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White House sees a partner in Assad

By Tony Badran, Now. As 2013 drew to a close, the Wall Street Journal published a lengthy and damning chronicle of President Obama’s handling of Syria. And while 2013 was a particularly catastrophic year for US policy in Syria, 2014 promises to be even worse. For if last year marked Washington’s official abandonment of the Syrian opposition, this …

Tony Badran
Tony Badran

By Tony Badran, Now.

As 2013 drew to a close, the Wall Street Journal published a lengthy and damning chronicle of President Obama’s handling of Syria. And while 2013 was a particularly catastrophic year for US policy in Syria, 2014 promises to be even worse. For if last year marked Washington’s official abandonment of the Syrian opposition, this may well be the year the White House begins the process of re-engaging Bashar al-Assad.

Of course, the first order of business in the New Year is the international peace conference for Syria in Switzerland, scheduled for later this month. It’s also the only order of business, as far as the Obama administration is concerned. And once it’s convened, the expectation is that it will drag on for months. As US Ambassador Robert Ford reportedly told the Syrian opposition recently, it shouldn’t expect any quick outcome. What’s more, the endgame of this conference remains unclear, although Ford also is said to have informed the opposition that the US cannot offer guarantees that the talks would lead to Assad leaving office. That outcome was “not in Washington’s hands,” Ford allegedly said. Nor is there any sense of when Assad would be required to leave. As a senior UN official commented, “the timeframe for Assad’s departure is not clear”.

The White House is clearly in no hurry to see Assad go. This has been obvious for a while, as officials have often leaked how they did not wish to see the rebels win outright and how Assad’s departure at this time would lead to a jihadi takeover. The White House’s focus in Syria is squarely on Sunni extremist groups. A Western diplomat recently summarized that position well: “Syria is now viewed as a security problem, not one about ousting Bashar and helping the Syrians get what they want.”

Indeed, the administration’s priority in Syria has not been regime change, but rather, regime continuity. Going back to 2012, administration officials have been talking about preserving so-called regime “institutions,” sometimes specifying they meant the security services and the military. And now, there have been signs that the US may be looking at a scenario where these regime elements would team up with certain segments of the opposition in a transitional government and combat al-Qaeda groups in Syria – a scenario that the Russians have long been pushing as well.

For now, the public US position still says that Assad cannot be part of such an arrangement. In other words, Washington wants to keep the regime, but not Assad (and some of his closest aides). Some opposition sources have even claimed that Washington and Moscow were in agreement that Alawites would retain their dominant role in the army and security apparatuses.

This notion of retaining the regime without Assad goes back to the earliest days of the uprising, when the administration was looking for a quick fix through a “palace coup”. According to that scenario, senior Alawite officers would push Assad aside and present themselves as transitional figures who would bring the military and the Alawite community into a political settlement with the Sunnis.

And yet, this magical Alawite figure continues to prove elusive. In reality, this scenario was always fictional. They don’t call it “Souriya al-Assad” (“Assad’s Syria”) for nothing. The notion that there was a deep state independent of the Assads betrays a poor understanding of how that family has engineered the regime over the past 40 years. It also shows a lack of understanding of the sources and structure of power within the Alawite community itself. Equally fanciful is the notion that all that’s missing to make this scenario work is Russian and/or Iranian agreement to use their supposed influence to push Assad aside all while safeguarding the regime and their interests in it. This is not to mention the silliness of expecting Syria’s Sunnis and their regional backers to buy in to a scenario that ensures not just continued Alawite domination over the state, but, through it, continued Iranian primacy in Syria.

The sheer impossibility of this scenario leads to one conclusion. If the US starting position is to keep the regime, it will soon become apparent that this is impossible without Assad. Consequently, the White House will lower its expectations and demands. For instance, instead of holding that Assad should play no role whatsoever, the US may well agree to him staying on as president, only with supposedly “limited authority.” And once that is conceded, the US position will continue to deteriorate from there.

There are signs that this type of thinking is already gaining ground in the White House. As the Journal reported, “some senior administration officials now privately talk about Mr. Assad’s staying for the foreseeable future and voice regret about the decision, in August 2011, to call for him to step aside”.

