Assad seems to outlive Obama in power, maybe for many years to come
by Sinan Öztürk
ISTANBULFeb 23, 2016 - 12:00 am GMT+3
by Sinan Öztürk
Feb 23, 2016 12:00 am
"Assad's days are numbered."
This quote was used by numerous American officials while referring to Bashar Assad as the bloody civil war in Syria enters its sixth year. It was said in various cases by American officials when the civil war first broke out in 2011. After that President Barack Obama openly said it during the final televised presidential debate with his opponent Republican candidate Mitt Romney on Oct. 22, 2012, when millions of Americans, including millions of others around the world, were watching.
"I am confident that Assad's days are numbered," Obama said, after stating what his administration has done so far against the regime.
The same year, on July 8, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who now runs for nomination as the leading candidate of the Democrats for the 2016 Presidential Elections, not only told Assad that his days were numbered, but said that anyone supporting him would not cling to power for much long. "So the future, to me, should be abundantly clear to those who support the Assad regime: the days are numbered."
The same rhetoric was also used by Arab League Secretary General Nabeel Al Arabi in 2012, or various leaders around the world, like former French President Nicolas Sarkozy or British Prime Minister David Cameron, they have all pledged to take Assad into account for his crimes against humanity, in shiny sentences where there they condemned the regime's actions as "barbaric" while suggesting Assad is a "dictator."
However, the stance that would be the most decisive from the beginning was the U.S., being the leading military power in the world and the key ally of the countries that have opposed Assad since the beginning of the civil war. And so far, the U.S. has rejected any concrete effort in Syria to help the moderate opposition form an active fighting force against the regime and terror groups on the ground. Lacking any military commitment from the U.S., the anti-Daesh coalition or neighboring countries for initial military interventions to secure itself as an active fighting force, the "Train and Equip" program proved unfruitful. Over the course of the five-year-long war, moderate groups, under attack from all parties, lost their ground and support base to radical groups.
Despite humanitarian crimes targeting civilians, including the use of chemical weapons in August 2013 in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, regime forces were not targeted by any international powers; although Obama had declared in 2012 that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was the U.S.'s "red line" for a military intervention. Instead, the U.S. was one of the prominent backers of the formula that prevented the airstrikes in return for the regime to hand over its chemical stockpile, which took place over the course of early 2014 to 2015. This move not only provided further legitimacy to the regime, but also removed any existing deterrence of Western powers against humanitarian crimes in Syria.
Starting from September 2015, Russia actively began its operations to support the Syrian regime under the disguise of attacking the Daesh terror organization. So far, only around 10 percent of Russian airstrikes have targeted Daesh with little effect on ground control. Whereas areas held by moderate opposition groups, regardless of being the military of civilian targets, were constantly targeted by Russian airstrikes, which were followed by Iran's attacks and Hezbollah-backed regime forces. Along with changes in ground control, these attacks devastated the already crippled social and economic infrastructure, causing thousands more to flee neighboring countries which are already carrying the burden of millions of refugees, while sealing the fate of generations to live in poverty.
Unlike the unwillingness of the U.S., the Russian intervention dramatically changed the power balance in Syria, with Assad forces expanding their control to nearly all of central Homs and Hama provinces. Turkmen areas close to the Mediterranean port of Latakia, a vital point for Russia and the regime to continue their existence in Syria, were targeted during this period despite Turkey's protests and violations of its airspace, which led to the downing of a Russian Su-24 bomber jet by Turkish F-16 fighters-an incident that has been gravely increasing tension among the two countries. Recently, Assad and PYD forces cut the main supply route between Turkey and Syria's second largest city Aleppo, which has been contested by regime and opposition forces since 2011, and the strip of land containing towns of Azaz, Marea and Tel Rifaat had been largely occupied by the PYD. As regime forces got the upper hand on the ground since the Russian involvement, a regime attack or siege on Aleppo, which is still inhabited by hundreds of thousands of civilians, is inevitable despite ongoing truce efforts.
The problem is, despite these facts, the U.S. seems to have settled with the idea of keeping Assad in power, who has transformed into a lesser evil in the eyes of the West due to the stunning rise and advance of Daesh, which also shocked the world with its brutality. This policy was clearly acknowledged when Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina questioned Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford and Secretary Carter about the U.S. strategy in Syria during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on October 27, 2015.
The answers by both Carter and Dunford show that the U.S. clearly does not want to further engage in Syria, and they accepted the existence of a regime that would merely be nothing but a client state of Russia and Iran.
"Are we going to supply air support for the people we trained to fight ISIL?" Graham asked during the hearing, using an alternative acronym for Daesh. General Dunford replied yes, but when Graham asked if these groups have a goal to "take Assad down," Dunford said that he does not know. Graham said that Syrian people want to get rid of Assad and Daesh, and asked if the U.S. is ready to support these groups against Assad when the fight against Daesh is concluded. The reply, if there was any, was proof that the U.S. does not have a clear strategy or intent to remove Assad from power.
"So let me just end this. If I am Assad, this is a good day for me because the American government has just said without saying it that they are not going to fight to replace me," Graham ends his harsh questioning of two men that greatly shape the defense policies of the U.S.
During the same hearing, Republican Senator John McCain from Arizona also asked whether the U.S. intended to protect the forces that are a part of its train and equip program. "Are we going to protect them from being barrel-bombed by Bashar Assad and protect them from Russia?" he asked. Carter replied that the U.S. has an obligation to do that, but McCain stated that U.S. backed forces were attacked, despite Carter objecting it.
McCain gave references of retired General David Petraeus, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Clinton backing a no-fly zone to stop the regime from targeting civilian areas, a measure proposed by Turkey near its borders where humanitarian assistance would be possible. This idea has recently been proposed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country faced a massive refugee influx in 2015. Carter replied by saying that humanitarian zones, buffer zones and no-fly zones had all been examined. "We do not have a concept of operations at this time…" he said. McCain interrupted "After all these years, we don't have a concept of operations?" "…that were prepared to recommend." Carter said.
Since this hearing, Russia-backed regime forces have increased their pace in their attacks against opposition-held areas, despite peace efforts that began in Austrian capital Vienna the same month. Graham said: "So what you have done gentlemen, along with the president, is you have turned Syria over to Russia and Iran. You told the people in Syria who died by the hundreds of thousands that we are more worried about a political settlement than we are about what follows. All I can say is this is a sad day for America and the region will pay hell for this … this is a half-assed strategy at best." Graham is right, as neighboring countries started to examine options for the future to live together with Assad if they could, or to intervene in Syria without turning this intervention into a regional conflict that would include Russia and Iran.