All this talk about Assad staying…

Matthew Barber on Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

A number of articles have been circulating recently that observe that Assad may stick around, perhaps for good. Amidst this discussion, some controversy has been stirred up around some of Dr. Landis’ comments published in a recent BBC article. The comments under discussion were: “Someone has got to bite the bullet and say Assad stays,” and “We don’t have another game in town.”

These comments were interpreted as Dr. Landis himself “biting the bullet” and advocating that Assad stay, but they were presented in the article divorced from their context. Dr. Landis had been asked to comment on Ryan Crocker’s recent statements on Assad’s staying power and Assad being preferable to al-Qaida. Landis was referring to how Crocker had “bit the bullet” and made these observations of the realities on the ground, a discussion that a retired diplomat was better-positioned to initiate than government voices currently in service. Rather than making a policy recommendation that “Assad should stay,” Landis’ basic point (presented clearly in a NYT article today, included below) was that if no one is willing to forcibly remove Assad, someone with a voice will have to broach the fact that he’s not going to leave. Crocker has now trail-blazed a discussion that can continue in Washington.

The comment about not having “another game in town” referred to the proposed Geneva peace conference. Landis meant that in terms of who can represent the regime’s side at Geneva, there is no one but Assad. He is NOT saying that Assad is the “only game” for all of Syria (and that therefore the West should engage Assad as the representative of Syria despite his regime’s atrocities)—rather, Assad is the only one who can currently speak for regime-controlled Syria. Russia and America don’t have the power to select someone else to speak for the regimist side. Some want to isolate Assad and appoint new figures who can represent the regime at Geneva. Landis believes it is impossible to do this, because the very essence of the regime itself is built around Assad. You can’t isolate the people with blood on their hands from the regime and simultaneously maintain a powerful regime. The system is based on circles of loyalty constructed around certain key figures; trying to replace those bloody-handed key figures will mean the crumbling of the entire regime.

Beyond Assad being the “only game” for regime-allied Syria, Dr. Landis (in a comment yesterday in a Qifa Nabki discussion) elaborated on the limitation of Russia and the U.S. to select future leadership figures for the regime’s side, expressing what he sees as the limitations of great powers to effect constructive change:

Perhaps one of the more dramatic changes that have taken place over the last 100 years is that “Imperial Powers” are no longer interested or capable of “building” much in the Middle East. The new regional powers – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey – will bear the burden and responsibility of shaping the intellectual and military forces of the Middle East.

A point of divergence between Crocker and Landis is that Crocker sees Assad regaining control of Syria, inch by inch. Dr. Landis considers this highly unlikely, seeing the regime as incapable of retaking major centers such as Aleppo. So whereas the BBC article painted Landis’ position as further out than Crocker’s, Landis actually doesn’t go quite as far. Today’s rebel victory at the al-Kindi hospital in Aleppo (held and used as a base by regime soldiers) underscores this situation. One of our discussion-forum commenters, UZAIR8, raised the issue of regime manpower in conjunction with the fact that those soldiers fighting in Aleppo are from the coast, not from the area where they’re fighting. This highlights the fact that many places where the regime is conducting offensive campaigns are more and more becoming “foreign fronts.”

Something we have talked about on Syria Comment many times is the fact that even if the regime had the capability of retaking the entire country, Assad doesn’t have a political solution that could reunite the country. Ba’athism no longer offers a program that can define the nation, and the regime and what it stood for has entirely lost legitimacy due to its use of violence. The Assad camp therefore has no plan for a future Syria. In this sense they are not “the only game in town” for Syria, and never will be again, regardless of how much control they regain. They may remain the game in regions where they represent the interests of groups who are fighting with them, but places like Aleppo—though now suffering under repressive al-Qaida and Islamist governance—will never stop fighting the regime, because they don’t want what they increasingly view as an outside community ruling over them (the coastal, non-Aleppan “outsiders” differing in sectarian identity as well as in geographic origin).

In sum, Landis believes that a radical, Islamist state may well be unavoidable, as will be the continued rule of the regime, each presiding over different swaths of Syria. The West will have to accept this reality and strive for a ceasefire, if the outflow of refugees is to be staunched. In a Facebook conversation with Mohanad Atassi, Landis said:

You may propose supporting the Saudi strategy of arming the IF to conquer Assad, but that would be a very big undertaking that would surely destroy what is left of Syria. Alternatively, you may be for arming Idriss and what is left of the FSA, but they seem to have failed as they have no local support from any of the Gulf countries or big spenders in the region. Clearly, the West determined that he was not a winner and wasn’t worth the effort or investment. That may have been a mistake, but I don’t believe he was going to be anymore successful than Chalabi and company.


The NYT today published a series of short articles contributing to this discussion. Landis, Crocker, and other informed voices weigh in. The position discussed above, held by Dr. Landis, is presented in his article, re-posted here:

A Cease-Fire Is the Best Hope

by Joshua Landis, December 21, 2013 – New York Times

If the United States and the West are unwilling to depose Assad or destroy the Syrian Army, they must come to terms with Assad’s survival. In all probability, he will remain the ruler of a large part of Syria for years to come.

