Israel and the U.S. May Also Differ on This: Is Syria’s Assad a Problem, or Part of the Solution?

[This article was written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars and other books.]

Bashar al-Assad

Bashar al-Assad

A revolution has taken place. The US has signaled that it is changing its policy toward Syrian President Bashar Assad.

It began with the Director of the CIA, John Brennan, who said that the collapse of the Assad regime could cause a more serious problem in Syria because it would pave the way for jihadist groups like ISIS to enter the power vacuum that would be created in Damascus.

The sign of the changing policy continued on Sunday when US Secretary of State John Kerry said that he was prepared to include Assad in negotiations aimed at ending the war in Syria. This is the same Kerry who just at the beginning of the month said Assad must be removed from power even if military pressure was required for the purpose. Now it seems that for the administration of US President Barack Obama, Assad is no longer the problem, he is part of the solution.  

After the Kerry remarks, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said he was not specifically referring to Assad. She said Washington would never negotiate with the Syrian leader.

But the comments had already caused ripples among countries opposed to Assad. Commentators close to Gulf Arab governments opposed to his rule voiced alarm and dismay.

France, a major US ally, said its position was unchanged and that Assad could not be part of a negotiated solution in Syria. 

The Kerry comments may demonstrate more than anything else the failure of the United States’ Syria policy. A change in the US approach to Assad now would be a victory for the Syrian leader and for its ally Iran who proved that the uncompromising military fight that they waged using all available military means, including chemical weapons, paid off.

It didn’t have to be this way. At the beginning of the Syrian tragedy in 2011 Obama should have been firmer and more aggressive. If he would have threatened Assad with military force then, in the first months of the popular uprising against the regime, and imposed a no fly zone over the country and provided more serious military support to the opposition, then composed mainly of secular forces, Assad may have fallen.   

Instead of taking this approach, Obama preferred to sit back and do almost nothing. When he woke and threatened Assad militarily after he used chemical weapons against civilians, Obama retreated at the last minute opting to support the Russian engineered diplomatic compromise. This compromise indeed led to the removal of Assad’s chemical weapons capability – no small achievement, and an important one for Israel- but it kept the Syrian president in power.  

The Obama administration is not only deserving of criticism for its wavering policy. It should be praised for having the wisdom to realize that there is a greater threat to the stability of the Middle East and to the West: The Islamic State.

Brennan and Kerry’s remarks are expressions of a new reality that is unfolding in the Middle East. Old understandings are dissolving and new alliances are forming. This is a complex reality. Enemies like Iran and the US are finding themselves on the same side of the fence even if indirectly in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. 

The Israeli View

Israel for its part, the United States’ veteran ally in the region, finds itself in turns clashing in the Syrian theater with Assad’s forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Also, according to foreign media reports, Israel is cooperating with jihadist organizations such as the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s Syrian arm. 

Israel’s aim is certainly appropriate. The Israeli interest is to maintain neighborly relations with anyone who is present on its borders, whether it is Assad’s army or Nusra Front. In any event, the reality is mind boggling.

March 18, 2015

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