This would not be the first time the White House shifted the goal posts. In fact, this language sounds awfully similar to how the administration walked back the president’s chemical weapons “red line.” At the time, White House aides set the stage for the ultimate erasing of the red line by telling the press that Obama’s remark was unscripted and off-the-cuff, and thus shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Moreover, Obama has purposely narrowed the US interest in Syria to a matter of arms control. This will facilitate making the turn and dropping all demands for Assad’s departure. As one senior administration official said, once Syria’s chemical weapons have been fully removed, “the pressure on Assad to leave will be diminished”. The chemical weapons deal, other officials said, gave Assad “considerable staying power” – something that clearly did not weigh heavily on Obama’s mind.

This seems to be the trajectory for US policy in 2014. The White House has deliberately eliminated alternative courses of action that would force Assad out. More importantly, it has conceptualized the Syrian conflict such that it does not see Assad and his regime as the central problem whose removal is the priority. Rather, the path the White House has consciously charted in Syria is a one-way street leading back to Assad.

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

This article was originally published on Now.

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  • sam enslow

    A few points left out:
    1. Syria was to be handled by The Arab League which told the US to stay out. No group was in a better position to arrange talks or to enforce a peace agreement. Saudi Arabia sent in Jahidists. Big help as usual.
    2. Obama DID NOT need congressional approval to bomb Syria. He was following Teddy Roosevelt’s, “Speak softly but carry a big stick.” He even gave Russia a way out and got exactly what he wanted.
    3. Had he bombed Syria or taken any other action, all Arab leaders would have called him the new Bush. If the Arabs want to use force, they have the means, but they would rather do nothing and complain every time someone tries something. Remember it was the Arab League that asked for NATO to get involved in Libya – after they failed – as usual to do anything.
    4. Just exactly should Obama do? Of course there is no answer. The matter is more complicated especially since this is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The US is in a no win position. Back to being an Arab problem. Poor Syrians.
    I frankly get tired of Arabs complaining about what someone else has not accomplished when the job was initially theirs. They failed once again. Talk! talk! and more talk! Complain! Complain! Complain1 Do – NOTHING. Complicate matters if possible and then complain some more.

    • Dee

      You leave out half the story and players in your analysis ….
      1. First you need to recognise the Anglo American TRIO includes the original Sykes Picot architect nations – still all intent on balkanisation of all the ‘Axis of Evil aka Axis of Resistance’ middle east nations into small weak warring sectarian factions ………. and unable to resist the M.East main no secret DUO Israel-Saudi middle east partners for whose benefit the western trio’s balkanisation agenda exists.
      2. Then you need to recognise the VERY close alliance of Saudi’s Bandar bin Sultan aka Bandar Bush aka Bandar Best British Bandit and Buddy with both US and UK, and Saudi being the origin of Al CIAda with both CIA and MI6 responsible for creating Wahhabism, salafi / takfiri perversion of Islam. (There are plenty of CIA whisltleblowers and authors to tell you all about this).
      3. Then recognise that Israel is Anglo American Empires middle east military outpost – with every import shmuck conned into being a soldier – armed with every WMD that it uses regularly, funded by US, protected in UN by US-UK-France, and EXPECTED to wage wars of aggression, colonise, subjugate and genocide the indigenous populous and EXPAND – much the same way as America, Canada, Australia, N.Zealand, S.Africa etc etc were created for Anglo American Empire.
      4. So why were Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran, Lebanon/ Hezbollah designated Axis of Evil / Resistance status, earmarked for destruction and had wars planned against them shortly after 09/11? And who, if not UK-Saudi-Israel are always intent on dragging US willing or unwilling into middle east wars? (And France too – who plays in tandem, stepping back one war, and leading the fray in the next). What these nations had in common : Resistance to Greater Israel Expansion plan; support of Palestinians, their own central banks, aversion to petro $ oil sales … Saddam’s great WMD and Gaddafi’s great sin : Wanting gold backed payment. (Plus all provided free education; medical; housing; relatively advanced women’s rights with women in high office and academia etc etc – vs those stoneage Kingdoms of Saudi and Bahrain and Kuwait western allies). Why is Iran cruelly sanctioned when every w.intel agency knows full well it is not building a nuke – but that Israel is armed to the teeth and USES both nukes and chemical weapons regularly?

