In a number of interviews in recent months, U.S. Secretary of State Kerry has been talking about the need to “change Bashar al-Asad’s calculus” with regards to the conflict in Syria. While there is a sense in which this statement is correct (should the goal be the President’s resignation), Kerry seems to misunderstand what Bashar’s calculus is, and accordingly, what sorts of actions are going to change it.
For instance, according to Kerry, the regime has refused to negotiate an end to the conflict; and this is because Bashar has hitherto assumed he can just “shoot his way out of this.” Of course, no part of this is accurate. President al-Asad had initially hoped that he could reform his way out of the conflict—enacting a number of significant measures which were met with wide popular support, to include a new constitution which would have enshrined an end to his rule after one more presidential term.
Over the course of this conflict, the president has consistently endorsed, proposed, and complied with ceasefires. The primary reason these measures have failed is because the opposition’s “leadership” had no control over the militias (this remains the case): they can agree to ceasefires, but cannot get the rebel forces to comply.
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Similarly, Bashar has consistently pushed for negotiations and dialogue, including recently calling on the BRICS nations to help end the bloodshed in Syria, because Western powers and their regional allies continue to exacerbate the violence. Looking at the casualties per month, the rate of killings has accelerated corresponding to the amount of arms, aid, and training being provided to the rebels. This continues to the present, when aid and training to the rebels has expanded to include CIA training and support: March 2013 has been the deadliest month to date in the conflict—the numbers of refugees have increased at an even faster pace.
Thus far, Western (and allied) intervention has, unconditionally, been making things worse rather than better. In fact, the main hang-up to a negotiated end to the conflict has been the U.S. insistence that the president resign as a precondition to talks.
The reason Bashar al-Asad has refused to resign has nothing to do with a supposed desire to hold on to power “at any cost.” In fact, Bashar never wanted or planned to rule Syria—he was thrust into this role following the death of his brother (the heir apparent) and his father (and predecessor). As opposed to these sorts of shallow and reductionist narratives, consider the following reasons for Bashar’s steadfastness:
For himself and his family
Bashar al-Asad has taken note of the way that Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, and Moammar Gaddhafi were also betrayed by their former ally, the United States. And in the aftermath of their being removed from power, each of these leaders and their families were met with an ill fate. Bashar likely sees his own future in that of Hosni Mubarak and his sons, who were condemned to life in prison by his own regime in a show-trial to placate the masses during the “transition;” much like Saddam Hussein (who was executed) or Saif al-Islam (who likely will be, as well). If working with America is tantamount to signing a death warrant for himself and his family, then he has no option except to keep fighting.
For the Alawites
The president is hesitant to step down, seeing Sunni extremists sweeping into power throughout the Arab Spring—especially given the long history of persecution and marginalization of the Alawites in Syria (and throughout the region) prior to the al-Asad regime’s ascendance—not to mention the general pattern of retributive massacres following these sorts of power shifts. These worries are only underscored by the sectarian conflicts which consumed neighboring Iraq and Lebanon for decades (and continue to bubble under the surface).
Bashar has no reason to believe that Western powers can prevent this ethnic cleansing. In Iraq, Shias are actually the majority, but were (and continue to be) ruthlessly massacred en masse by Sunni extremists. In Syria, on the other hand, Sunnis represent 70% of the population. These fears are exacerbated by the increased power and influence of the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate. The purging of “apostate” and “heretic” groups (such as the Alawites) has been an increasingly-large priority for the organization—to the point of being too hardcore for the late Osama Bin Laden!
For the resistance
Syria is a critical lynchpin in the Axis of Resistance which also includes Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq, and (sometimes) Hamas. Were the al-Asad regime to fall and be replaced by a Sunni state—this would dramatically weaken Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and probably Nouri al-Maliki; it would simultaneously strengthen Israel and the Club of Kings while reducing Russia’s influence in the region. This is actually the U.S.’s calculation as well—which is the reason they have been so dogged at seeing Bashar removed, no matter the cost to the Syrian people.
For the President, the importance of the Axis transcends a resistance to Israeli and U.S. aggression (although they are the only ones really providing such resistance)—the Axis also acts as a bulwark against Sunni extremism; one of the only forces countervailing the veritable horde of salafi militant groups and governments who persecute ethnic and religious minorities across the region—especially since the fall of the other secularist regimes.
On each of these fronts, US policies towards Syria and the broader MENA region have been reinforcing, rather than changing, Bashar’s calculus—rendering the rhetoric that the President must be forcibly deposed increasingly a self-fulfilling prophecy. In Syria, the US has been deploying the same strategy which has failed in Iran: all threats and coercion, with weak (or altogether absent) incentives and guarantees in exchange for cooperation. Accordingly, Bashar’s calculus is not the only one in need of change.
The rebel leader Moaz al-Khatib has been marginalized within the SNC to the point of resigning due to his bad habit of telling inconvenient truths of this sort. In February, Shiekh Khatib agreed to direct talks with the regime, affirming that there can be no military solution to this conflict, and asserting that bringing a swift and orderly end to the crisis was much more important than determining the fate of Bashar al-Asad, or excluding him from the transition. The regime was receptive to these talks, but the offer was quickly retracted by other elements in the SNC.
Similarly Sheikh Khatib argued that the formation of an interim government over rebel-held areas would only increase the divisions within the country, even to the point of leading to a possible partitioning of Syria. Since his resignation, he has accepted a position as the SNC’s representative to the Arab League; however, his efforts at peace-building have been largely demolished. The new SNC Prime Minister Ghassan Hitto has proceeded with plans to create an interim government, abandoning any dialogue with the regime. Instead of diplomacy, they have asked for heavy weapons—and the US is going along with that plan instead, gearing up for a big push into Damascus.
So Kerry’s claims regarding Bashar’s unreasonableness and America’s deep commitment to peace and negotiations seem hypocritical and cynical, as does his rhetoric about promoting the will and interests of the Syrian people. If the US is truly committed to a negotiated outcome, the solution is simple: they must leverage the SNC and FSA to the negotiating table. While most of the civilian militias do not listen to the “official” leadership, the US can dramatically reduce their ability to keep fighting by immediately cutting all funds, arms, and supplies to these militias—while putting meaningful pressure on Saudi Arabia and Qatar to do the same. Simultaneously, they can build UN consensus for a long-term commitment of manpower and aid for the massive reconstruction, political, security, and peacekeeping efforts which will be required in the aftermath.
Finally, the US and its allies must recognize that, given the relative strength of the regime, as well as the divisions within, and public distaste for, the Syrian opposition—they are in no position to make demands such as Bashar stepping down as a precondition to negotiations, even though said resignation may be an end goal. They must recognize and understand the President’s skepticism in light of their blatant and very recent double-dealing. Should they press for a military victory instead, leading to a collapse of the regime and a marginalization of the ethnic and religious minority groups—we can be sure that Syria, and likely Lebanon and Iraq (at the least), will be cast into possibly decades of war and destruction. It would not be in anyone’s interests, to include the United States, to pursue this course of action.
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