Obama’s stance of calling on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to transition out of power while maintaining state institutions after he’s ousted is a “fantasy” in the context of how the country works.
“The biggest myth out there is the existence of ‘state institutions’ separate from Assad,” Tony Badran, a researcher at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, said in an interview.
“The reality is, once you concede the regime, you inevitably concede Assad.”
Months after the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, President Obama forcefully called for Assad to step down to hasten an end to the violence.
Russia and Iran — key Assad allies — objected, resulting in a 2012 UN communique negotiated in Geneva that implicitly allowed Assad to remain in power as part of a “transitional governing body” that would include members of the opposition and ultimately hold free and fair elections.
This, the Russians asserted, would allow the Syrian people to decide their future for themselves.
Operating under the impression that Moscow and Tehran would work with the Syrian regime to implement this agreement, in which the regime would remain mostly intact while the dictator was transitioned out, Obama softened his stance on Assad.
This idealistic quid pro quo, however, “betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how Syria works,” Badran explained.
As Badran has noted in the past, there is no “deep state” independent of the Assads that could keep the country running — so any notion to the contrary “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,” Badran added. “T
hey don’t call it ‘Souriya al-Assad’ (‘Assad’s Syria’) for nothing.”
“Rabe,” a Syrian refugee who obtained asylum in the US, described to Business Insider just how pervasive the Assad family is in Syria:
“Since I was born, I only knew one president all my life — Hafez Al-Assad, the father of Bashar Al-Assad.”
“Every day at school from 1st grade till graduation from high school, we used to stand in the morning to salute the Syrian flag and say the Baath party mottos and goals,” Rabe said. “In the end we had to say ‘our president forever: the great one Haffez Al Assad’ 3 times before going to class room.”
‘Living in a fantasy’
Russia and Iran both have vested interests in preserving this system and its institutions as they stand — which means, implicitly, that they need Assad to remain in power.
Syria’s port of Tartus, the only warm-water port Russia retained after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is a key foothold for Moscow to continue projecting power into the Mediterranean. Were Assad removed, there’s a chance that the port would remain under Russian control.
Economically, the numbers speak for themselves: Roughly 80 per cent of the Assad regime’s military equipment has been purchased from Russia, whose economic interests in Syria totaled approximately $US20 billion as of June 2012.
And as Iran’s most crucial ally in the region, the Assad regime is critical to Iran retaining its bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon and preserving its geopolitical influence in the Levant.
“They [the Iranians] see Mr. Assad as the only guarantor of Iranian influence and support for Hezbollah,” Mustafa Alani, the director of security and defence studies at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center, told the Wall Street Journal last week.
To that end, Tehran spends as much as $US35 billion per year propping up the regime and has deployed thousands of pro-Assad Shiite militiamen to Syria since the conflict began in 2011.
Given how invaluable Assad is to preserving Iranian and Russian interests in Syria — and to countering American hegemony in the Middle East — any promises Moscow and Tehran may have made to the Obama administration regarding his ouster were inherently disingenuous.
“There is no regime without Assad, so if the Obama administration ever believed the Russians and the Iranians when they said they would try to transition Assad out, they were living in a fantasy — if you take Assad out, the whole system collapses,” Badran said.
But Obama evidently chose fantasy over reality, Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin reported last week: “Obama administration officials have been telling the Russians and the Iranians for over a year that the U.S. would not object to an expanded security role for them inside Syria … in exchange for Russian and Iranian helping to move Assad out of power.”
In reality, Badran said, “Russia and Iran got the concessions that they wanted by telling the US what it wanted to hear.”
‘Ways to prop up Assad by force’
The dynamics of the war changed drastically last week when Russian war planes started bombing US-backed rebels in Syria’s west and north under the guise of bombing ISIS.
Although Putin and Obama had reportedly agreed about fighting ISIS and opening lines of communication between their militaries to prevent an accidental conflict,
Washington has had to learn the hard way that the priority for Russia and Iran has always been to shore up Assad.
As it turns out, a joint Russian/Iranian plan to save Assad had been in the works for months. By September, Iranian military mastermind Qassem Soleimani had already travelled to Moscow several times to discuss the plan’s logistics with Putin directly.
This means that “Tehran and Moscow had been discussing ways to prop up Assad by force even as Western officials were describing what they believed was new flexibility in Moscow’s stance on his future,” Reuters’ Laila Bassam and Tom Perry reported.
Today, the Syrian army — bolstered by Iran-backed troops and now Russian “advisors” — launched its first ground offensive against the rebels with Russian air cover, while additional Russian airstrikes destroyed the main weapons depots of the US-backed rebel group Suqour al-Jabal.
“Obama’s vision has always been based on integrating rather than keeping out, and he has never wanted to be on a war footing,” Badran noted. “He thinks he is improving the situation by ‘sharing the burden’ with Russia and Iran.”
In reality, however, the influence Obama has afforded to Russia and Iran in Syria — in the good faith that they would work to transition Assad out of power — has helped drive the conflict to a new level.
“We’ve already moved one step beyond a proxy war, where the Americans/Europeans and Russians are arming two opposing sides in a war … to where the Russians are now directly fighting Western proxies,” geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, told BI by email.
“The danger is that we move one step further still.”
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