- REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Barack Obama’s stance of calling on Syrian President Bashar Assad to transition out of power while maintaining basic government functions after he’s ousted is a “fantasy” in the context of how the country works, according to Tony Badran, a researcher at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
“The biggest myth out there is the existence of ‘state institutions’ separate from Assad,” Badran 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, Obama 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 Assad was transitioned out, Obama softened his stance on the Syrian president.
This idealistic quid pro quo, however, “betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how Syria works,” Badran said.
As Badran has saidin the past, there is no “deep state” independent of the Assads that could keep the country running. Therefore, Badran said, 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, referring to the Alawite religious clan that makes up about 12% of Syria’s population. “They don’t call it ‘Souriya al-Assad,'” or 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 was in Syria:
“Since I was born, I only knew one president all my life – Hafez Al-Assad, the father of Bashar Al-Assad.”
- Syrian government
“Every day at school from first 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,” said Rabe, who requested to be identified by only his first name. “In the end we had to say ‘our president forever: the great one Haffez Al Assad’ three times before going to class.”
“When he died, I couldn’t believe it – I thought, ‘he is an immortal, he can’t be dead. He is forever.'”
‘Living in a fantasy’
Both Russia and Iran have vested interests in preserving this system and its institutions as they stand. That 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. If Assad is removed, there’s a chance the port will remain under Russian control.
Economically, the numbers speak for themselves: Roughly 80% of the Assad regime’s military equipment has been purchased from Russia, whose economic interests in Syria totaled about $20 billion as of June 2012.
And as Iran’s most crucial ally in the region, the Assad regime is critical to Iran’s retaining its bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon and preserving its geopolitical influence along the eastern Mediterranean.
The Iranians see Assad as “the only guarantor of Iranian influence and support for Hezbollah,” Mustafa Alani, the director of security and defense studies at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center, told The Wall Street Journal last week.
To that end, Tehran spends as much as $35 billion a yearpropping 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,” Badran said. “If you take Assad out, the whole system collapses.”
But Obama evidently believed that, as Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin reported last week: “Obama administration officials have been telling the Russians and the Iranians for over a year that the US 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 andIran got the concessions that they wantedby 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 warplanes started bombing US-backed rebels in Syria’s west and north under the guise of bombing ISIS.
Though Putin andObama had reportedlyagreed 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 plan between Russia and Iran to save Assad had been in the works for months. By September, Iranian military mastermind Qassem Soleimani had already traveled to Moscow several times to discuss the plan’s logistics with Putin directly.
This means “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.
On Wednesday,the Syrian army – bolstered by Iran-backed troops and newly deployed Russian “advisers” – launched its first ground offensive against Syrian rebels with Russian air cover, while additional Russian airstrikes destroyed the main weapons depots of the US-backed rebel group Suqour al-Jabal.
- REUTERS/Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Kremlin
“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 said. “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 Business Insider by email.
“The danger is that we move one step further still.”