President Barack Obama’s recent deployment of 50 special forces troops to Syria, despite having promised not to put “boots on the ground,” has left virtually everyone unsatisfied. Anti-war activists see it as an escalation; interventionists, as another inconsequential attempt to bolster pro-democratic forces; and Russia and Iran, as needless agitation. However, the move is the logical product of a core contradiction in the U.S. foreign policy consensus: the insistence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go and the simultaneous insistence that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) must be defeated. Holding both these positions is common in Washington, but it’s increasingly clear that they are incompatible.
To say that Assad must go as a condition for peace in Syria is to argue not for peace but for regime change. In practice, this means either a violent overthrow of Assad or a continuation of the stalemated and horrific proxy war, with Russia and Iran backing the Syrian government and the United States and its Gulf allies funding and arming opposition groups.
Russia has maintained since the beginning that it is not wedded to Assad as such but rather to the maintenance of the Syrian state. But is Assad inextricably linked to the Syrian state as it exists today? The U.S., the United Kingdom and France all seem to think so. Even though Obama has nominally endorsed keeping the state intact, the U.S. still funds and arms rebels who, according to The Washington Post, do not share these goals. The effective position of the Western powers and their Gulf allies is that Assad must go before any transition can be discussed, rather than keeping all options on the table. By implication, when these countries insist that Assad must go, they are referring not just to the man but also to the power structure Assad’s allies see as necessary to maintaining the state.
There is no reason to believe the Syrian army would ever go quietly, especially not with Russia and Iran’s staunch support. Regime change would require either direct bombing — typically euphemized as a no-fly zone, which even the Pentagon sees as a tacit declaration of war — or else slowly bleeding the Assad government via rebel proxies.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently described the Assad-must-go hard-liners as a major barrier to peace, telling reporters, “It is totally unfair and unreasonable that the fate of one person takes the whole political negotiation process hostage.” And two weeks ago, former President Jimmy Carter — certainly no fan of Assad’s — penned a nuanced op-ed in The New York Times, in which he called for multilateral peace talks while leaving open the possibility of Assad’s remaining in power, pending an eventual transition. Carter offered no posturing, no red lines and no demagoguery about war crimes but rather a cold, honest look at how to move forward and finally end this crisis. Predictably, he was mostly ignored by the American pundit class.
But other countries may be getting the message. While the U.S., the U.K. and France have been outwardly resolute, Germany and longtime rebel supporter Turkey have recently said they are open to keeping Assad in place in a transitionary mode, though it’s unclear what this means exactly.
It’s understandable why many Americans are wedded to the vision of heroic rebels standing up to an evil dictator. It was once largely true, as there was an organic outpouring of protest in 2011 that was subdued by the Syrian state. But the introduction of foreign jihadists, some of whom are funded and armed by America’s Gulf allies, makes this binary hardly recognizable anymore. Saudi Arabia’s pro-democracy posturing at the recent Vienna peace talks must have seemed risible to Russian and Iranian diplomats.
Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies still maintain they have no moral or political complicity in the radicalization of the Syrian opposition. However, it has long been clear that Gulf arms are ending up in the hands of “hard-line Islamic jihadists” rather than secular or moderate opposition groups, as The New York Times reported in October 2012.
At the time, the “hard-line Islamic jihadists” were mostly with Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), which still terrorizes parts of Syria. Others later spun off into ISIL. America’s Gulf allies are not entirely responsible for either faction, but until they acknowledge their share of the blame, no honest conversation can be had. Even as the Saudis go to Vienna and preach about supporting secular democracy in Syria, their actions over the past four years have indicated that their true goal is the overthrow of the Syrian government, regardless of who is doing the overthrowing. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Russia, Iran and the Syrian government find this rhetoric insincere.
There has been recent speculation the White House is willing to loosen its Assad-must-go stance, but so far, that remains unconfirmed. Until the U.S. and its allies adjust their position, peace in Syria will remain elusive.
In the meantime, those pundits who will insist until the bitter end that Assad must go should at least be honest about what that means. The Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian backers aren’t balking anytime soon. As such, interventionists should dispense with the humanitarian posturing and admit that regime change would involve either full-scale bombing or the continuation of a disastrous proxy war. Both these Assad-must-go scenarios look terrible, and neither looks anything like peace.