Talking to Assad: A Brush with Absurdity

by Emile Nakhleh

The recent infusion of Russian weapons and other military materiel into Syria has gotten the chattering class in Washington in a tizzy. “Inside-the-Beltway “ policy experts, as a chorus, are now calling for the US and other Western powers to include Assad in any talks about a non-military solution for a post-Assad Syria. Some of the same people only recently had strongly supported Assad’s removal, believing he was part of the problem, not the solution.

Washington’s decision to talk to Assad, if it comes to pass, would be a clear indication of the Obama administration’s failing Syrian policy. The air campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and the training of a so-called moderate opposition have yielded minimal results. The IS’s fighting ability has not diminished, and the US-trained fighters’ performance on the battlefield has been pitiful. They have even surrendered some US-supplied weapons and vehicles to Jabhat al-Nusra, an affiliate of al-Qaeda, according to media reports.

The most glaring evidence of US policy failure is the recent news report that Russia, Syria, and Iran are setting up a regional anti-IS center in Baghdad. Turkey would not participate in the Russian initiative because Ankara has consistently and correctly argued that removing Assad should be the first and most critical block in the strategy to contain and defeat IS. In the Turkish view, Assad’s policy of devastation and repression has contributed to the rise and expansion of IS and other terrorist groups.

Washington’s critical miscalculation, which underpins its policy failure, has been based on the premise that you could fight IS and Assad sequentially rather than concurrently. That is, first you defeat IS and then you go after Assad. Of course, things haven’t worked out that way. Assad has gotten stronger as the air war proceeded. The Russians have argued that Assad is too resilient and too entrenched to ignore in any talks about the future of Syria. Washington seems to be tilting to the Russian position because it’s running out of options.

Leave Assad Out of It

Including Assad in any discussions of the future of Syria is absurd for many reasons: First, if Assad views regime change as the ultimate outcome of the envisioned talks, he would work to torpedo the talks and cement his rule in areas under his control. His feeling of desperation could push him to declare a new Syrian rump state along the Damascus-Latakia corridor, something that Turkey has already rejected.

Second, Assad could perceive the talks as a bargaining chip to save him from facing international prosecution for crimes against humanity. Saving himself and his close associates and relatives, in other words, would trump any discussion on the future of Syria. It’s folly to think that Assad would seriously participate in any discussions of a post-civil war Syria that would exclude him or would hold him culpable for the crimes he and his regime have committed. If Assad were interested in saving Syria and its people from total destruction, he would have relinquished power over four years ago, much like what Mubarak of Egypt and Bin Ali of Tunisia did in response to their people’s uprisings. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed, mostly by regime bombardment, and nearly half the population have become refugees.

Assad should be held accountable for these atrocities. To include him in the talks, just because he has survived and just because the Russians are brandishing their military power in the eastern Mediterranean, is hypocritical at best and complicit in his atrocities at worst.

Third, it’s naïve to think that talking to Assad would reduce the bloody violence and human tragedy in Syria. Although the regime has contributed to this disaster, the IS and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups continue to capture more territory and kill and torture more people. They remain equally resilient in fighting the regime. They wouldn’t accept any transitional deal that would involve Assad or agree to any ceasefire that would keep the regime intact.

If the Russian or British governments desire to find a way out for Assad, they should be honest enough to offer him and his family refuge in their countries. Even if they pursue such an unlikely option, Assad and his junta must be held accountable for the destruction they wrought on the Syrian people and the possible dismemberment of that country.

Fourth, Russia and those Western countries that are pushing talks with Assad should learn a lesson from the Yemen experience. The agreement for a post-Saleh Yemen—supported by Saudi Arabia, the United States, and others—allowed former President Ali Abdallah Saleh to return to Yemen and escape legal accountability. Once he returned, he used his relatives and other key supporters in the old regime to conspire against the new government. He has cooperated closely with the Houthi rebellion and should be held accountable for the bloody disintegration of Yemen. His machinations, together with the Saudi-run air war, have killed hundreds if not thousands of innocent civilians, created a power vacuum and inadvertently allowed pro-IS and pro-al-Qaeda groups to expand their influence and control in different parts of the country. No central government exists, and tribal groups have run amok.

Fifth, involving Assad in discussions over a transitional regime in Syria is a knee-jerk reaction by advocates of this strategy to Russia’s show of force. This is not a well-considered strategy to address terrorism, to defeat IS, or to think rationally about a post-Assad Syria. If the United States and other powers are not prepared to send in troops to fight and dismantle Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Raqaa, engaging Assad will not do the trick. Allowing a bloodthirsty fox to decide on the future of the hen house is a travesty of epic proportions. Syrian refugees and migrants would continue to flood to Europe and other countries in the region. Washington has already announced it would take 85,000 refugees in 2016 and 100,000 in 2017.

What credibility does the Obama administration expect to have in the region, especially with Syrian opposition forces of all stripes and with Arab publics, if our diplomats reach out to Assad while at the same time calling for his removal? The administration should have a conversation with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about a long-term strategy both to depose Assad and contain IS. One without the other will not work.

