If Assad stays on, then Syria will never be saved

US secretary of state John Kerry and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will discuss how to end Syria's long war. Craig Ruttle / AP
US secretary of state John Kerry and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will discuss how to end Syria's long war. Craig Ruttle / AP

In the past few weeks, the Syrian situation has changed dramatically. It comes as a result of resurgent external support for the Assad regime in Damascus and a weakening of those calling him to account.

There are a number of elements that are very clear – some of which ought to have been evident prior to the Russian intervention.

According to reports from the US, John Kerry, the secretary of state, had a private briefing earlier this week with a number of US senators – and some of the politicians understood that the Russian intervention had “opened up political space”. Mr Kerry is now in Vienna to discuss Syria – and it is not only Russia that is in the room, but also Iranian representatives as well. The political manoeuvres on Syria are leading in one direction – and that is the strengthening of Bashar Al Assad ‘s government in Damascus, with Russian and Iranian support.

These moves do not take place in isolation. A number of Western political leaders have also declared that they could see a role for Mr Al Assad in a transition administration.

That, by itself, is not unusual. But the declaration of a role by western powers serves only one purpose – and that is to close the gap with the Russian position, in which Mr Al Assad stays until a new election takes place.

None of this seems to recognise that one of the fundamental differences between Russia and the West and, crucially, much of the Arab world, is that Mr Al Assad is part of the problem.

As such, when Vladimir Putin declared that Mr Al Assad would work with “some” rebels against ISIL, there were few in Syria who took it seriously.

Indeed, as the pattern of attacks become clearer, it is hard to disregard the notion that Mr Al Assad is attacking non-ISIL forces far more aggressively, so that in the end, the choice for the international community is left between only Mr Al Assad and ISIL.

But none of this should be surprising. The regime in Damascus has powerful backers in Russia and Iran who are willing to intervene. Opponents of that regime have no such comparable sponsors. The help they receive is limited.

Now the search is on for a compromise solution to the crisis in Syria. But the motives have little to do with the civilian body count, which is now in excess of 200,000 since the start of the crisis. The impetus also has little to do with the destruction of much of Syria’s civilisational heritage either. Rather, the critical factors are the flow of refugees to Europe and the threat of ISIL spreading. Bearing these factors in mind, it’s entirely possible Mr Al Assad will get something of a free pass.

But the compromise solution is not the extension of Mr Al Assad’s rule in Damascus. A full solution in Syria would be the radical reform of the regime structure in the country – a full reform of the apparatus, so that not only would Mr Al Assad leave, but the Baathist edifice would change. That wouldn’t necessitate the destruction of the edifice in the same way as in Iraq, but it would mean more than the departure of Mr Al Assad. A compromise, therefore, that includes Mr Al Assad, is not a compromise in the slightest.

But judging from the moves that are currently being entertained in Europe and the US, it may be that any solution that sees the reduction of refugee flows, and increased activity against ISIL, will be deemed as acceptable.

In 1991, following the Gulf War, George Bush, then US president, publicly called for Iraqis to rise up against their president, Saddam Hussein. Baghdad had been responsible for a number of atrocities and various forms of repression, and there was no shortage of Iraqis who opposed him. But the decision to rise against him in 1991 was predicated on the assumption that the rebels would receive assistance. They didn’t. The US did not come to their aid and the rebellion was crushed by Baghdad. A quarter of a century later, those calls from America have never been adequately explained. But indeed, they were reckless.

In 2011, Syrian patriots called for change in their country. They had every right to do so. The world should have protected them from the mass repression of their government’s barrel bombs, and the insidious extremism of ISIL and others. But the world didn’t, even as great powers in the region and the West insisted they supported the rebel cause.

In years to come, there will be questions asked as to why did the world so recklessly say they would help the people of Syria against Mr Al Assad when, indeed, they never would.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow in international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer

Published: October 29, 2015 04:00 AM

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