BEIRUT: This week’s resounding re-election of Syrian President Bashar Assad cements a new phase in the war raging in his country, one that sees Washington struggling to formulate an approach based on fighting terror as other options stall, experts say.
Ironically, the cementing of the embattled leader’s formal legitimacy, when he coasted to victory with 88 percent of the vote in an election deemed a farce by many, has coincided with public statements by the White House’s former point man on Syria, Robert Ford.
Ford’s statements in interviews have portrayed a U.S. administration paralyzed by a long debate over how to deal with the Syrian war, and some experts say President Barack Obama’s options are coalescing around a relatively fast-track “counterterror” theme, and, a much slower set of actions designed to support “moderate rebels.”
Assad’s election itself, moreover, comes in a regional context that further helps Assad, despite all of the verbal condemnation of the poll by Western officials.
Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, notes that with recent, similar no-surprise victories by Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika and Abdel-Fattah Sisi, “the Russians or Syrians could start arguing that the West is in effect accepting the result of a presidential election that was dubious to say the least ... the West is dealing with the outcome.”
“This is now the third election, counting Algeria, conducted in a highly skewed campaign and selection process,” Sayigh continued, but Western countries don’t have many political-diplomatic options at hand after allowing the Algerian and Egyptian elections to pass without raising serious objections.
As the war rages on, routinely claiming more than 200 lives a day, political and diplomatic initiatives that tackle the conflict head on appear to have little chance of moving forward, unless there is a dramatic change on the battlefield.
“I don’t think Geneva is on the table,” Sayigh said. “Nothing significant will have changed since failure in February” when the last round of regime-opposition negotiations failed to make headway.
Reports are rife that regime figures have been sought out recently for consultations by Western sides, but some analysts say the contacts are more about routine security or other technical matters, and not a dramatic search for a rapprochement.
Ambassador Ford laid the White House’s failure on Syria – calling it a policy he could no longer defend – at the feet of a failure to commit to a moderate armed opposition, while simultaneously sabotaging these same rebels by not providing enough military assistance.
An early, robust intervention through funding and equipment, some believe, would have prevented the rapid rise of hard-line Islamists and several fighting groups with direct ties to Al-Qaeda, such as its official affiliate the Nusra Front.
The current mini-civil war pitting the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), disowned by the central Al-Qaeda organization, and the Nusra Front and its Islamist allies, presents even more complicated nuances for policymakers.
Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle Studies at University of Oklahoma, says there are people in the intelligence community who understand all of the shades of gray among the militias, but that in the end, a concise policy needs to be “sold to Congress and the American public.”
Obama’s overarching goal, Landis says, is counterterrorism, an argument used to back Sisi.
“The U.S. is torn,” Landis added. “The big question for Obama is, does he want to cooperate with Iran on counterterrorism in the Levant, in Iraq and Syria, and particularly against ISIS?”
In such a scenario, “the rebels are on life support for two years until a new president is elected, as they pray they get one more sympathetic to their cause.”
“Russia and Iran,” Landis continued, “feel like they’re winning and will press their advantage, giving the Syrian army a bit more assistance, to counterbalance what Obama and the Saudis are giving” to various moderate groups.
Landis said there were serious U.S. efforts to vet, train and equip moderate rebel groups, but with extremely discouraging results thus far, due to their lack of unity.
Moreover, the Nusra Front is currently conducting many campaigns jointly with the Islamic Front, an alliance of seven large militias. A policy of confronting terror too directly would bring Washington into conflict with these militias, which it would ideally like to see break their ties with Nusra and move in the direction of the more moderate Free Syrian Army.
These complicating elements, according to Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, mean that even if Obama wants to fall back on a “security” approach focusing on fighting terror, and leaving the door open for cooperation with Iran, the arena is complex.
“I think Obama would like to do as little as possible before handing the Syria problem off to his successor,” Tabler said. “But the problem [terror] is metastasizing quickly – U.S.-designated terrorist organizations are gathering on all sides of the Syrian war – and its generating more extremism. I think Obama’s hesitancy is the origin of the incremental approach here.”
The counterterror approach has become more urgent in the wake of repeated European and American warning bells about the danger posed by the return of jihadist veterans of the conflict.
Asked whether Western policymakers had a clear-cut idea of what they meant exactly when giving the “fight terrorism” argument priority to their Syria policies, Tabler said: “It’s not clear at this moment.”
“On the one hand, everyone wants to deal with the symptoms of the Syria disease – the extremist fighters. But you can’t bomb them all, as Assad has proven, and Assad shies away from fighting the extremists anyway. Instead, he is attacking the moderates. So there has to be an approach to the disease itself: the brutal war waging inside of Syria.”
As for the stances of Russia and Iran in light of Assad’s election victory, Tabler said that based on a recent trip to Moscow, “the Russians know Assad’s re-election is a joke” but saw it as necessary to justifying his continuing military solution to the uprising.
With Geneva dead there is no prospect for a smooth transition, Tabler continued, saying the partition of the country was a likely scenario.
Experts have long speculated that the Obama administration’s approach also involves the theme of “Syria is like Iraq,” i.e. it is better to remain aloof rather than become heavily involved.
This has apparently produced an odd, reverse mode of fashioning the policy. In Iraq, when the Bush administration had many motives to invade in 2003, it settled on the “safest,” most technical or bureaucratic one, namely going after weapons of mass destruction.
The “fight terror” approach, if it is fully adopted and fleshed out by Obama on Syria, would also appear to be a bureaucratic, technical approach, but one representing the least disagreeable option of several problematic ones, and one that involves avoiding dealing with the politics of the Syrian conflict.
As more and more officials speak about the need to confront the threat of terror in Syria and formulate a clear plan of action, the seeming Plan B, supporting moderate rebels, could even turn out to be a non-starter, according to Sayigh.
“The Europeans and others are playing the game of leveling the playing field, improving the armed opposition, to acquire leverage to use against the regime,” he said.
“But despite all the talk of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry [being supplied or to be supplied to the rebels], there’s no evidence that such a shift would bring the regime to the negotiating table.”