Furthermore, once IS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups see the United States talking to Assad, their terrorist threat against Americans will grow exponentially. Even mainstream Syrian opposition, including those elements trained by the United States and supported by the Jordanians and the Saudis, would begin to view the United States as the enemy. Instead of containing the threat to the homeland and to our personnel in the region, engaging Assad in any talks would certainly increase the threat. Washington should abandon this cockamamie idea and pursue more consequential and forward-looking options.

Multiple Threats

A workable strategy, which aims at removing Assad and combating IS, must consider the multiple long-term threats that underpin the Syrian tragedy and the rise of terrorism in region. Those threats include: radical Sunni ideology emanating from Saudi Arabia; entrenched dictatorships and unresponsive monarchies in Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, which Washington has been supporting; repression and suppression of civil and human rights, including women and religious and ethnic minorities; inadequate education; high unemployment, especially among the 15-29 cohort groups; and severe environmental degradation.

The interruption of power and water is becoming a daily occurrence across the region, and clean water is getting scarce. Garbage, as the “You Stink” movement in Lebanon has shown, is piling up in many neighborhoods, creating diseases, especially among the young and the elderly. Inefficient and poor governance, or lack of it as in Lebanon, has created a fertile environment for instability, social and political tensions, and terrorism. The breakdown between governing institutions and society and the loss of trust in the ruling elites are creating unprecedented instability and disorder in several countries in the region.

Sectarian factions and terrorist groups find such an environment welcoming. Reaching out to the “butcher of Syria” will not convince him to relinquish power. Nor will it alleviate these threats. On the contrary, it would increase his resolve.

The Way Forward

Any successful policy for Syria must have a well-defined mission of simultaneously getting rid of the Assad regime and containing IS. If the Obama administration remains adamant against putting American boots on the ground, it should take the lead in forming a “Boots on the Ground” coalition of willing regional states. Such a coalition could involve Turkey, Jordan, Morocco, and Qatar. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE, having led the counter-revolution against the Arab Spring and having thwarted transitions to democracy across the region, should not be invited to join the coalition.

Washington would provide logistical support, weapons, training, technical expertise, and intelligence. Although the United States would be leading the effort, regional states would be doing the fighting.

If the foot soldiers, their officers, and the overall command are committed to the twin mission of the war and have sufficient means to do the job, they could prevail, especially if corruption is kept under control. If Washington clearly and unequivocally embraces the twin mission, in word and in deed, the coalition would have a high probability of success. Once the coalition, with Turkey’s support, declares a safety zone and a no-fly zone, Washington should communicate this message to the Russians unambiguously and forcefully in order to avoid potential confrontation or mishaps with Russian forces in Syria.

Turkey is critical for any successful effort on the ground in Syria, especially if Obama continues to oppose the deployment of US boots on the ground. Despite its war on the Kurds, if Turkey is convinced of the two-pronged strategy, it would play ball.  Erdogan and the Turkish military see IS as posing a real threat to Turkey, but they also believe that Assad’s butchery has contributed to the rise of Sunni extremism on their frontier. If Turkey gets involved in the coalition and succeeds in deposing Assad and containing IS, it would have a lot of influence in post-Assad Syria, especially when nearly two million Syrian refugees are in Turkey.

However, if the upcoming diplomatic talks among the United States, Russia, and Iran lead to Assad’s removal and the establishment of a transitional government in Damascus relatively soon, the coalition’s mission would then focus on fighting IS.

This plan could yield results, but it’s difficult and costly. Talking to Assad is cheap and easy. But it will not yield tangible benefits for Syria and its people.

Image courtesy of Donkey Hotey via Flickr

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. I have thought all along that the effort to overthrow Assad was a tragic blunder

  2. Sonuvabitch! I took my time crafting a response that satisfied me…only to find that I was “timed out” when I hit Post Comment. Allow more time, goddammit!

  3. At any rate, my comment was built around this bullshit statement by the (Zionist?) author: “…Ankara has consistently and correctly argued that removing Assad should be the first and most critical block in the strategy to contain and defeat IS…” Zionist Israel — invading/bombing sovereign Syrian airspace, grabbing and retaining Syrian sovereign land/the Golan Heights: that scofflaw state-terrorist entity has been Syria’s problem for decades. President Assad never had a chance to build his country with that devil on his border. Viva Syria! Viva Palestine!–which is Still The Issue.

  4. These are lots of advices and wishful thinking to avoid facing the harsh reality. Bashar al Assasd has proven to be so resilient and smart that he has increased support among the Syrians. The hypocrisy and the dirty games of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, France, the USA and the UK have been exposed and the amateur and naive ‘revolutionaries’ have lost all their illusions on the West promises.
    Turkey is in the worst mess it has not been for decades and will take years to recover, probably after toppling Erdogan. Saudi Arabia’s evil is exposed everyday in Yemen and its ruling family shaky. Qatar is playing low key. The old enemies such as Iran and Russia are now looked upon as the saviors…
    What is certain is that Bashar al Assad will be re-elected by Syrians anytime they will be given the opportunity to express their opinion. That’s what the arrogant West dreads the most, a democratic referendum on Bashar Al Assad

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