TODAY’S MESOP COMMENTARY BY TONY BADRAN : White House sees a partner in Assad – Dining together again!

2014 may be the year when the White House drops all demands for Assad’s departure from office. 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.