The World

When Is the U.S. Going to Admit That Bashar al-Assad Is Going to Stay in Power?

Syrian children living in Athens take part in a demonstration against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Athens on March 15, 2012.

Photo by LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch reports that the State Department is cutting its funding for the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, a group that’s gathering information in Syria about war crimes perpetrated by Bashar al-Assad’s forces. The program was meant to collect evidence that could eventually be used to prosecute the Syrian president after he’s overthrown.

Assad has almost certainly committed war crimes, and is almost certainly continuing to do so. Just last week, an army helicopter dropped a barrel bomb—one of the most deadly and indiscriminate weapons in the regime’s arsenal—on a displaced persons camp, reportedly killing at least 10 civilians.

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There’s not much point in collecting documentation on Assad’s crimes, though, if the U.S. doesn’t anticipate him being overthrown. And it’s starting to look more and more like that’s what’s going on here.

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The Obama administration may still insist that its Syria strategy rests on supporting moderate rebels against ISIS. But it’s getting harder to take this seriously. U.S. officials say they will turn their full attention to Syria only after the Islamic State has been beaten back in Iraq, whenever that is, by which time the rebels will be in a better position to fight. But Washington has apparently yet to decide who to get behind out of the hundreds of militias that’s fighting Assad, many of whom are increasingly aligned with extremist factions the U.S. finds unacceptable.. In another discouraging sign, U.S.-backed rebels were routed from their northern strongholds by the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra last weekend.

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Notwithstanding the lack of suitable U.S. partners on the ground in Syria, if the U.S. really wanted to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, it would have overthrown Bashar al-Assad. Washington could have intervened against the Syrian government in the early days of the Syrian civil war, or last year when the Obama administration actively considered airstrikes against Damascus.

It seems to be more acceptable now for mainstream foreign policy voices in Washington to suggest that a resolution to the crisis might require Assad staying in power. In the New York Review of Books, Jessica Matthews, outgoing president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes that the U.S. should take advantage of a rare moment of agreement with both Saudi Arabia and Iran and lead an international push for a peace deal that would allow Assad to remain in power but with “most of his power dispersed to regional governors, the prime minister, the parliament, and the military.”

“Though he is a war criminal, Assad’s personal fate matters less at this point than his country’s,” she writes.

The prospect of Assad remaining in power after the carnage of the last three years is grim, but it appears to be an idea that American leaders are coming around to. They’re just not ready to admit it publicly.

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