Michael Young

As you like it

Barack Obama makes a major concession on Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with US Secretary of State John Kerry during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on 15 December 2015. (AFP/Sergei Karpukhin)

With an ally like the United States, it’s not surprising the Saudis and Turks are worried about what happens in Syria. At no point was this truer than when Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian officials in Moscow this week.


In a surprising statement, Kerry accepted that Bashar Assad’s departure was no longer a precondition for a peace process to end the war in Syria. “The United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change,” Kerry said. He went on to point out that the focus now was “not on [Russian-American] differences about what can or cannot be done immediately about Assad.” Rather, it was determining which “Syrians will be making decisions for the future of Syria.” 


This represented a major success for Russia. The American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, appeared to temper Kerry’s comments, saying, “There is going to have to be a political transition and Assad will have to go.” However, even if the Obama administration insists Assad is not fit to lead, its acceptance of him for now suggests the contrary.


The American concession will also create a serious rift in the anti-Assad alliance, with Saudi Arabia having warnedthat the Syrian president can either leave voluntarily or will be removed militarily. Yet now, with Kerry yielding on Assad to inject life into a possible UN-sponsored Syria peace effort, the priorities in Washington are plainly very different than those in Riyadh and Ankara. Whether Barack Obama can bring the Saudis and Turks in on the arrangement is a different matter, even if Kerry did happen to also speak in the name of “our partners.”


The American view that Assad can stay temporarily is highly unconvincing. Once Assad is involved in postwar negotiations, he wins on two fronts: if the opposition refuses to go forward due to his remaining in office, it will be seen as the obstacle to a settlement, not Assad. And if the opposition agrees to continue negotiations, then Assad gains in legitimacy and it will become much more difficult to ease him out at a later date. Once talks are advanced, if that ever happens, who will want to rock the boat by insisting that Assad must go?


What Kerry’s remarks showed, above all, was that the Obama administration wants to be rid of the Syrian migraine as quickly as possible, through any deal possible, to focus on fighting ISIS. Assad read the Americans perfectly. His regime helped reinforce ISIS, knowing the Obama administration would fall into the trap of assuming it was far greater a problem than Assad.


Once he can stabilize himself through negotiations, Assad will launch a few more bombs on ISIS and, presto, he will become a recognized member of the international coalition fighting the jihadist group. The Saudis and Turks, already regarded in much of the world as patrons of the jihadists, will be hard-pressed to pursue their support for Assad’s opponents, especially if the Obama administration pressures them to facilitate a solution.


None of this is particularly surprising. To Obama the uprising in Syria was always secondary in his preoccupations. It was “somebody else’s civil war,” as he told George Stephanopoulos, seemingly indifferent to the terrible casualty toll there and the brutality of a regime that initiated the conflict by firing on peaceful demonstrators. Obama may have recognized Assad’s responsibility since, but this has not changed much in his thinking. His real interest lies in defeating ISIS.


The American shift on Assad was already visible in the run-up to the recent Riyadh conference of Syrian opposition groups. Before it began Kerry pointedly advised the opposition to use “creative language” when discussing Assad’s fate.


Shortly thereafter, Kerry made another statement suggesting a new mood in Washington. “I think we know it, that without the ability to find some ground forces that are prepared to take on [ISIS], this will not be won completely from the air,” Kerry said at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. When asked if that meant Western and Arab forces, the secretary replied that he meant Syrian and Arab forces. In essence he reaffirmed that, with or without Assad, the Americans want to preserve the institutions of the Syrian state.


Assad sees this as an invitation to fight on for his political survival. Since in many regards he is the state, and finding a credible replacement is all but impossible, the Syrian leader and his Russian and Iranian backers are continuing to manipulate American anti-ISIS obsessions to keep Assad in office.


An international conference on Syria is taking place in New York this week, bringing together members of the International Syrian Support Group, including the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France and other nations. The aim of the conference is to enable a Security Council resolution that would bring about a ceasefire in Syria and initiate talks between the Assad regime and the opposition.


In this context, the shift in the American position weakens the hand of Assad’s regional enemies. It also puts the Saudis and Turks on the spot, as they are the ones who will have to convince the opposition to go along with a negotiating process that sets no timetable for Assad’s exit.


Nor will either country have much of a choice, since any obstruction will be portrayed as undermining a settlement and aiding the jihadists. That is precisely why the Saudis took the lead in establishing an anti-ISIS Muslim coalition this week.


Vladimir Putin can take satisfaction in his successes. The Syrian Army has made gains lately and the Russian leader’s political strategy seems to be working. Barack Obama has proven to be the best of enemies.


Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with US Secretary of State John Kerry during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on 15 December 2015. (AFP/Sergei Karpukhin)

Assad read the Americans perfectly. His regime helped reinforce ISIS, knowing the Obama administration would fall into the trap of assuming it was far greater a problem than Assad."

  • eliyahu.benabraham.7

    VD, have you seen the documents that you refer to proving ISIL is a US and allied creation? Anyhow, maybe Michael Young knows more about what goes in Syria than you do. The fact is that in 2012 approx Assad let thousands of Muslim Brotherhood prisoners out of jail in Syria. They teamed up with al-Qa'ida in Iraq and thus we came to have ISIL later on. Now, Young does not seem to be a mouthpiece for US interests. So maybe you should listen to him. Don't be simplistic about US policy however bad it may be. Obama does not control the flood and ebbing of the tides or the waning of the moon, much as he might want to.

    December 21, 2015

  • WVD

    How stupid or how big a liar must one be to claim Assad has any responsibility for the existence of ISIS. ISIS was known as Al Qaeda in Iraq and helped start the rebellion in March 2011, and it is they who created Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda in Syria. Afterwards they split I guess because the money to be made from oil sales. Documents show ISIS is in fact a creation of the US and its partners in crime. But no doubt this man knows this but prefers to continue to tell lies. This site should be called: Now. Lies.

    December 20, 2015