I would like to think, as the Russians and Chinese seem to believe, that Bashar Assad can end the carnage in Syria and still remain a viable leader for his country…but that time has passed. I met with President Assad five times between 2001 and 2005 as a private citizen, representative of the think tank community or as part of the American Task Force for Lebanon. At that time, he still had the chance to make his presidency a force for progress and stability.
During these meetings, Assad emphasized that he had made a strategic choice on peace with Israel, and furthermore was ready to secure the border with Iraq during a time of the Iraqi war when it was disruptive to US interests. He noted the need to stop the transit of terrorist forces through his territory, including Hamas and Hezbollah. He even occasionally mentioned reforms, but indicated that, like his father, the survival of Syria was paramount, meaning the Assad regime.
At the time, Assad preferred a comprehensive agreement with the US that addressed both sides’ needs, so that any and all problems between us would be put on the table for resolution before tackling preferred options or individual confidence building measures by either party. In one conversation he said, “We are not your soldiers,” explaining that rather than small-tit for tat-confidence building measures demanded by the US, he preferred to have agreement on the overall package first.
This message of a possible way forward was carried back through several channels to the US government. So angered by Assad’s policies in Iran and Lebanon, the US was unwilling to engage Damascus without concrete signs of change. At the time, America’s decision didn’t appear defensible, although in hindsight it may be now.
It is a fact that without American interest to engage them, Assad went shopping and began to negotiate a peace deal with Israel under the sponsorship of Turkey. Leaving the US out of the regional equation meant that Lebanon faced even greater uncertainty and danger, and US interests were left to the goodwill of others.
We will never know if Assad was serious about a “package deal.” It’s too late for second guessing. He had his chance and the Russians should understand this long history with Bashar Assad and the chances he had to prove himself. The question now being debated long and loud is “how?”
The primary challenge is how to engage him in a single-minded dialogue that moves him towards an exit sooner rather than later. Russian officials failed this month to secure any concessions from him after the Russian and Chinese veto at the UN Security Council postponed possibly more severe action against Syria. Their minimal formula of a national unity government with a deliberately slow power-sharing agreement is doomed by the lack of support in the international community and the Arab League, as well as the Syrian opposition. And there is genuine concern that Sunni extremists, funded by outside sources, pose a significant threat to the many confessional groups in Syria, including Christians, Druze, Alawites, and even Iraqi refugees.
The debate about ousting Assad ranges and rages from the simplistic to the unworkable. The future of the Syrian people is in peril without a way forward that ends the regime and restores a sense of communal balance before it is too late. But then, it may already have reached a tipping point into civil war. Assad’s departure may not heal Syria but it will reduce the likelihood that the conflict will mirror the chaos in Libya and Yemen.
The international community, with Arab leadership, must continue to tighten the noose around the regime through coordinated actions that do not require UN Security Council actions, until such time that Russia and China are persuaded to follow suit. Assad’s so-called referendum cannot slow the pressure for reform and reconciliation. Only consistent and determined actions on the part of the international community will demonstrate to Russia and China that Syria’s real intentions do not serve theirs. In the end Assad must be denied all remaining support, including Russian and Chinese, and the resources he has to continue the violation of the Syrian people. If we act now, Syria may be spared the violence of ethnic and sectarian strife that lurks behind the current conflict between the regime and the Syrian people.