Why Assad has to stay


A photograph from the Syrian Presidency's Facebook page appears to show Bashar Assad meeting troops in Daraya on Aug. 1, 2013.


Syrian Presidency

Editor's note: A version of this commentary first appeared on The Free Press.

OWL'S HEAD, Maine — If you want a fine example of a leopard changing its spots, read George F. Will's column from earlier this month, in which the Washington Post opinion writer analyzed Secretary of State John Kerry's deal with Iran and praised it, correctly concluding that it was preferable to the alternative, war.

If Will, who's never met a conservative position he didn't support, backs Kerry's Iran deal, all the more reason to give the secretary great credit: he saw a new opportunity in Iran, created by the election of the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, and took total advantage of it.

But that was after Kerry had rushed headlong into the Palestinian-Israeli problem, where there was no new opportunity, other than what he saw, erringly, as his own unique skills.

So, Kerry's 1 for 2, batting .500, which — in foreign policy like in baseball — is no mean achievement.

But if Iran involved taking advantage of a sudden opportunity, how do we characterize what must be done now in Syria?

Because what must be done is a 180-degree reversal. Assad must remain in power — and the US must support that position.

If you thought Kerry faced opposition from the Republican right wing over the Iran deal, wait'll you see the liberal Democrats join forces with the Tea Party and everyone in between if Kerry pulls this switch. But it's got to be done.

Why? The reasons by now should be obvious. There are worse things than having Assad and his Alawite-run army remain in Syria; namely, seeing the Al Qaeda-backed militias take power. And they are gaining strength daily. Reports from journalists and other non-participants on the ground in Syria agree on the following: 1) Assad's government forces have recently reversed the momentum of the rebels around Damascus and also in the north and east, and 2) Where the rebels are still winning, or at least holding their own, it's the Al Qaeda-backed Nusra front and other Muslim Sunni jihadists that are in the forefront of the fight.

The unfortunate fact is that extremist Sunnis are streaming into Syria from across the Arab world, as well as from Chechnya, Western Europe and even, reportedly, a few dozen from the US. A murderous civil war against what extremist Sunnis consider an apostate regime attracts wild-eyed radicals and funding from Saudis and others in the Gulf; unfortunately, the moderate, more secular anti-Assad factions attract no fighters, and little money, from abroad.

From the beginning of the Syrian uprising, after Egypt's Hosni Mubarak had fallen in a matter of weeks, hard on the heels of a similar result in Tunisia, conventional wisdom assumed that Assad might hang on a bit longer but was surely approaching the exit ramp. What analysts missed was that Mubarak and Tunisia's Ben Ali were kept in power by the army, but that the army and its top generals could dump the dictator and still retain control.  

Not so in Syria, where Assad's and his Alawite army were joined at the hip. The majority Sunni population wanted to rid themselves of Alawite control, but tossing Assad aside would not work. The Alawites, who make up less than one-fifth of the Syrian population, would fight to the finish.  

Adding to the confusion was the fact that other minorities, primarily Christians and Druze, had been sufficiently protected by the Alawite government that they were not necessarily in favor of the majority Sunnis' taking power. Additionally, as the war dragged on, the opposition alienated the largely Sunni urban middle class, who had seen the Syrian economy open westward in the years prior to the civil war and were suddenly watching it collapse. Urban Sunnis are also sufficiently secular that the growing upsurge in Islamist radicals among the opposition made them increasingly nervous.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Not in a three-way civil war. Assad's strongest foes now are the extremist Al Qaeda look-alikes, and they are a bigger threat than Assad to the lifestyle of the moderate Sunni opposition that initiated the revolution. Nor, of course, can the jihadists ever be friends of the West, however much they are enemies of Assad. In this case, the enemy of my enemy must make me re-think who is my real enemy.

No analogies are perfect, especially one that compares 1930s Catholic Spain to today's Muslim Syria. But as the Spanish civil war developed, the Republicans increasingly received most of their materiel from the Soviet Union; it's not inconceivable that a Republican victory would have ended with a communist takeover in Madrid. Certainly, it's better Franco won than that a major European country, on the cusp of World War II, would have had a communist government.

Similarly, we must now accept that it's better Assad remain in power than that the civil war continues and, after more deaths and further destruction, the country is taken over by a group that would welcome Al Qaeda, impose Shariah law, and look to Lebanon and Jordan to export their victory.

So, as Kerry prepares for the Geneva meetings about Syria next month, he's got a lot of homework to do, most of it unpleasant. He's going to be giving the Russians another victory by switching to Assad. He's going to be infuriating the Saudis, and their Gulf colleagues, who have still not forgiven him for the Iranian deal. And, of course, it'll be seen as a victory for the Iranians which will make congressional Republicans, once again, apoplectic, and more anti-Obama than ever.

The agreed-upon goal must be a coalition government, with Assad staying on temporarily, and then, distasteful as it is, permitted to go into exile in Russia and not dragged before the International Criminal Court. Obviously, Russian buy-in is a must, but Russia, with its large and unhappy Muslim population in the Caucasus, fears militant Islam even more than the US.  And while their preference would be a status quo ante, with Assad firmly in power, they know that's a non-starter.  

A coalition government will be a particularly hard sell to the moderate rebel factions, who would see it as a betrayal, though it would guarantee some of their key leaders a role in the new government. But for them as well as Assad's Alawite government, it would have one very obvious advantage: the ending of the bloodshed, which could save tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives as well as what's left of Syrian infrastructure.  

Additionally, by reassuring high-ranking Alawite members of the army and government's continued role, it could make them willing to accept Assad's departure down the road.

Will it work? Who knows. It sure won't be easy. And it's impossible to believe the deal will be accomplished overnight, but Kerry must start laying the groundwork next month in Geneva. It will involve all the major outside powers getting on the same page. It'll mean bringing bitter enemies together to join forces against an even worse enemy. UN peacekeeping forces will probably be necessary, and billions in reconstruction funds.

But is letting the civil war continue and Al Qaeda increase its foothold in the center of the Arab world a better option?

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a foreign service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives in Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.