America and Syria’s ‘dead man walking’

Published : 24 May 2012, 07:33 AM
Updated : 24 May 2012, 07:33 AM

When U.S. President Barack Obama and the leaders of Germany, France, Britain, Canada and the European Union first issued public calls for President Bashar al-Assad to step down, the death toll in Syria stood at 2,000. That was in August 18 last year.

When Obama repeated the call on May 19, as host of a summit meeting of the Group of Eight, the body count had reached 10,000, according to United Nations estimates. The two figures highlight the lack of success of economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure on a ruthless leader who learned lessons in unrestrained brutality from his father, Hafez al-Assad, whom he succeeded in office.

A peaceful solution to Syria's protracted crisis now looks remote enough to wonder whether Bashar al-Assad might outlast Obama in power. The U.S. president is not assured of winning another term in office next November. But the odds of the Assad regime surviving into 2013 look better with every passing day, even though one of the U.S. government's top experts on Syria has labeled the Syrian president a "dead man walking."

There are several reasons for skepticism about a resolution to the Syrian crisis in the near future. One is the government's military superiority over fractured and lightly-equipped opposition forces. More importantly, there is no international consensus on how to deal with what began 14 months ago as peaceful demonstrations against a 40-year family dictatorship and now includes huge suicide bombings of government targets that have raised suspicions of al-Qaeda involvement.

At the summit of the G8 – the United States, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Russia, Canada and Japan – an aide to Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev made clear, again, that Moscow, unlike the West, does not see Assad's departure as a necessary step towards ending the bloodshed. "Some may like or dislike the Syrian government…but one cannot avoid a question – if Assad goes, who will replace him?" said Mikhail Margelov.

That's a question to which there is no answer in Washington or the European and Arab capitals whose leaders say that Assad must go. Doubts over what would happen "the day after" explain why the U.S. and its allies have been reluctant to consider arming the opposition and why they rule out military intervention on the model of Libya.

Where Russia is concerned, some critics see motives that go beyond opposition to regime change, the prospect of losing a major client for arms exports, and fears of losing the Soviet-era naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus, Russia's only outpost in the Mediterranean. Said Gary Kasparov, a vocal Putin critic, in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal:

"The Kremlin is desperate to keep Bashar al-Assad in place…since any conflict in the region sustains the high oil prices Mr. Putin and his cronies need to maintain power."

Assad's friends
Whatever the motive, it's difficult to see Assad leaving as long as he enjoys arms supplies and backing from Russia, diplomatic support from China, military and intelligence advice from Iran, and shipments of diesel fuel from Venezuela. After a flurry of wrong predictions of Assad's imminent exit late last year, political crustal-gazers have been wary of forecasts.

But punters on an online exchange that allows bets on political events, rate Assad's chance of being in office by the end of the year at 68 percent, up from 42 in February, when China and Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that provided for Assad to hand over power to a deputy.

The two countries voted in favor, two months later, of a Security Council resolution that backed a six-point peace plan drawn up by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Its provisions included an end to all violence by the government and the rebels, talks aimed at a "political transition" and the dispatch of an unarmed U.N. force to monitor a truce that both sides are ignoring. .

There's a Catch-22 in the Annan initiative. It specifies a "Syrian-led, inclusive political transition "which perversely makes al-Assad part of the negotiations (if ever they begin). There is no good reason to think he would be inclined to make concessions on the negotiating table after making none in months of bloody crackdowns on the opposition.

Administration officials have made clear that U.S. patience with Assad, and with the slow progress of the Annan plan, is running out. Some of the bluntest language from Obama aides has come from his ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. She has pointed out that the mandate of the truce supervision mission runs out at the end of July.

"No one should assume that the United States will renew this mission," she has said. "If there is not a sustained cessation of violence, full freedom of movement of UN personnel and rapid meaningful progress on all other aspects of the six-point plan, then we must all conclude that the mission has run its course."

And then what? Obama wading deeper into yet another Middle East conflict four months before the elections?

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist.