Assad may be the bad part of a good solution
In early 2013, the head of a think tank, a Middle East correspondent for a television station and I were discussing the ongoing carnage in Syria. Attempts at mediation, first by the Arab League, then by successive UN envoys Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi (who also had the League’s mandate) had gone nowhere. The TV correspondent and I were both adamant: president Bashar Al Assad had to be part of any solution. Our friend at the think tank, meanwhile, was equally convinced that he could not.
His position was understandable. Outrage at the waves of violence, torture and indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians that the Syrian leader had unleashed on his population was still fresh. So, too, was the knowledge that he had effectively created a civil war by his cruel and disproportionate response to what had initially been peaceful protests.
In the early years of his presidency, Mr Al Assad had promised reforms and few thought that this London-trained ophthalmologist could be capable of the callous brutality of his father, Hafez Al Assad. That turned out to be wrong. Even so, all hope had not been leached from the promise of the Arab Spring. Many were surprised that Mr Al Assad had managed to cling on so long but they still thought that his departure was inevitable, however long it took.
Nearly two and a half years later, such optimism looks horribly misplaced. The support that Mr Al Assad long enjoyed from Syria’s religious minorities may be crumbling, with leaders of the Druze community fearing that the regime has neither the willingness nor the capability to defend them against extremists who regard them as apostates.
A report at the end of 2014 concluded that the Syrian army had more than halved in number since the beginning of the civil war, from 325,000 down to 150,000, with 44,000 deaths in combat, and desertions and defections making up the rest. A harsh new recruitment drive has provoked anger among loyalists.
The regime has, this year, lost towns and cities including Idlib to the Nusra Front and Palmyra to ISIL. The latter group now controls about half the country.
Yet still Mr Al Assad remains, and with the Iranian nuclear deal unfreezing over $100 billion – some of which Mr Al Assad hopes will make its way to him – it is no wonder that Syria’s president declared the agreement “a great victory”.
True, there may have been recent reports of Saudi Arabia urging Russia’s president Putin, another key supporter of Mr Al Assad, to name a possible successor with whom both outside parties and what’s left of the “moderate opposition” would be comfortable dealing. But Mr Al Assad’s imminent departure has been predicted too many times to give too much credence to this. And it may well be that, as Emile Hokayem, the former National columnist now the International Institute of Strategic Studies’ told the Financial Times recently: “Today Assad is just the most powerful warlord of Syria, but in current conditions, he can live with that.”
In important respects, the same conditions that led my television correspondent friend and I to argue that Mr Al Assad had to be part of any solution still hold today. He looked then, as he does now, like he could hold on indefinitely, even if only to a much-shrunken heartland.
More importantly, what reason was there for him to step down? Unless he did so after an agreement that he participated in brokering, which would be his best chance for a subsequent Syrian government to guarantee him immunity from prosecution, he would face a life of exile with the threat of extradition and trial in an international court hanging permanently over his head.
There is no sign that any side has the means and the momentum to achieve overall victory. In fact, Syria is looking more and more like a painfully drawn out stalemate in which battles and towns may be won, but the war will not.
As Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria, wrote for the Middle East Institute last month: “This worry about extremists taking over from Assad would be a legitimate concern if it was remotely realistic. It is not. Neither ISIL nor Nusra nor any other armed faction is going to seize full power from a collapsed Assad government. The Assad government is weakening, but it isn’t going to disappear, and there is sharp competition between the armed factions, with none strong enough to vanquish the others.”
Well over 100,000 people have been killed in Syria since early 2013, and ISIL had yet to come into existence. The main stumbling block in all the attempts to find a solution to the Syrian conflict has been the opposition’s insistence that Mr Al Assad has to go.
If all those lives could have been saved, and if we could have been spared the resurrection of mass slavery and beheadings in Syria (quite apart from the global reach that ISIL has gained from building so strong a base both there and in Iraq): would that not have been worth allowing a bloody dictator to remain in place?
The world has done it many times before, when needs must. Most famously. it occurred in the Allies’ embrace during the Second World War of Stalin – the second worst mass murderer in history after China’s chairman Mao.
Syria’s tragedy is that Mr Al Assad is now probably far less able to help bring an end to the conflict than he was two years ago. That does not mean that the necessity of bringing him to the table should not finally be accepted.
If we allow the purity of principle to trump an unpalatable reality, we will be spurning the best chance for the killing to stop.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia