And now, back to Syria. ISIS on Sunday said that it had beheaded another American, 26-year-old aid worker Peter Kassig, and appears to still be holding one more hostage. Meanwhile, we brace for the fall of Aleppo into the Assad regime’s hands. The opposition has held the city, or about half of it, for some time and has been fighting both the regime from the west and the so-called Islamic State from the east. The regime, says former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, “is little by little closing in on the opposition’s last supply route from the north.” If the army shuts that down and captures the rebel-held portion of the city, people fear that the regime “will probably do what it did in Homs, which is to try to starve it out until the people come to terms,” Ford told me.
Aleppo is Syria’s largest city (or was), its industrial and commercial center (or…was), and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s the kind of place that “did not indigenously rebel against the regime,” says Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “Rather, the revolution was brought there by certain elements of the insurgency.” So they’ve had to fight for every kilometer.
The fall of Aleppo will be hugely tragic—“psychologically and optically devastating,” says Itani. But he and Ford both emphasize that it won’t be the end. That’s probably what you’re going to hear on cable news when it happens, but it won’t be lights out, and the war will continue. The opposition is still strong in the south. And U.S. airstrikes have even done some good in some places, like Kobani, although critics question some of the strategic decisions that have been made about where to bomb. Ford, now with the Middle East Institute, says that in some ways the strikes have “undermined the moderates.” For example, the airstrikes in Deir Ezzor against the Islamic State reduced pressure on regime forces that had been under siege by ISIS and allowed the regime to reallocate scarce air resources to direct them against moderate opposition forces in the north.
The big problem, however, is this, which is the specific thing that Americans who think about Syria need to care about: The Obama administration has gone way too soft on the Assad regime. And this is a problem because the Assad regime, not ISIS, is what the rebels are fighting (although they’re also fighting ISIS on the side). So we’re arming and training people to fight a war against a guy, while we’re telling them and the world that the guy they’re fighting is not our enemy.
Let’s go back in time here. It was August 2011 when Barack Obama said that Assad must go. Obama made this announcement after facing months of pressure to do so, and the leaders of Great Britain, France, and Germany quickly followed him. That was just five months into the conflict. So at that point, the entire West was now on record against Assad, who at that point had massacred “only” a few thousand people, as opposed to today’s 200,000 and then some.
But 2012 passed, and the body count mounted. Then came 2013, and that embarrassing business about the chemical weapons, when both Obama and David Cameron thundered about taking action but neither did. And then with Russia we consummated the chemical weapons deal, and that was good as far as it went, but there’s been plenty of evidence that Assad has used chlorine gas on his people since, which the United States acknowledges.
Now we fast forward to this fall, when Obama announced the air campaign against ISIS and the stepped-up support to the Syrian opposition. When he unveiled this plan to the American people, he said: “In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people; a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.”
That seemed to be a pretty clear signal: We were going after ISIS, or ISIL as he prefers, but at the same time, we weren’t giving any quarter to Assad. Administration leaks that came out around the time of the speech, at least as I heard them, sent the message that we were going to do this without relying on the Assad regime and, with any luck, in such a way that debilitated both ISIS and the regime.
In the two months since, though, we have clearly backslid from that position. News stories like this one at Vox expressed the consensus view that we were now allying with Assad.
There were two seminal moments here. The first happened in late October, when Gen. John Allen, the special presidential envoy against ISIS, told a London-based, Saudi-backed newspaper that Assad is not really our concern. Allen said it craftily, and even in some sense defensibly, insofar as a negotiated political outcome in Syria is preferred to a Sunni takeover of the Alawis, but he said it.
The second was the more recent revelation about Obama’s secret letter to Ayatollah Khamenei. No one really knows what was in that letter, but it’s been widely reported that one of the main points of it was to assure Khamenei that the United States is not going after Assad. If it’s true, it’s obviously the case that Obama would have dangled this carrot before Iran’s leader in the hopes of getting that much-sought-after nuclear deal. Itani told me that news of the letter was awful for the morale of the opposition forces. “If that statement was in the letter,” he says, “and we don’t know if it was, but if it was, it must be fully repudiated.”
Obama may be recognizing how untenable this is. CNN reported last week that the administration was rethinking its posture and “realizing that ISIS may not be defeated without a political transition in Syria and the removal of… Assad.” There were four meetings at the White House in the space of a week devoted to rethinking the Syria part of this puzzle, according to CNN.
Is this a sign that the nuclear deal with Iran is collapsing, and so the administration feels less inclined to play footsie with Assad? A sign that the Gulf States and/or Turkey told the White House they were getting out if the footsie continued? Don’t know about the former. I’d certainly guess the latter. Or maybe it was just a leak from someone who doesn’t want it to happen.
Whatever the case, it’s the right move if it does take place and a potentially huge shift in policy. There are good ramifications, notably bucking up the people we’re arming, and frightening ones (it puts us back in the regime-change business, although not in that inimitable Bush-Cheney way, let’s hope). But the bottom line is that you can’t tell an army to go fight someone and then tell the rest of the world that that someone is your friend.