Publicly, the Obama administration says it still believes Bashar Assad must be ousted, but behind the scenes the White House is embracing a strategy that would leave the Syrian leader in place as the world unites against a greater immediate threat from Islamic State terrorists.
Analysts said that was on display at the U.N. last week, when the U.S. agreed to a Security Council resolution on the peace process that made no mention of Mr. Assad, in what was seen as Obama administration capitulation to Russian and Iranian demands that Syria’s president be allowed to stay in power for the foreseeable future.
“The calculation that the White House has made is that working with Assad is less bad than the alternative of going to war with Russia over Assad, or of sending in a large number of American troops to fight the Islamic State on the ground,” says Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
The administration’s approach is facing biting criticism from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, several of whom argue that the White House has no clear strategy for defeating the terrorist group also known as ISIS and ISIL and is badly following Russia’s lead on Syria as a whole.
The issue also has become a divisive one on the presidential campaign trail. Mr. Obama’s former top diplomat, Hillary Clinton, is aligned with Republican contenders Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie in asserting that Mr. Assad’s ouster should be a top U.S. priority in any serious strategy to defeat the Islamic State.
GOP candidates Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, meanwhile, agree with Democrats Bernard Sanders and Martin O’Malley that it’s better to keep such dictators as Mr. Assad in power as a bulwark against extremism.
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With regard to Syria’s dictator, specifically, the issue has been a sticky one for President Obama since April 2012, when Mrs. Clinton, as secretary of state, said the administration felt “Assad must go.”
The White House initially stood by her assertion on grounds that Mr. Assad could not be allowed to remain in power because he had authorized his military to use chemical weapons on civilians.
But the administration’s posture began to shift when John F. Kerry took over as secretary of state in early 2013 — and it appears to have swung dramatically since September of this year, when Russia suddenly began ramping up its military support for the Assad regime.
State Department spokesman John Kirby pushed back Monday against the notion that the administration has quietly aligned itself with Moscow over Mr. Assad’s fate, asserting that Mr. Kerry’s posture on the issue has remained unchanged for more than a year.
“As far back as a year and a half ago,” Mr. Kirby said, “the secretary was saying that while Assad has lost legitimacy to govern the manor of his departure, it still needs to be worked out, the timing of it.”
But Mr. Kerry has shown rhetorical flexibility on the issue in recent weeks, as he spearheaded a diplomatic push to get Assad-backers Russia and Iran behind a plan for a peace process with Syrian opposition rebels supported by the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
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Following a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, Mr. Kerry made headlines by asserting that the U.S. and its allies “are not seeking so-called regime change in Syria.”
Then, on Friday, he rejected the notion that international divisions over Mr. Assad’s fate had been brushed under the rug in order to secure Russia’s vote for the unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution backing the peace process and potential Syria cease-fire to begin as early as next month.
Hours before the U.N. resolution got voted on, however, Mr. Obama himself suggested the administration had made a “hard-headed calculation” to ease off the Assad issue.
When pressed Friday on whether Mr. Assad’s reign in Syria might outlast his own in Washington, Mr. Obama offered a lengthy response in which he said the Syrian leader ultimately will “have to leave” but may need to be left in power for an unknown period in order to convince Russia and Iran that “their equities are respected” by the West.
Such may be required, the president suggested, in order to bring Moscow, Tehran and the Assad regime together with the U.S. and its allies toward “what should be our No. 1 focus, and that is destroying [the Islamic State] and its allies in the region.”
“That is going to be a difficult process, it’s going to be a painstaking process, but there is no shortcut to that,” Mr. Obama said. “And that’s not based on some idealism on my part. That’s our hard-headed calculation about what’s going to be required to get the job done.”
At the same time, however, the president expressed optimism that progress can be made toward a “political transition” that results in Mr. Assad’s removal from power.
But he refused to put a timetable on the matter.
“I think that Assad is going to have to leave in order for the country to stop the bloodletting and for all the parties involved to be able to move forward in a nonsectarian way,” Mr. Obama said.
Part of what’s going on, according to Mr. Landis, is that the administration is coming to terms with the fact that its current policy of arming opposition rebels in Syria is indirectly strengthening Islamic State and other extremists on the ground, including Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s main branch in Syria, that pose a greater immediate threat to America and its allies than does the Assad regime.
“There is a Hobbesian choice at play here between a brutal dictator and a bunch of jihadists who want to blow up the West, and what the administration is choosing — all while throwing its arms up and jumping up and down over Assad’s horrific human rights abuses — is the dictator,” said Mr. Landis. “We’re trying to climb down from our position that Assad has to go without looking like we’re swallowing our words or abandoning our allies in the region, from Turkey to the Sunni Arab states of the Gulf, who remain adamant that Assad has to go.”
Peace process framework
What remains to be seen is whether Friday’s U.N. resolution will truly push the peace process forward, even as the Assad issue continues to hang in the backdrop.
The resolution is broadly worded. But it does set an ambitious timetable and framework, calling on the U.N. secretary-general to convene representatives of the Syrian government and opposition “to engage in formal negotiations on a political transition process on an urgent basis, with a target of early January 2016 for the initiation of talks,” according to The Associated Press.
Within six months the process should establish “credible, inclusive and nonsectarian governance” and set a schedule for drafting a new constitution in Syria. The resolution states that U.N.-supervised “free and fair elections” are to be held within 18 months under the new constitution.
But major uncertainties loom. There are questions, for instance, over how the Islamic State and other jihadi groups — who are estimated together to be occupying roughly half of Syrian territory — will respond to the peace process that is now slated to take place around them.
Momentum for the process did gain some steam early this month when members of several Syrian opposition rebel factions agreed at a conference in Saudi Arabia to establish a “supreme council” that will select 15 representatives for talks with the Assad regime.
But there was skepticism from some regional insiders. Following the Saudi conference, Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, noted to the news website Syria Deeply: “The Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra were not there at all.”
What’s more, Mr. Crocker said, another powerful insurgent group with al Qaeda loyalties known as Ahrar al-Sham emerged from the conference offering mixed messages and was “ambivalent at best about the process.”
“We’re still talking about simply getting into the room and who’ll be in it,” Mr. Crocker said. “And we already know that, in the best-case scenario [when] the opposition and the [Assad] government actually sit down in the same room, the best case, you still have the real heavyweights outside the room.”