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US realpolitik means 'mass murderer' Assad looks safe… for now

From the very early days of the Syrian war, the American government – along with other western administrations – has taken a strong position on the conflict. It called for President Bashar Al-Assad to stand down, a line which has been maintained ever since, but could that position now be changing?

Back in 2013, Ryan Crocker, a former US ambassador to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote an article arguing that ousting Assad would most likely produce "a major country at the heart of the Arab world in the hands of Al-Qaeda". This reflects a growing belief in Washington; namely, that if Assad leaves, the main winners will not be the moderate Syrian rebels, but Islamic State (ISIS) and other Islamist militant groups.

While the US officially maintains that a lasting political solution will require Assad to step down, it is quietly supporting other diplomatic efforts to end the conflict, and is not calling as loudly for Assad's resignation as it has in the past. Washington has given its backing, along with other western countries, to Russia's drive for peace talks, as well as to efforts by the UN to seek local ceasefires. Both of these initiatives would postpone any renewal of the US-backed Geneva framework, which called for power to be transferred to a transitional governing body. This plan failed last year because of disagreement over whether such a body could include Assad. In a statement welcoming the UN and Russian initiatives, it was notable that US Secretary of State John Kerry did not repeat that Assad must go; instead, he called for a shift in policy: "It is time for President Assad, the Assad regime, to put the people first and to think about the consequences of his actions, which are attracting more and more terrorists to Syria, basically because of their efforts to remove Assad."

An analysis of western military involvement in Syria also bears out the theory that the US and its allies are stepping away from their demand for Assad to step down. America and Britain have both refused to militarise their role in the Syrian conflict, despite mass killings and clear evidence of crimes against humanity by the regime in Damascus. Even Assad's use of chemical weapons did not trigger military action in the end, after the US agreed to a deal brokered by the Russians. In stark contrast, the US and UK were quick to step in with direct military intervention against ISIS. America has bombed ISIS targets in both Iraq and Syria. This is part of a counterterrorism strategy; ISIS is seen as an immediate threat to western interests. There is a clear rationale, but it is interesting that when the US finally did get militarily involved in Syria, it was not to oust Assad.

It seems that the general view in Washington, and in other western countries, is that removing Assad when there is no clear alternative would worsen the already dire situation on the ground. The opposition in Syria is fractured, and it seems likely that a power vacuum could open up, one that could easily be exploited by extremist groups which already have a stronghold in the country. We need only look at regional countries like Iraq and Libya to see the potentially devastating consequences of too abrupt a regime change. Western diplomats have long talked about a deal that allows some officials to remain in post to prevent a similar collapse in Syria. "We don't want to see the pillars of the state fall apart; we would end up with a situation like Iraq," said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius earlier this week.

Most western nations do not want to see Assad remain as Syria's dictator forever, but the growing consensus appears to be that a gradual transition would be preferable. Of course, this is not popular amongst many Syrians, who have now faced extreme suffering for nearly four years at the hands of the Assad regime. There is anger amongst groups like the western-backed National Syrian Coalition and the Free Syrian Army that the US and its allies are reneging on their promises of support.

In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Aaron David Miller summed up the US position: "Mr Assad may be a mass murderer. But it's increasingly clear that in its realpolitik balance-of-power containment strategy on Syria, the Obama administration is willing – at least for now – to accept his presence as a better alternative to the murderous jihadis who want to replace him."

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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