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Rarely has the gap between U.S. rhetoric and action been wider than it has been on Syria: President Barack Obama proclaimed during the first months of the uprising that “Assad must step aside,” which was read as a statement of intent by the rebels but which has produced negligible concrete action. Even when Washington proclaimed that Assad had crossed Obama's “red line” by using chemical weapons, no retribution rained down. The U.S. electorate has no appetite for further wars in the Middle East. So while Obama was able to strike a deal ridding Syria of all weapons of mass destruction, to the opposition that success was a damp squib. They had expected Washington to deal Assad a crippling blow, turning the fight in their favor. Instead, the U.S. struck a chemical-weapons deal that saw Assad dispense with a category of weapons that had played very little role in the civil war, while effectively strengthening his and his allies' diplomatic position.
Obama made clear in his pivot on launching a punitive strike on Syria that he believes the U.S. has practically no interest in the country's civil war. Syrian opposition figures look at the fact that the U.S. has spent less than $2 billion on Syria, the equivalent of three days' spending at the height of the Iraq War, and see little reason to expect much from Washington. Even those opposition groups who've agreed to go to Geneva II are not convinced by Kerry's insistence that Assad will have to agree at the talks to form a sovereign “transitional government.” Kerry took charge of the State Department last year declaring his intention to change Assad’s “calculation” about his ability to hold on to power, but instead it is Washington's calculations, rather than Assad's, that have changed. How he will be made to step aside on the basis of the current balance of forces remains a mystery.
Assad has been extraordinarily ruthless in pursuing his survival, and such ruthlessness can have a decisive effect in determining the course of a war. The most recent U.N. report about “industrial scale killing of detainees” made for blood-chilling reading, chronicling the regime’s brutality and willingness to destroy whole neighborhoods in order to kill rebel fighters sheltering within them. The carnage wrought by Assad's forces has been breathtaking — 1 in 3 Syrians today have been displaced from their homes by the war.
Assad's game plan was to confront unarmed civil disobedience with gunfire, betting that turning the uprising into an armed rebellion would push extremist forces to the fore, which would alienate key Syrian and foreign stakeholders. He prioritized geography, withdrawing from the regions that hold less strategic value or are ungovernable by his regime in order to consolidate his hold on core geographic assets, such as Damascus, Homs, Hama and the highways linking them to the Alawite population centers on the coast. Although he ceded control of the poorest and most heavily Sunni provinces of northern and eastern Syria, his army has been able to retain bases in every major northern city. Government artillery and aircraft continue to bombard rebel-held areas at will, creating chaos and sowing dissension.
So, although Assad’s representatives have gone to the negotiating table in Switzerland, it is not clear they are there to seek compromise. But others might.
While Assad insists that his army is “making progress,” it is not at all clear that he can retake Syria or that Syria’s allies will continue to bankroll his attempt to do so. Iran and Russia may well be content to have the Assad regime survive in only half of Syria if Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the West agree to the other half for the rebels. Even then, a deal remains a distant prospect. Most Syrians today reject the notion of partition or even autonomous regions, but the military stalemate has endured for almost two years. On the eve of the Geneva talks, Syria’s Kurds declared unilateral autonomy in the far northeast, where they hold military power and make up the majority of the population. Syria is effectively divided, and none of the military forces in the field appear capable of reuniting it under their control. Negotiated settlements to end wars tend to reflect the balance of forces in play; the idea of Assad stepping aside for a consensus-based national-unity government is quite at odds with the current balance of geopolitical and military forces. For that reason, it is unlikely to be achieved at Geneva II.