For the first time since Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011, the State of the Union speech on Tuesday made not a single oblique reference to Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator who has overseen a brutal crackdown on his own people in a conflict that has cost more than 220,000 lives.
It’s hardly a secret that the Obama administration’s plan to topple Assad has long since been derailed by the rise of ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, as the White House chooses to call it, also known as ISIS, Da’esh, or just the Islamic State), a rebel faction that now controls over one-third of Syrian territory and swathes of Iraq. But the evolution of Obama’s rhetoric across successive State of the Union speeches illustrates just how baldly the U.S. has abandoned the prospect of regime change in Syria – something it once demanded.
On Tuesday night, Obama, discussing his additional support for Syria’s “moderate” rebels — a half-hearted training program that few believe will do much — neglected to mention why the U.S. began arming them in the first place: to fuel their uprising against Assad. Instead, he cited extremist threats in the Middle East, saying: “We’re … supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.”
Compare that to what Obama said about Syria in his State of the Union in January 2012, when that country’s war was just getting into full swing. Then, Obama told the American public that he had “no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change cannot be reversed, and that human dignity cannot be denied.”
But the forces of change — coupled with strong Iranian and Russian backing and a splintered rebel movement — have been kind to Assad. By January 2013, Assad was already proving more resilient than other Arab Spring dictators in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. For his State of the Union that month, Obama dropped the dictator’s name from his speech, but still promised to “keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian.”
Then, in August of that year, the Assad regime was accused of deploying chemical weapons in the Damascus suburbs, killing over 1,000 people. Obama, who had initially warned that the use of chemical weapons would be his “red line” for striking the regime, ultimately walked back his threat when a deal was struck to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. His bluff about intervening to force the dictator from power — a la NATO strikes on Libya in 2011 — had been called.
When it came time for his 2014 State of the Union, the president trumpeted the showdown as a success, using the strongest words he could with airstrikes off the table: “American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated, and we will continue to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve — a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear,” he said. But there was no mention of the “regime,” or, for that matter, any other direct mention of Assad.
The State Department, too, has begun to wean itself away from the “Assad must go” stance. Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry even gave an apathetic okay to a Moscow-led initiative to hold peace talks later this month — a betrayal in the eyes of Syria’s political opposition, who have roundly rejected invitations because Assad’s departure is not a precondition of the talks, and because the arbiter, Russia, is the regime’s foremost backer.
In explaining why the U.S. had given its okay on Monday, Kerry evoked the scolding tone of a disappointed school teacher in uttering his most tepid reprimand of the Assad regime since the war began: It was time, he said, for the Assad regime “to put their people first and to think about the consequences of their actions.”
The unavoidable truth is that, while Assad might qualify as a war criminal, his regime is not perceived as a direct threat to Western security or regional stability — as ISIL is feared to be. Still, analysts can’t help but think that Assad has simply outmaneuvered the West by allowing ISIL to metastasize in rebel-held Syria — deflecting fire whenever possible to complicate Western priorities. Since the U.S. and its coalition allies began air strikes on ISIL targets across Syria and Iraq this year, Obama’s Syria policy had come full-circle: The U.S. and the Assad regime have found themselves in awkward if inadvertent alignment, bombarding the same insurgents on alternate days of the week.