      I have a sense that Obama is NOT keen on a pursuing the end goal war in Iran … but it remains to be seem if US APAIC and CIA degenerates + neo Sykes Picot Britain and France, and the now ready to go rogue Saudi and Israel satellite states allow for peace to prevail … but as Bandar bin Sultans Al CIAda forces are already let loose in Lebanon, in Russia, one attack already in Beijing ……. sigh …. the use of proxy force terrorists seems set to become the de facto Anglo American hegemonic ‘Pivot to Asia’ boots on the ground proxy forces.(And god help us all as this metastasising cancer of Wahhabi jihadis spreads across the world!!!)

      • sam enslow

        Your response explains why Arab states are not taken seriously. They are never responsible for anything. Autocrats never make a mistake.
        1. T.E. Lawrence’s “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” gives a good description of Syrian politics during WWI. It was “Balkanized.”
        2. It serves neither US or Israeli interests to have weak Arab states. Israel has had few problems with stable states while unstable states are often the source of problems.
        3. You cannot buy what is not for sale. As Saddam Hussein said of Mubarak,”He is like a vending machine. Put in money and take what you want.” This applied to most Arab leaders including Arafat.
        4. The chief source of US intel on the Middle East was not the CIA. It was Egypt’s Omar Suleiman.
        5. The chief games player in the Middle East was not either the CIA or KGB. It was the Seven Sisters. But again, you cannot buy what is not for sale.
        6. The dictators removed in the Arab Spring (soon it is hoped Assad) were autocrats and vey cruel men and totally corrupt.
        7. Sectarian divides, of great service to dictators, cannot be a political tool unless they exist. These divides are a shame to “men of God” of all faiths.
        8. To date Arab countries cannot maintain their own armies or operate their own oil fields because actual work is below their dignity. Saudi Arabia is currently in the process of buying the Egyptian army to use in a possible war with Iran.
        9. If the US wanted to weaken Arab states, all it need do is start storing wheat and allowing the sale of its crude oil on the world markets, increase the price of food while shrinking Arab incomes. No war necessary. No words necessary.
        10. If there is anything the West fears from the Arab world it is another wave of boat people fleeing in hopes of finding a life.
        The Arab world will start growing when it starts accepting responsibility for their own problems and seeks solutions for them. The real enemy of the Arabs are the Arabs – just as the real enemies of the US are Americans.

        • Dee

          Herein lies your facile naivete :
          2. It serves neither US or Israeli interests to have weak Arab states. Israel has had few problems with stable states while unstable states are often the source of problems.

          I agree that the middle east is filled with nefarious self serving snakes – primarily US-UK key ally Saudi – but you use TE Lawrence and irrelevant blabber to obfuscate a very clear pattern / design in place since 09/11 designation of an Axis of Evil and Gen Wesley Clarkes “7 nations in 5 Years”
          As you perhaps know by now, 09/11 was a ‘Pearl Harbour’ type hoax with ensuing wars carefully avoiding the one nation whose citizens were involved in the atrocity, and another whose citizens strongly suspected to be involved.
          So let me ask you :
          1. Why were the Axis of Evil / Axis of Resistance nations (Iraq, Libya, Syria, Lebanon/Hezbollah, Iran + Yemen) earmarked for destruction ..when they represent(ed) far more advanced iro free education, medical, housing, women’s rights and positions in political office and , academia, religious freedom, secularism – relative to those compliant but obscenely oppressive nations such as Saudi, Bahrain, Oman …. ?
          2. Why was there no sectarian separation or problems in any of the Axis of Resistance nations before Saudi Wahhabi terrorism was unleashed (to replace the previous ‘ism’ enemy – communism) and western media designates a simplistic ‘Sunni vs Shia’ smokescreen over the REAL common resistance factor – being support of Palestinians and resistance to Israeli expansion and aggression.
          3. Why is it imperative for western Israel supporting nations to remove Assad and replace the Syrian army with those who will stand down when the final and great prize of Iran – current controllers of Straits of Hormuz – is attacked and conquered.
          Let’s do a tally on the 09/11 m.east plan : Iraq – destroyed and festering in sectarian cantons; Libya – destroyed and festering in sectarian cantons; Syria – the Syrian army made up of Sunni, Shia, Druze, Christians, Assyrians, Alawites – and autonomy conferred by Assad on northern Kurdish militia; Yemen – still in progress being subjected to drone strikes on wedding parties and civilians (WHY?!); Iran – who every intel agency in the world agrees is not building a nuke – subjected to crippling economic warfare of sanctions and being toyed with in some cruel ‘deal’ (WHY? when last did Iran display aggression to anyone – but look at the nefarious history of US-UK in Iran!!!) ; Lebanon now under attack by the same proxy Saudi American wahhabi terrorist forces being used in Syria probably to draw Hezbollah home – where the Lebanese govt given a serious warning with killing of that minister – and bribe of $3 billion by Saudi; ….. oh and dear precious innocent Israel bombarding Syria 9x recently, making hay with expanding settlement; taking over more of Lebanon “security”; sitting with nukes and heinous WMDs that it regularly uses; not only occupying Syrias Golan Heights – but has given the gas contract to Genie Corporation (Dick Cheney) and still holds all the water from Syria too.

