The Four Players in the Syrian Arena: Regardless Of The Rumors Kerry Is Spreading, Assad Has Not Won And The Struggle For A Free Syria Is Far From Over
02 February 2015
By Amir Taheri
As some have long feared, the Obama administration is working to change the
mood music on Syria. Leaks to the media in Washington now harp on the theme
of ''maybe Bashar Al-Assad is part of the solution.''
The New York Times, a staunch Obama supporter, suggests that Assad's removal,
a condition set by the president years ago, is no longer valid because no one
wants to experience ''another Libya.''
Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to transform himself from
a determined adversary of Assad to a well-wishing adviser to the tyrant. Here
is what he said last week: ''It is time for President Assad, the Assad
regime, to put their people first and to think about the consequences of
their actions, which are attracting more and more terrorists to Syria,
basically because of their efforts to remove Assad.''
Until a year ago, Obama's chief excuse for not helping anti-Assad rebels was
that they were ''divided.'' Now a new excuse is added: the presence of terror
groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which controls a
quarter of Syrian territory.
At the same time, sources within the administration are promoting another
reason for scripting the US out of the Syrian imbroglio. ''Syria is going to
be a mess for years, maybe decades,'' they say. ''So why not let Russia and
Iran, Assad's principal backers, carry the burden?''
Call it cynical, but the suggestion that Russia and Iran, cash-starved as a
result of falling oil prices, are best left alone to pay the bills may hold a
certain appeal in some quarters.
Yet another excuse promoted by Obama is that the ''diplomatic route''
proposed by Moscow may, by some miracle, produce a solution. ''We can't just
tell the Russians to go to hell,'' says one Obama official. ''Working with
Russians on this issue may help with other issues, notably the Iranian
The clinching argument for the cynical pirouette is that a deal with Russia
might give some of Assad's opponents a share of power in Damascus. One
formula would be to organize parliamentary elections to give the ''moderate''
opposition a presence in a putative legislature.
There are several problems with the Obama analysis. To start with, it is not
at all certain that Russia has enough real influence with the Assad clan.
Unlike Iran, which has built networks at all levels of the Assad regime,
including the army and security services, Russia has been on the margins
since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Iran has a direct military presence in the shape of some 10,000 fighters
furnished by the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah, and led by officers from the
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In contrast, Russia's military presence is
limited to 230 technicians instructing Assad's forces on how the use the
weapons Moscow has supplied them with.
One guess is that Iran's medium or, perhaps, long-term plan is to ditch Assad
at the first opportunity, replacing him with someone, or some group, more
directly beholden to the Islamic Republic.
Kerry and Obama are equally wrong in thinking, or pretending to think, that
helping Assad hang on in Damascus might contribute to the weakening of ISIS
and kindred groups. Assad and ISIS are tacit allies.
It is no accident that Assad's air force bombs civilian targets in areas
controlled by ISIS, including Raqqa, but spares localities where ISIS
fighters and arsenals are based. ISIS spends more time and energy fighting
anti-Assad groups and making mayhem in Iraq than striking at the tyrant's
Obama and Kerry are trying to explain, if not justify, their moral and
diplomatic abdication in the name of Realpolitik. However, thanks to their
cowardice, the US may end up a loser in any configuration while Syrians are
doomed to paying an ever higher cost in human suffering.
Since, as the Arab proverb has it, there is some good in whatever happens,
the Kerry–Obama abdication may not be totally negative. To start with, it
ends the illusion that Obama may have any concern about what happens to the
With the US removing itself from the equation, we are left with four key
players in the Syrian drama, already labeled ''the greatest tragedy of the
The quartet, as already noted, includes Russia and Iran, both individually
and acting together. Syria's democratic opposition would have an interest in
opening direct channels to both without abandoning the ultimate goal of
toppling Assad. Russia and Iran will continue backing Assad as long as the
cost does not transcend certain limits. As opportunist powers, neither would
want to close other options.
The third player is Turkey which is more interested in preventing the
emergence of a Kurdish mini-state on its border with the help of Assad,
Russia and Iran. Here we have an interesting situation in which Turkey and
the US, both members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), may
find themselves on opposite sides in the Syrian theater.
The fourth player comes in the form of European and Arab states concerned
about the spread of murderous jihadism beyond Syria's borders. Despite recent
feelers put out by a couple of those states to Assad, almost all know that
the tyrant's future is far from bright. If Syria is to regain a modicum of
stability, or even survive as a nation-state, Assad must go. More
importantly, perhaps, public opinion in both Europe and the ''Arab world''
remains decidedly anti-Assad.
Last but not least there is a fourth player: the Syrian people. Though
bloodied and broken, the Syrian people are not easily cut out of the
equation. Directly or indirectly, we all know of people, even within what is
left of the regime, who realize that government by mass murder is not the
best option for Syria.
Regardless of the rumors Kerry is spreading, Assad has not won and the
struggle for a free Syria is far from over.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated
in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily
Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the
Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the
International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a
contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall
Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the
French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus.
Between 1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt.
Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20
languages. He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's
latest book "The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and