Tony Badran

Obama’s flexible red lines

Presidents Obama and Putin

In response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s latest address, US officials and spokespersons have dismissively described the embattled dictator as someone “detached from reality” and “delusional,” even doubting whether he could be called “rational.” However, Assad’s posture reflects his reading of Washington’s increasingly wobbly position and the political leverage he has sought to derive from it.

The Obama administration has focused mainly on the uncompromising “initiative” Assad laid out, once again proposing dialogue with individuals of his choosing and dismissing all calls on him to leave power. But the Syrian dictator was not at all concerned with addressing his domestic opponents. Rather, Assad’s speech was aimed at Washington, which he now senses he’s got on the hook.

Why did Assad time his address at this particular moment? The first reason has to do with his likely assessment of US policy, especially since last June’s Geneva agreement stipulating the formation of a national unity government in Syria. It is now obvious that Washington’s strategic incoherence on Syria has come to a head. While the Obama administration clings to its line about the need for Assad to “step aside” and for a “political transition,” it has become increasingly ambivalent about what would replace the Syrian dictator should he fall.

As it has made amply clear through multiple leaks to the media, the administration is unnerved by a host of possible scenarios in Syria, including the number and strength of Islamists among the rebels and the prospect of Iraq-style chaos. Citing these fears, US policy has intentionally paralyzed itself, further clouding its strategic judgment.

In attempting to address its dilemma, the administration has merely sought to square the circle. Rather than push to eradicate the Assad regime, it seeks to preserve parts of it, including, as several administration officials have stressed, the security services.

In Geneva the administration consented to the formation of a so-called “national unity” government, negotiated by the regime and the opposition, which would include so-called “non-criminal” elements of the regime. In other words, should the regime actually agree to this process, it gets a say in determining the shape of such a government. What’s more, this conceit also allowed the administration to talk of “extremists on both sides,” which Washington sought to isolate by designating Jabhat al-Nusra on the rebel side, and on the regime side, the Alawite “Popular Army” and shabiha militias. The problem was redefined. It wasn’t the regime, per se. It was the “extremists” within it.

Assad must have seen this as an important achievement. Far from being sidelined politically, he and his Russian allies got the US to continue to treat the regime as a central interlocutor. Immediately following the Geneva agreement, Assad's movement and preparation of chemical weapons, with the implicit threat to use them, was designed to make the US acknowledge that he could not be circumvented as an interlocutor. That stunt, too, achieved its purpose. What’s more, it not only showed President Obama’s red lines to be flexible, but also that the West preferred for the chemical weapons to remain in the regime’s hands rather than in those of his opponents.

Then came special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s mission, which brought Assad an additional gain. The sticking point in the Geneva accord between Russia and the US was the fate of Assad. Having already softened their position on preserving elements of the regime, the Russians began pushing for further American concessions on the role of Assad himself. After all, the Kremlin maintained, Assad would not agree to step down, nor do we have the ability to pressure him to do so. Accordingly, Brahimi’s camp, in line with Russia’s position, began floating the possibility of Assad remaining at least until 2014.

Washington seemingly objects to Assad staying on, but is signaling eagerness to reach a political solution for fear of extremists among the rebels gaining more strength as the war drags on. An unnamed senior US official expressed how the administration now looks at Syria. “Extremists will continue to fight,” he told reporters in London, unless the voice of moderates prevailed. “Continued fighting benefits extremists on both sides,” he said, which is why “a political solution must be reached as quickly as possible.” The official then added, “We have been saying since January 2012 that there were Al-Qaeda elements in Syria. It’s the only thing we’ve agreed with Assad on.”

Assad reads such statements and probably sees them as confirmation that the US has blinked and is just as worried about Sunni Islamists as it was about the prospects of him remaining in power. Therefore, he perhaps calculates, Washington could yet be forced to come around and negotiate with him. After all, US officials were now openly agreeing with Russian, Iranian and Syrian statements that there can be no military victory by either side in Syria. If that’s the case, then the message for Assad was that he would not likely be removed by force, and therefore would remain part of the political landscape.

This explains the second reason for the timing of Assad’s address. Recognizing that the US was not going to reverse its policy and arm the opposition, Assad figured that his strategy of forcing a stalemate could still work. Recent regime successes in parts of Homs, as well as its counteroffensive in the Damascus suburbs, worked to his advantage. They substantiated his message that his position remained sturdy, at least in Damascus and Homs, where he has relied on direct assistance from Hezbollah, as well as in his communal stronghold in the coastal region.

The longer he can force a stalemate, the better the chance Washington will bend more still. If it has come to accept continuity of regime elements and institutions after a mere two years of fighting, who knows what it might concede in another year? To that effect, the regime’s information campaign is in full swing in order to shape the perception that this is the inevitable endgame. Damascus is already putting out the message that Arab states are revising their position. The idea is that with the Obama administration's second-term cabinet stacked with former advocates of engagement with Assad, the US, too, will come around.

Assad’s speech itself, then, was part of a broader information campaign. Far from being irrational, it is based on a reading of Washington’s fecklessness. The Obama administration claimed that Assad’s address undermined Brahimi’s mission. But its only response is to go ahead with yet another meeting with Brahimi and the Russians, continue support for the envoy’s initiative, and double down on the Geneva framework, with the aim of “encouraging parties to be serious” about creating “an alternative political reality.” Unfortunately, it is Washington that seems to be inhabiting an alternative political reality—a dreamworld.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

Presidents Obama and Putin discuss Syria at the G20 Summit. US officials are now openly agreeing with Russian statements that there can be no military victory by either side in Syria. (AFP photo)

Bashar al-Assad’s recent speech was aimed at Washington, which he now senses he’s got on the hook.