This interview took place on November 15th, 2016 and has been edited for clarity.
What do you make of president-elect Donald Trump’s position on Syria?
The positions of Donald Trump have been particularly appalling on Syria, probably among the most appalling of the positions he has taken, especially when it comes to Syrian refugees. Of course this is a man who called Mexican migrants “rapists” so it’s not very surprising to hear him call Syrian refugees “terrorists.” One of his pledges was to slam the door on Syrian refugees. This was a softened version of what he said earlier which was that he would slam the door on Muslims coming into the United States.
This is the way he started his comments on Syria and that was awful enough. Then we heard him explain that Bashar al-Assad is after all better than any alternative in Syria and therefore he would change the US line in dealing with Assad. In this respect, this position would be very consistent with his willingness to change relations with Russia and collaborate with Vladimir Putin. One area of collaboration that he stressed is Syria. On the whole, this does not bode well for Syria or the Syrian people.
Does his willingness to work with Putin and to accept Assad as the lesser evil differ significantly from the Obama administration’s position? We saw during the ceasefire that the Obama administration wanted to collaborate with Russia against ISIS and al-Qaeda.
It differs qualitatively. In the case of the Obama administration, there is a clear awareness that you can’t do business with Bashar al-Assad and that he must step down sooner or later if there is to be any compromise in Syria. That was one of the relatively firm positions of the Obama administration. They showed flexibility about whether Assad may stay for a transitional period but the idea that he must step down was consistent in John Kerry and the Obama administration’s discourse.
Secondly, there were naïve expectations that Russia would cooperate and find common interest with the United States in preserving the regime. Neither Obama nor Clinton were interested in regime change in Syria. All those who keep repeating this mantra just show their ignorance. The Obama administration unanimously wanted to preserve the regime, but they believed that in order to accomplish this, Assad had to step down.
Obama and Kerry expected that Russia would cooperate in this direction. Here you have a major difference with Trump since the latter is not spreading the illusion that Russia would come to what has been the Obama administration’s position. Trump is rather saying that he would shift Washington to Putin’s position. That’s qualitatively different and it is perceived very much so by the Syrian opposition who are appalled by the news of Trump’s victory.
You mentioned that Kerry and the Obama administration were naïve about the ceasefire. Why did it fail?
The ceasefire was a tricky issue. One wonders if John Kerry and the Obama administration generally were so naïve as to believe it could work in the first place. It was obvious that for Russia the ceasefire was a way to highlight the issue of Al-Nusra Front (which has become Fath al-Sham) in order to justify bombing east Aleppo. Russia could claim it was bombing al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, a group that even Washington recognizes as terrorists.
As soon as the ceasefire was announced, many of us commented that it was doomed to fail. There was no way it would hold. It collapsed even quicker than many expected, in fact.
The issue here is that Russia, since day one of its intervention, is in Syria to consolidate the Assad regime. It is not there to fight ISIS, which was its initial pretext. In the beginning, the Obama administration actually welcomed the Russian intervention, stupidly believing or pretending to believe that Russia was going to Syria to fight ISIS.
Why did Russia intervene in September 2015? That was one year after the major surge of ISIS as it spread over the border into Iraq. The timing of the Russian intervention itself pointed to its real purpose. Russia intervened at a time when the Assad regime was losing ground. Bashar al-Assad himself said in July 2015 that his regime was in dire straits and couldn’t keep all the territories it controlled hitherto. He wanted to try to stick to what he called the “important regions” of Syria.
So, the purpose of Russia’s intervention was clearly to rescue the regime. Its whole rationale was and remains to consolidate the regime and support a regime counteroffensive to reconquer parts of the lost ground, and definitely not to fight to ISIS.
Russia’s intervention seems to have succeeded. Assad’s position in the country is fairly secure. Do you see any prospects for a settlement that can force him from power or end the war in the near future?
Assad is definitely not “strong” in Syria. He is actually extremely weak. Iran and Russia are the dominant powers in his country. Assad has become a puppet in the hands of Iran first and Russia second. He is completely dependent on them. Therefore, the decision is definitely not in the hands of Assad or his family. They don’t decide anything.
The decision is made in Tehran and Moscow, more so in Tehran. Russia has a decisive presence in the coastal parts of Syria but Iran and Iran-backed militias are all over the country, including Damascus. They control the regime completely. The only thing that could remove Bashar al-Assad from power would be a decision in Tehran to this effect or, at the very least, a shift in Russian attitude toward Assad. There was a naïve expectation in Washington that Russia might have a different agenda and clash with Iran in Syria but we haven’t seen that happening.
During Obama’s first mandate, there was a group in Washington—which included Hillary Clinton—that was in favor of helping the Syrian opposition to create a balance of forces that would compel the Assad regime and its backers to seek a compromise. If Clinton had won the election, this prospect might have become plausible.
Now with the election of Donald Trump this prospect is dead, unless you have a spectacular change of attitude of Donald Trump. Of course, with such a man everything is possible because he is basically unpredictable but all he has stated in recent months goes in the opposite direction.
We may very well witness an agreement of Moscow and the Trump administration to install a fake coalition government in Damascus with some half-oppositionists acceptable to the Syrian regime and to Moscow—there are some men who describe themselves as being in the opposition who are friends of Moscow. Washington and Moscow may put such guys in the coalition government and say that this is a compromise, and that since Assad accepted to take these guys onboard, we must now work with Assad to combat “terrorism.”
This would also mean telling everyone else in the Syrian opposition to lay down their arms, telling US allies in the region that they must cease funding and arming the opposition, directly collaborating with the Syrian regime in fighting whoever in the opposition doesn’t lay down their arms, and of course fighting whatever remains of ISIS.
One thing is certain though: no such scheme will be able to put an end to the Syrian crisis. There can be no enduring peace in Syria under the Assad regime.