Syrian President Bashar Assad on Sunday repeated the assertion he’d be willing to step down from his role if it would end his country’s civil war, which is nearing its fifth year. But the likelihood of Assad leaving office after clinging to power amidst years of chaos is quite unlikely, analysts say.
“We have seen this before. And I would not expect anything to materially change. Assad isn’t going, and the dynamics for a serious negotiation just aren’t there now that the Russians have stepped in and the Iranians have stepped up,” says former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Ryan Crocker. “It’s something he has said from time to time and as a settled end to yet more violence, it allows him to look reasonable and conciliatory without actually having to do anything.”
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The conflict began when protesters objected to Assad’s grip on power and violence escalated to a full-fledged civil war, which has left around 250,000 people dead and caused millions to flee their homes. International attention on the crisis has intensified in recent months as the flow of refugees has reached Europe and overwhelmed the continent, and world leaders made it a focus at last week’s U.N. General Assembly meeting.
“As for me personally, I say once again that if my departure is the solution, I will never hesitate to do that,” Assad, who did not attend the U.N. meeting in New York,
told Iranian TV channel Khabar on Sunday. “I, personally, have said, on more than one occasion that when the Syrian people decide that a certain individual should stay, he will stay; and when the Syrian people decide that he should go, he will go immediately.”
Faysal Itani, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, says it’s this caveat of a transition being driven by the Syrian people that is the key to Assad’s rhetoric.
“Nothing about him saying it as such makes it likely or even possible. The only reason it’s interesting is because Russia is in Syria. Otherwise I would dismiss it as nothing at all, just more propaganda and bluster,” Itani says. “Russia being in Syria raises the question of given how weak the regime’s military position was before the Russians intervened and given how strongly both the Iranians and the Russians are present on the ground in Syria, it at least raises the possibility of an arrangement within regime territory of replacing Assad with somebody else.”
Assad’s comments come a week after Russia began conducting airstrikes it says are aimed at the Islamic State group and terrorists, but which the U.S. fears are meant to go after Assad’s rebel opponents. The move from Russian President Vladimir Putin, which followed
a bilateral meeting with President Barack Obama, is a strong signal that Russia is not ready to abandon Assad, its long-time ally. Russian support bolsters the Syrian dictator, who had been struggling militarily against rebels and terrorist groups, and can help relieve pressure he’d feel to step down.
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The Obama administration and its allies contend that the only solution to the conflict in Syria is a political one that involves Assad leaving power. But that rhetoric may be softening in light of Russia’s actions, as it becomes more likely the U.S. will have to work closely with Russia to negotiate a solution.
Obama said last week in a speech to world leaders at the U.N. that he would work with any country, including Russia and Iran, to end the war.
“One thing I think we do agree on, all of us – Russians, Americans, others – is that this is only going to end ultimately through some kind of political agreement, and I’d be very surprised if the Russians didn’t see it that way,” Crocker says. “They want to make sure it’s on terms favorable to them, which is why they’re doing what they’re doing. But at the end of the day they will want to come to the table – they’ll just want to be sure it’s on their conditions.”
Assad placed blame for the civil war on terrorist groups, although the Islamic State group did not rise to prominence until 2014 and the war has been waging since 2011.
“The war will continue as long as there are those who support terrorism, because we are not fighting terrorist groups inside Syria, we are fighting terrorist groups coming from all over the world with the support of the richest and the most powerful countries,” Assad said in Sunday’s interview.
The Syrian leader also said that Putin’s recent action was a cause for “optimism” and a coalition comprised of Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria could defeat terrorism. He said the war will not end until terrorism is defeated.
Itani says Iran has also upped its involvement in Syria in recent weeks to protect its interests in the country.
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“The primary one is to make sure that the logistical link to Hezbollah is preserved. That’s a geopolitical and territorial question, and they need to make sure that whatever regime functions in Syria will support and tolerate Hezbollah,” Itani says.
He says the Iranians calculated early in the conflict that a regime that would replace Assad couldn’t guarantee this access to the Lebanon-based terrorist group, so the current Syrian leader remains their best bet.
Russia has blamed the West for the rise of the Sunni Muslim Islamic State group. And Crocker says America’s openness toward non-traditional allies – such as the Shiite Muslim Iran – in the fight may be doing more harm than good.
He says Obama’s announcement at the U.N. last week sends the wrong message in a fractured Middle East.
“I just wish we would stop saying, ‘We can work with Iranians, we can work with Russians.’ They are seen, particularly the Iranians, as the ultimate anti-Sunni evil,” Crocker says. “And when we say we can work with them the nuance gets lost and it simply paints us with their brush, that the murderers of the Sunnis led by Iranians now include Americans. I wish we’d drop that particular rhetoric. It’s doing us a lot of damage in the Sunni world.”
Crocker says the softening of U.S. rhetoric demanding Assad relinquish power as part of a political solution should have come a lot sooner.
“Where we are now in terms of our stated policy is where I wish we had been from the get-go, talking about a process and a transition. Ultimately we may get to a point of broad agreement on that where Assad does go, but the system stays largely intact and he goes over time,” Crocker says. “I think that makes a whole lot more sense than establishing a precondition that we could not impose, that Assad has to go as a precondition for any talks. That’s just not going to happen, so what we now do remains to be seen.”