          • sam enslow

            I will agree with you on one thing. The evil in the Arab world is Saudi Arabia which did benefit from the “family” connections with the Bushes (indirectly part of the 7 Sisters). But Obama is not Bush.
            On the Port of Hormuz, the US uses only 10% of the oil exported from there. the US would have no objection to another country (even Arabs) securing the area. It is a very expensive operation.
            Assad is not a good man. I hate to believe dictators are the only ones that can govern Arab states. I agree with you when it was the opposition vs Assad, it was easier. Saudi Arabs complicated .matters. Saudi Arabia is now very much on the outs with Obama.
            Any Libyan (except the elites) I have spoken to are glad Gadaffy is gone. What followed is terrible, but the Arab world seems to go from bad to worse in leadership.
            T.E. Lawrence still holds as do many influences of the Ottoman Empire. Tribal and religious loyalties (patria chicas) still dominate (with some reason).
            Pearl harbor was NOT a hoax. The only question concerning it is when did FDR know it was happening. 9/11 was not a hoax either. I have a dead wife and son to prove that and have spent a great deal of time studying all the conspiracy theories surrounding it. The fault with Bush is that he failed to react, if possible, to warnings from Omar Suleiman that that attack was coming (where was not disclosed).

          • Dee

            ‘hoax’ does not mean it did not happen. Merely the official version of 2 planes imploding 3 buildings done by boxcutter jihadi’s controlled by a phantom hiding in caves is nonsensical. I am very sorry for your loss in what was a heinous crime … that like Pearl Harbour, ‘gave permission’ for terrible wars.
            I think in my original post I spoke of US-UK-France + Saudi-Israel. Your geo-political thinking seems limited to US being the only players. They are not – and the original architects of Sykes Picot are very much in play … and very much in support of their military outpost Israel (expected to expand as per establishment of US, Canada, Aus etc), and partner Bandar (whose UK connection is as strong as it was Bush era – with mega estates in UK, son graduated from Sandhurst and Oxford ‘Islamic studies’ – where daddy makes large donations … and son married into British aristocracy).
            I like to think that Obama-Kerry sincere about the Iran deal (Iran being the last and main goal – and Straights of Hormuz is a strategic location for a military footprint). Will APAIC, France, UK, Israel-Saudi let Iran survive? ….. That remains to be seen.
            You speak of 7 sisters. I give more credence to a Committee of 300 – and people like Karen Hudes uncovering exactly where American funds are going.
            But I wish you well as you clearly are a thinking feeling good soul.

          • sam enslow

            7 Sisters = 7 Multi national petroleum companies, including Standard Oil and Shell.
            The US part of my thinking stems from the original title of the article.
            WWII would have been fought with Japan with or without Pearl Harbor.
            Never believe anyone or any country is free of the games of world politics. Always ask, “Who benefits?”
            There are many grand conspiracy theories in this world. They can be interesting, but most things happen out of stupid. All wars are based on greed and power, one king wanting what another king has. “God” or “country:” are only masks.
            We may differ on a lot, but I enjoyed our conversation. Thanks.

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