Has the Obama administration abandoned its previously stated policy of regime change in Syria? Following the trajectory of Washington’s diplomatic choices, now culminating in the enthusiastic endorsement of Kofi Annan’s six point plan, it certainly seems so.
The fact is that neither the Annan plan nor the supporting UN Security Council statement that followed it make any reference to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stepping down. They also ignore the earlier Arab League call for Assad to hand over power to his vice president. In contrast, the Annan plan backed by President Obama calls for a “Syrian-led” dialogue between Assad and the opposition, thereby legitimizing the dictator as an interlocutor.
Various statements coming from administration officials about the policy objective in Syria have contributed to the speculation about this reversal. Whenever the administration discussed its desired outcome in Syria, it spoke of a “democratic transition.” What, exactly, that implied was not always explained. However, every so often, an official would offer hints as to what the administration meant by that term.
Take for instance the eyebrow-raising definition offered by Ambassador Robert Ford last month. “Transition,” he explained in an interview, “means that gradually – gradually – the political system opens up to respecting basic human rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom to establish political groupings or charitable organizations without objection from the Syrian government, or the freedom of peaceful protest.” When pressed on whether this should happen “with Bashar Assad,” Ford timidly replied that this was a decision for the Syrian people, and that the US position was merely “an opinion, and nothing more.”
Ford’s performance was not a passing gaffe. Just last Friday, a State Department spokesperson used even vaguer language, telling the press that what the administration wanted to see “is a process that … proceeds on to a real conversation about a transformation in a democratic direction in Syria.”
To be fair, it’s possible the White House has not abandoned regime change. Pressed earlier this month to explain exactly where Washington stands on Assad’s status, a senior administration official stressed that the “political transition” the United States wants would “of course … include [Assad] stepping down.” Moreover, according to the readout of President Obama’s meeting with his outgoing Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev on Monday, the president “made clear his belief that part of the transition envisioned in Kofi Annan's initiative would have to involve President Assad leaving power.”
However, the problem is that these statements do not register as a publicly and forcefully articulated red line backed up by a credible threat. Rather, they are more like a suggestion, along the lines of Ford’s characterization of the US position as a mere expression of opinion.
Moreover, even these subdued statements are further undermined by the very process that the administration is promoting. Clearly, the Russians couldn’t care less about the administration’s public hedges as long as the US has officially committed itself to a plan that explicitly bows to the Kremlin’s conditions. More than that, what the Obama administration has done effectively is to empower the Russian position over that of its regional allies, making it the only game in town.
Despite its praise for the historical leadership role of the Arab League on Syria, the administration has actually forced its Arab allies to take a step back from their position calling on Assad to hand over power and instead embrace a plan that endorses the Russian position.
The same extends to Turkey, which will be hosting the next Friends of Syria meeting on Sunday. Concerned about a push toward a more aggressive approach, the administration has made it known that it expects the Turks to “deepen and broaden the consensus about the way forward.” In other words, Ankara must line up behind the administration’s preference in supporting the Annan plan.
There is a clear disconnect in the administration’s posture. When the US declares a policy of regime change in Syria, this cannot be a mere suggestion or nothing more than an “opinion.” Regional allies who have staked out forward leaning positions against Assad expect the US to follow through on its declared policy and ensure it is achieved.
So has the administration abandoned regime change? The signs gleaned from its actions are not encouraging. The statements to the contrary have the feel of a rhetorical deflection of criticism, but when added up they don’t amount to a coherent position.
US allies are looking to it for leadership and clarity but instead find passivity and incoherence when it comes to securing Assad’s ouster. When the administration does exert assertive leadership, it is only to force its allies in line behind the policies of Assad’s backers in Moscow. While this may not save Assad in the end, it is not without long-term implications for US credibility in the region. The message the Obama administration is reinforcing is that when it comes to punishing common enemies, Washington may not always have its allies’ back.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.