Syrian deal thwarted by Obama’s call for Assad to resign

Analysis: Crisis might have been resolved in 2011 if US president had not intervened

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was told to ‘step aside’ by US president Barack Obama in 2011. Photograph: EPA

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was told to ‘step aside’ by US president Barack Obama in 2011. Photograph: EPA

 

The Syrian crisis might have been resolved in 2011 if US president Barack Obama had not declared on August 18th that year that his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad had to “step aside”.

This view is supported by former US defence secretary Chuck Hagel who said earlier this month: “We have allowed ourselves to get caught and paralysed on our Syrian policy by the statement that ‘Assad must go’.”

It appears Obama intended to continue with a policy of removing Assad, initiated by the George W Bush administration.

This was exposed by the release by Wikileaks of a cable dated December 13th, 2006, from the US embassy in Damascus to the US treasury department, secretary of state and National Security Council.

The policy consisted of accusing Assad of involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, exposing Assad’s vulnerability over Syria’s alliance with Iran, charging Assad family members with corruption, and exploiting weaknesses in the economy.

When Obama made his seminal statement, a Syrian opposition source has told The Irish Times, the regime was ready to initiate limited reforms in order “to survive”.

Assad did not have a free hand. He had to balance pro- and anti-reform forces in his regime, thereby providing space for reformists to secure the adoption of their agenda.

At that time, the opposition was weak, consisting mainly of two entities formed by Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated expatriate Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, made up of defected army officers.

A deal with the Syrian government would have left them high and dry but the death toll might have been confined to the 6,000-7,000 at which it stood at that time.

The current death toll is estimated at more than 250,000.

Uprising

Obama’s call for Assad to resign quashed the potential of an accommodation with the government, drew in other regional and international players and transformed the Syrian uprising into a proxy war involving the US, Europe, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on the anti-Assad side and Russia and Iran, on the government’s side.

Radical fundamentalists enjoying the support of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey intruded.

The first group, the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra crossed into Syria from Iraq and carried out its initial operations in December 2011 and February 2012.

Its parent body, al-Qaeda in Iraq, morphed into Islamic State and entered the Syrian conflict in 2013.

Although Islamic State – also known as Isis – established its headquarters in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the terrorist group was not taken seriously until its fighters captured Mosul, Iraq’s second city, in June 2014, and began beheading western captives, demolishing Iraq’s ancient heritage, enslaving Yazidi women and killing Christians.

Western powers came to realise that Islamic State was not merely a threat to Syria, but also Iraq, Europe and other regions of the world.

In August 2015, the US formed a coalition to carry out air attacks on the group with the aim of halting its advance, particularly in Iraq, and rolling back its forces. This has had limited success.

The game changed when Russia joined the air war in October 2015, targeting not only Islamic State but also Saudi, Turkish and western-backed insurgents, including some regarded as “moderates” by the US and Europe although they have fundamentalist agendas.

Under Russian air cover, Syrian troops have retaken strategic territory in Latakia province on the coast, around the central city of Homs, in southern Damascus and near the Jordanian border.

Since 2011-2012, at least four million Syrians have fled their country and another seven million have been displaced within their country, creating a massive humanitarian disaster.

Last year 600,000 Syrians arrived in Europe and Islamic State has carried out terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – expanding the area of conflict.

These attacks, Russia’s bombing campaign and the flow of refugees have forced the US and some western powers to gravitate toward Russia’s views on how to end the war and build a new Syria.

This shift has strengthened the Syrian government’s hand ahead of talks beginning today in Geneva causing consternation among its opponents.

The aim of the negotiations is to reach a countrywide ceasefire (excluding Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra) and an agreement on a national unity government that would draft a new constitution and hold elections.

Assad’s fate is to be determined by negotiations rather than by diktat of outside powers and their allies among the opposition.

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