Syria Analysis: Is Obama Preparing to Accept Assad in Power?


On Wednesday, The New York Times published an overview with the frightening headline, “Jihadist Groups Gain in Turmoil Across Middle East“.

The article was superficial but the headline and one of its quotes pointed to a deeper significance: the spectre of “extremism” may be pushing the Obama Administration to accept President Assad remaining in power:

“We need to start talking to the Assad regime again” about counterterrorism and other issues of shared concern, said Ryan C. Crocker, a veteran diplomat who has served in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.”

Crocker is no longer in Government but his prominence in a piece whipping up fear — “American intelligence and counterterrorism officials [believe] that militants aligned with Al Qaeda could establish a base in Syria capable of threatening Israel and Europe — raises the possibility that he is speaking on behalf of those inside the Administration with similar views.

Yet, on Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal portrayed a different US Government approach:

The U.S. and its allies have held direct talks with key Islamist militias in Syria, Western officials say, aiming to undercut al Qaeda while acknowledging that religious fighters long shunned by Washington have gained on the battlefield.

Without explicitly saying so, the article indicated that American officials had contacted the Islamic Front, the newly-formed bloc of seven leading insurgent factions.

That US outreach was not based on a renewed support of the insurgency’s fight on the battlefield. Instead, “Western officials” said it was “to persuade some Islamists to support a Syria peace conference in Geneva on Jan. 22″.

On the surface, that would appear to be a vain attempt: the groups in the Islamic Front — from Liwa al-Tawhid to Ahrar al-Sham — have said they will not stop their fight until the Assad regime is overthrown.

What is the answer to the conundrum of an Administration which could be willing to bow to Assad retaining power while opening talks with the fighters dedicated to toppling him?

The Obama Administration’s policy now is dedicated to getting a “peace” conference in Geneva in the near-future — even if a “real” conference with the participation of both the regime and the opposition/insurgency is impossible.

And because that circle cannot be squared, the US President and his advisors will either spin in continued uncertainty or they will have to make a choice:

Assad or the opposition?

Place your bets on their ultimate decision.

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  1. Well the US is kind of screwed either way now.
    Neither the Jihadis which now seem to dominate the rebels or the Baathists want to be friends with the United States. I think the US will probably sit it out because there isn’t much else they can do. They are out of the game at this point and the cost to their influence has been heavy.

  2. my daddy used to say that the only thing worse than a bad decision is no decision. Obama seems to have proven him right.
    On the other hand, my daddy also said that there’s nothing wrong with stepping in a pile of dog poop. It’s only a problem if you don’t wipe it off.

    So, i guess the question is whether or not Obama is gonna decide to wipe his feet or not. My bet is that he sits there and frets about how it might hurt his popularity rating at home. Meanwhile we end up with a sectarian terror gang in charge of Lebanon, a picture of Obama decorating the floor of Assad’s new palace, and a GAC that blames the whole mess on american duplicity.

    my daddy was pretty smart in his own way.

  3. Unless one WANTS to be blind it is more than obvious that the survival of the current Baathist system is the best thing for Syria under the current circumstances.

    Honestly, who should consider the so called Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative for the Syrian people, and why?
    This organisation “managed” to changed its leadership more than 3 times in only 2 years. They have no agenda and no clue and are all but united.
    There is even an ever clearer disconnect between the SNC and the countless rebel factions.
    Among the rebels, there is no common and clear agenda, at least not any that could be more suitable for Syria and the neighbours than Assad. No matter how often this and that rebel group joins other ones under the banner of yet another umbrella organization with an islamist name the only common agenda between the rebels is to remove Assad.

    In how far should a rebel army consisting to a very high percentage of hardcore Islamist and Jihadis coming from several nations be anything that Israel, “the West” or even Syrias neighbours should welcome?
    Saudi Arabia attacked and antagonized the same Salafi Jihadists when they were considered a threat to the Saudi friendly government of Yemen. When they attack them they call them Al Qaeda, and when they support them elsewhere in safe distance far away from Saudi Arabia they call them freedom fighters.

    It is ridiculous that the US and UK have been killing people with exactly the same mindset as Syrias (often non-Syrian) rebels in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and until few years ago in Iraq, too, while they have been arming, training and otherwise supporting them in Syria.
    The reason is clear: In Syria the same IED detonators, beheaders and suicide bombers are “our sons of bitches” and thus “good” because they are weakening an ally of Iran.
    All other arguments such as justifying the “rebellion” because Assad is a dictator etc. are completely farcical.

    • Because if Assad stays then he will take steps to secure his power against a hostile majority. Hundreds of thousands will be hunted down and neutralized for their part in the uprising. Then, in 30 years there will be another uprising and half a million people will have died for nothing.

      However, there is a more compelling reason. Islam is 1300 years old. At some point within the next 200 years Islam is going to have to experiment with and find a new political architecture that does not suffocate intellectual creativity. Against the backdrop of arab spring, right now is as good as it gets.

  4. The Administration has dithered over Syria for so long that there is no easy way forward for them. And you need to remember the terms of Geneva I (the starting point for Geneva II: applying a distorted and mechanical reading of the errors of de-baathisation in Iraq, it provides for the maintenance of the regime apparatus (not just military but also security forces) intact, but supposedly subject to a new “executive authority”. Its utter nonsense – assumes that Syria is some sort of constitutional political order where you just have to tell the regime forces that they have a new boss and they will quietly fall into line. That’s one of the reasons why the opposition is correct to insist on the removal of Asad – that at least creates the possibility that the real power structure might start to break up and open up some possibility of recomposition in a vaguely democratic direction: that’s far from certain, “Asadism without Asad” is more likely; but with him in place its a dead cert.
    These reported talks with the armed opposition could have several objectives – probably to try and determine if there are forces among them that could be harnessed to a project acceptable to US interests and public perceptions; maybe just to assess their relative strength in anticipation of a showdown.

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