President Obama first declared that it was time for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down in August, 2011, five months into the uprising against his rule. Since then, it’s been the consistently stated position of the White House that resolution of the civil war in Syria requires Assad’s departure. This has remained true even as the focus of America’s attention has shifted to Assad’s enemy, ISIS, and as worsening chaos in Libya and Yemen have led many to reconsider the wisdom of overthrowing dictators in countries riven by sectarian violence.
But today, the New York Times reports that “American support for a pair of diplomatic initiatives in Syria underscores the shifting views of how to end the civil war there and the West’s quiet retreat from its demand that the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad step down immediately.”
One of those initiatives, from the United Nations, seeks to reach a ceasefire between Assad and western-supported rebel forces. Another, sponsored by Assad’s primary international backer, Russia, aims to restart peace talks and eventually reach a power-sharing agreement between Assad and some elements on the opposition. A previous round of peace talks in Geneva, under a framework that required a transfer of power, collapsed last year. Secretary of State John Kerry surprised many by endorsing the Russian effort, which was eventually rebuffed by most of the Syrian opposition.
There’s still been no official change in U.S. policy, and officials are already pushing back against the Times story. But these denials are somewhat undermined by actions, such as last Novembers decision by the U.S. to stop funding the commission gathering information about Assad’s war crimes. And really, the writing’s been on the wall since the U.S. began launching airstrikes against ISIS, a step it had pointedly refused to take against Assad, despite his government’s killing and torture of thousands of Syrians, including some by chemical weapons: Obama’s previously declared “red line.” The U.S. is still working on efforts to train and equip Syrian rebel groups, but with the focus on combatting ISIS rather than Assad.
The war in Syria is still a long way from over, but at the moment, barring a major unforeseen change in circumstances, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Assad is forced from power. The non-extremist opposition is too fractured and its international backers too uninterested. The rebels have been frustrated for months with America’s lack of interest.
So if Assad does get out of this, what lessons are future leaders likely to take from his example? It does seem that if a dictator completely refuses to compromise with the opposition, keeps his inner circle in line, has at least one or two major international backers, and is willing to kill as many of his own people as necessary, he can survive a mass uprising (Ideally, this killing should be spread out over time rather than in one large internationally observed massacre that would force foreign powers to intervene: Qaddafi’s mistake.)
Still, it would be going too far to say that Assad will “win” this war. He may stay in power, but he no longer rules the same country he did in 2010. At the moment, half of Syria’s territory is under the control of a hostile terrorist group and over 3 million of its people have fled. At best, a leader internationally touted as a modernizer and prospective reformer can hope to spend the rest of his rule as a barely tolerated pariah.