The United States has no good choices for a solution in Syria. All sides will have to make deep compromises. The United States will have to climb down from its position that Assad must go. The Iranians and Russians will have to give up their hope that Assad will destroy the rebel forces arrayed against him and reconquer Syria. The Saudis, Turks and Gulf Arabs will have to accept that they cannot destroy the Assad regime and achieve a total Sunni win.

The best outcome that the United States can pursue today is a cease-fire. This will mean getting all concerned states to shut off the arms and military aid that they send to their proxies. Instead, aid must be directed to humanitarian needs. Only such a policy will stop the destruction of Syria, outflow of refuges and endless human suffering.

Of course, a cease-fire will mean that both radical Islamists and Assad’s regime are here to stay for the immediate future. Syria will likely remain a patchwork of autonomous zones for some time. A cease-fire would confirm the present reality on the ground. The Assad regime would rule over much of the west and south of the country. Rebel groups would rule over much of the north and east. And Kurds would rule over their zone in the far northeast.

With some luck, Syrians may rebuild their country and unite as did the Lebanese after establishing a cease-fire. Refugees could begin to return to their towns and homes, and the world could begin to contemplate how to rebuild Syria rather than destroy it.

Ryan Crocker’s article:

Assad Is the Least Worst Option

It is time to consider a future for Syria without Assad’s ouster, because it is overwhelmingly likely that is what the future will be.

President Obama’s bold declaration in 2011 that Assad must go violated a fundamental principle of foreign affairs: if you articulate a policy, you had better be sure you have the means to carry it out. In Syria, we clearly did not.

We assumed that Syria was like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya with a hated dictator ripe for toppling by his people. History demonstrates why toppling would not be easy: Hama, 1982. Bashar’s father Hafez cornered the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the country’s fourth largest city. Ringed by armor and artillery, the city center was destroyed. The Brothers were neutralized, but some 15,000 Sunni civilians also perished. The exact number will never be known.

There were two long-term consequences. First, the minority Alawi regime under father and son knows there may someday be a day of reckoning and spent the next three decades developing the security, military and intelligence apparatus to withstand it. For the Alawites, it’s simple: we either hang together or we hang separately. There was never a question that the security forces would turn against the regime and thereby sign their own death warrants.

Second, because of Hama, significant elements of the Sunni community are deeply radicalized. Repressed, but radicalized, waiting for the day of revenge. Another non-surprise: the most extreme elements of the opposition, affiliated with Al Qaeda, have taken control of it.

It is also not a surprise that Iran and its Lebanese asset Hezbollah are all in on the side of Assad. The Alawis, a Shi’a offshoot, are Iran’s only allies in a hostile Sunni sea. Nor is it a surprise that Russia blocked a Security Council Chapter VII resolution. The impact of a radical Sunni ascendancy in Damascus on Chechnya and Dagestan is one of Moscow’s worst security nightmares.

Better armed, organized, supported and motivated, Assad isn’t going. Most likely, he will get the country back, inch by bloody inch. Perhaps Al Qaeda will hold a few enclaves in the north. But he will hold Damascus. And do we really want the alternative — a major country at the heart of the Arab world in the hands of Al Qaeda?

So we need to come to terms with a future that includes Assad — and consider that as bad as he is, there is something worse. A good place to start is Geneva next month and some quiet engagement with Syrian officials.

Rima Allaf’s article represents the position (responded to above) that finds regime participation headed-by-Assad unacceptable:

War’s Victims Want No One With Blood on Their Hands

… We don’t need a referendum to know that most Syrians want the carnage to stop immediately. Most realize, however, that violence won’t end if the Assad clan is allowed to stay as a de facto winner, continuing to impose collective punishments on those guilty of nothing more than civil disobedience or intellectual opposition. This would push armed opposition even more to a “death or liberty” mode, straight into the arms of better-organized extremists.

The false dichotomy of Assad or the current opposition (or worse, of Assad or the extremists) has forced many Syrians into making a choice. But the vibrant civil society which has flourished in spite of – or perhaps because of – the war presents a third option of transition to reconciliation and justice on an equal platform of citizenship, led by independent Syrians with no blood on their hands, empowered by real international support.

Today, the two safest buildings in Syria are the presidential palace in Damascus and the headquarters of the militant ISIS in Raqqa. If the United State and Russia don’t cut their wings, there will be no containment of the catastrophe until both sets of warlords have left those buildings.

Hassan Hassan shares this perspective:

Fighting Will Not Stop While Assad Remains

… But a future for Syria with Assad is more of a slogan than a thought-out solution. Beyond the moral considerations, there are practical reasons that Assad cannot hold on to power.

Without his removal one cannot imagine an end to the violence in Syria. How do you deal with extremists while Assad remains? Hunt them down? How do you roll the regime’s army into liberated areas? How would you decide the sectarian or regional make up of the officers and soldiers in each area? …

Randa Slim’s article considers Geneva in light of regional considerations:

Regional Powers Will Tire of Assad, and Conflict

… The Geneva II talks, now scheduled to start Jan. 22, will officially usher in Syria’s international deal-making phase. Yet those negotiations will not produce a peace agreement anytime soon. While U.S.-Russian talks were critical in getting the regime to surrender its chemical arsenal, four regional war funders, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Iran, will be consequential to ending the civil war itself.

For now, each is more focused on outright victory for their favored camps. Despite talk of Syria exporting conflict into neighboring states, these states have exported their own rivalries to Syria.