical elements within his Ba’athist regime.
Between 2011 and 2015 dozens of Syrian officials, some with decades of service under Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad, tried to develop formulae to help all parties in the civil war forge a compromise. Assad, may be with a gun pressed to his temple, refused to budge, making sure that the carnage continued.
Many of those officials either quietly faded into the background or fled into exile. Bashar remained at the center of a coterie of sanguinary sectarians increasingly beholden to Iranian mullahs and, from 2014 onwards, the “big bear” in the Kremlin.
Today, in terms of actual power, Assad has become largely irrelevant. He is little more than a mask of pseudo-legality for Russia and the Tehran mullahs for their common, yet contradictory, designs for Syria.
Outside Russia and Iran, some, including the usual suspects in the perennial anti-West movement, use Assad as a theme in confusing public opinion with regard to the Syrian tragedy.
Some advocates of Realpolitik, for example Julian Lewis, who chairs the Defense committee in the British House of Commons, start with a prologue about how evil Assad is, but end up by saying we should nevertheless work with him.
Since “the work” that Assad is doing largely consists of killing people, Lewis must tell us in what way could the British help him do that.
Lewis says that during the Second World War Britain forged an alliance with Stalin to fight Hitler, forgetting the Soviet despot’s blood-soaked record.
However, the honorable MP forgets that Stalin had signed an alliance with Hitler, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and was dragged into the war only after Germany invaded the USSR. When that happened it was Stalin who begged the British, and later the Americans, to help him stop the Nazi juggernaut.
Stalin controlled vast expanses of land and scores of millions of young men to be used as cannon-fodder.
Assad has neither. He barely controls about 15 per cent of Syrian territory and has publicly admitted that he lacks the manpower to extend his rule. Without the estimated 60,000 Lebanese, Afghan, Pakistani and other mercenaries mobilized by Tehran, Assad would not be able even defend his lair in Damascus. And without Vladimir Putin’s air force enlisted to carpet bomb Aleppo and other Syrian cities, Lewis’ putative Syrian ally would have never been able to hoist his flag there.
More importantly, perhaps, Assad is fighting the majority of the Syrian people, who could hardly be described as “Nazis”.
What interest does Britain or any other democracy have in letting the carnage continue in Syria?
In Realpolitik terms, Assad is a diminished figure; each day that passes sees him shrink further into insignificance.
Another argument used in defense of the “we must work with Assad” formula is advanced by Francois Fillon, the beleaguered right-wing candidate in the next French presidential election. He says the West should “work with Assad” because he represents Syria’s legal government.
But how did Assad gain legality? There has never been genuine election in Syria, and Bashar was simply declared president in succession to his father and in violation of the Constitution.
However, even if Assad’s legality were not doubtful, there is no reason why legality should give anyone carte blanche to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity. After all, Hitler’s government was also legal because he had once won a general election.
Putin advances another argument: Assad is fighting “terrorists” and deserves to be supported. However, it is now clear that Assad’s forces, and their Russian and Iranian backers, have taken no meaningful action against ISIS, the arch-terrorist group still in control of large chunks of Syrians territory. It is far-fetched to suggest that 80 percent of Syrians who oppose Assad are all terrorists. The millions of refugees and displaced persons, a majority of them women, children and old people, are ordinary human beings, who want a bit of freedom and security to live their lives. Assad and ISIS and other smaller terror groups have deprived them of that.
The truth is that Assad no longer has a place in Syria.
Even if he is handed the whole of Syria on a platter, he does not have enough supporters to establish control and recreate a minimum of government. In fact, as a state, Syria has already died. A new Syrian state must be created. Neither Assad nor ISIS nor the two dozen or so armed groups fighting Assad can assume that task on their own. However, Assad’s departure could open a space for all Syrians, including the minority that backed Assad, to come together to tackle that awesome task.
In both moral and Realpolitik terms “Assad must go” is a reasonable formula for ending the Syrian tragedy.