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Alongside the dangerously rising tension with the North Korea’s “declaration of thermonuclear war”, Syria’s fate has suddenly become the second largest item on the United States foreign policy agenda. Then, is there an exit case for President Bashar Al Assad? If so, how is it going to come about?
A question I was eagerly keen to ask when I met several Middle East experts inside and outside the American Administration in Washington DC, last week. By and large, the answer was positive, but not necessarily a definitive ‘YES’. The 59 Tomahawk missile strike against the Syrian government airbase of Al Shayrat earlier this month was generally sudden and unexpected.
Though experts believe the strike indicates a genuine U-turn in President Donald Trump’s Middle East policy, they also highlight two equally important elements to explain the American president’s new turn. First, the president is finally showing that he is able to change and learn fast on the job as a result. He has begun to understand what he did not know before.
Second, having been almost three months in the White House, he is desperate for success following the significant failure domestically on both fronts: the withdrawal of his draft health bill before it reached Congress, and the illegality of his executive order of banning travellers from six Muslim-majority nations from entering the US.
The clear irony in the latest twist is to see an American president who remarkably distinguished himself before and after his inauguration with his ‘America First’ label, suddenly becoming a foreign affairs president ready to deal with some of the world’s problems.
This breathtaking policy reversal, particularly after the Tomahawk missile strike, brings US foreign policy back in line with the Arab alliance, Nato and European thinking of how to deal the current situation in Syria, starting with the future of the Al Assad dynasty. Though the strike itself is arguably limited and won’t necessarily affect the Damascus regime’s military capability, it has certainly brought American foreign policy at last into normality. It simply added a measure of force that brought back some respect to, and trust in America’s Middle East policy.
So, is there a plan at hand? The plain answer is ‘NO’, but surely there is one currently evolving. Traffic over the issue across the Atlantic and among western allies and their Arab partners, as well as Turkey, is heavily moving in two directions. In fact, a highly-placed American diplomat told this writer that both France and Britain had approached the Obama’s administration twice in 2015 and 2016, to consider joint action targeting Al Assad forces.
“They were very clear in their demand, they, especially the French, wanted us to be tougher on Al Assad and his regime,” the diplomat tells me. This was cautiously rejected by the former American president in order not to upset Iran during the talks over its nuclear file.
However, it seems the lines of discussion are wide open and the idea that is floating above all others is to draft an agreeable text to members of the UN Security Council accusing the Syrian president of war crimes.
Can such charges persuade Al Assad to give up power and leave the country? Who would guarantee his safety in exile?
Washington’s focus on Iran
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson discussed the prospect of Al Assad’s departure with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in closed door meetings during his last visit to Moscow. “Al Assad’s reign is nearing its end,” he said. He also brought up the subject in his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. For his part, Trump himself illustrated his thinking on Al Assad’s fate in his meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.
Equally important is the attention that the US administration has begun to pay on Al Assad’s long-time backer, Iran. Washington has eventually realised the ultimate danger of the role that Tehran is playing in the region, including in Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq as well as Syria. US Defence Secretary James Mattis highlighted this danger during his latest tour in the Middle East and Asia. In fact, he was the first senior American official back in March to accuse Iran of “sponsoring terrorism in the region” and described Tehran as a “destabilising force in the Middle East.”
The Trump administration approach to the crisis in Syria is slightly different from that of his predecessor, but it faces a lot greater challenges since Washington is still avoiding any direct involvement in the conflict. With the solid support Al Assad is continuously getting from both Moscow and Tehran and an opposition that is far weaker because of a series of battlefield defeats, any American plan to end the Al Assad regime requires the cooperation of the Russians.
On the contrary, officials say this does not make the latest Tomahawk strikes less significant. The US argument, as carried to Moscow by Tillerson, is that Russia is after all backing “a potential war criminal”, and sooner or late this war criminal will be brought to justice. There are areas of common interest which keep Washington and Moscow closer despite the tension over Al Assad’s fate.
They are both fighting Daesh (the so-called Islamic state of Iraq and Levant) and it’s in their joint interest to stabilise the region. This is sufficiently enough to keep them talking for the time being.
Mustapha Karkouti is a former president of the Foreign Press Association, London. You can follow him on Twitter at @mustaphatache.