February 20, 2012 | NOW Lebanon

Standing Up to Assad

February 20, 2012 | NOW Lebanon

Standing Up to Assad

Washington persists in the belief that Russia can be swayed to withdraw its support for the Assad regime in Syria, thereby falling in line with US policy. The White House has called for Assad to step aside, but continues to state that it seeks a “peaceful political solution.” However, this position is not only detached from reality, it also plays into the hands of the Russians, who insist on a political solution of their own – one that keeps Bashar al-Assad in power. Either the Obama administration doesn't see it, or just doesn't want to admit it, but Washington and Moscow are at odds. Russia is not going to change its position.

Before exercising their veto earlier this month, the Russians insisted on language that called on the Syrian opposition to “dissociate themselves from armed groups.” Of course, Moscow’s veto only served to highlight what is rapidly becoming a matter of broad consensus – that the armed resistance to the Assad regime will take center stage in the next phase of the struggle to topple the Syrian dictator.

Yet instead of crafting a military component to its policy in order to maintain a measure of influence on what is likely to be a protracted armed conflict, the Obama administration remains wedded to the fantasy of a “peaceful transition.”

“We believe the right solution in Syria is a political solution,” the White House maintains. But when the administration actually fleshes out what it means by “political solution,” it reveals dangerously confused thinking.

Perhaps the administration believes that a shift in Russia’s position will compel Assad to accept the Arab League initiative to relinquish power. However, this is a misreading of the Kremlin’s stance.

The Russian plan, which has been in the works for a while, aims at shifting the pressure onto the political opposition groups in the hope of co-opting parts of them in a dialogue, or even a joint cabinet, with Assad, thus leaving the armed groups under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) entirely isolated.

The problem is that the Obama administration continues to operate largely within the same parameters that the Russians have laid out. In fact, its unsatisfactory public messaging often seems to lend credibility to the Russians’ proposal of a so-called “dialogue” between the regime and the political opposition.

For instance, the State Department’s spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, has told reporters that the administration thinks “the answer is to get to a national democratic dialogue.” At this stage, rehashing such obsolete talking points is counterproductive, especially in light of Russia’s transparent maneuver.

The idea of a national dialogue is divorced from reality. The disconnect in the administration’s rhetoric was perfectly captured in a Facebook note by the US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford. Ford emphasized Washington’s support for a “peaceful transition,” [italics original] adding that “such a transition is possible, but not when one side constantly initiates attacks against people taking shelter in their homes.”

Ford’s optimism aside, the caveat at the end is precisely what makes the administration’s approach unworkable. The political solution sought by the administration is not on the radar of any of the relevant actors, least of all the people still braving death to overthrow Assad.

Ford went even further, telling France 24 that what the administration means by “transition” is a “gradual opening” of the Syrian regime. Ford is said to be the point man of the administration’s contacts with activists inside Syria. Surely the administration realizes the detrimental message this kind of language sends to the opposition. The objective of US policy is the end of the Assad regime. What Ford suggested, on the other hand, is precisely what Moscow has in mind: “gradual” reform that keeps Assad in place.

The confusion characterizing Ford’s statements raises troubling questions about US policy. If the idea remains converting the Russians – as the thrust of the administration’s talking points suggests – it is a fool’s errand that the Kremlin will exploit to its advantage. Just because the Obama administration is not eager to aggressively advance its interests in Syria, it doesn’t mean Russia – or Iran – will follow suit.

In fact, Moscow and Tehran support Assad militarily. The administration, meanwhile, has outlined four avenues it intends to pursue: more sanctions, shaming Assad’s arms suppliers, supporting the political opposition in charting a way forward, and seeking to provide humanitarian relief, though the mechanism to deliver it is unclear.

All of this is fine, but it’s also clearly insufficient and, in several respects, secondary. Helping the Syrian National Council (SNC) is good, but it is armed groups like the FSA that are on the ground with the protesters, keeping certain neighborhoods from being retaken by Assad’s thugs. As the conflict grinds on, their prominence is only set to increase.

Many influential voices in Washington, including in Congress, recognize this and have begun asking for more aggressive steps, and a specific policy toward the armed opposition. Just as the Russian strategy aims at helping Assad suffocate the FSA, US policy should now begin exploring ways to help organize, train and support it. There has to be a military component to the administration’s overall strategy. If this wasn’t clear from the beginning, it’s manifestly evident today.

But it’s the president who sets policy, and Obama told NBC he thinks “it is very important for us to try to resolve this without recourse to outside military intervention. And I think that’s possible.”

Few seem convinced. Russia and Iran understand full well which side they’re on, and what they need to do to ensure that their side wins, which is why they have consistently intervened on Assad’s side. To secure US interests, and not merely be content with a policy of extrication from the region, President Obama needs to come to that same realization to ensure that Assad loses.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.


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