Neil Quilliam
Senior Research Fellow; Project Director, Syria and Its Neighbours Policy Initiative
Acquiescing to Russia's plan will ultimately prolong the conflict in Syria and risks broadening the appeal of ISIS.
Fighters from a coalition of Islamist forces stand on a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on 29 March 2015 in the Syrian city of Idlib. Photo by Getty Images.Fighters from a coalition of Islamist forces stand on a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on 29 March 2015 in the Syrian city of Idlib. Photo by Getty Images.

Yesterday President Barack Obama called for a political transition in Syria that would leave Bashar al-Assad temporarily in power. It is a proposal that seems to enjoy support among other Western leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

Though a bad policy, the move should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Syrian history. The Assads—father and son—have learned that if they dig in and wait for the tide to turn, they will not only survive, but prosper. As Bente Scheller argues, they are masters at the 'waiting game'.

Assad's back was firmly against the wall when he crossed US President Obama's red line in the summer of 2013 by using chemical weapons, but then Russia stepped in to save him and embarrass the US. The subsequent advance of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in June 2014 handed Assad another opportunity to sidestep international opprobrium, which he used to intensify atrocities against civilians. Since the US-led anti-ISIS coalition came together and prioritized degrading and destroying that organization, Assad's regime has, in effect, been let off the hook. This despite the Syrian regime being responsible for more civilian fatalities and injuries than ISIS—at least 110,000 according to some sources.

Although Western leaders may grit their teeth, they are now willing to allow Assad to be part of a 'managed transition'. Their own transition to accepting Assad is the result of a combination of factors, namely the likely longevity of the civil war and its impact on the EU in terms of refugees, unerring Russian and Iranian commitment to securing the regime, and their own diplomatic shortcomings. Western powers, it seems, have no answers, haunted as they are by the ghosts of interventions past. In short, they have nothing left in their diplomatic tool bag and begrudgingly accept that Russia and Iran are better positioned to impose a settlement; one that includes Assad.

Five reasons this is a bad idea

However, accepting that Assad will be part of a managed transition is a very bad idea and will likely lead to the de jure partition of Syria. There are five reasons why including Assad will prevent a sustainable political solution from being reached and the Syrian state from being reconstituted.

First, it is not clear what 'managed transition' actually means. UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has suggested giving Assad six months. Given the Assads' penchant for waiting, no Syrian will ever believe that the president would stay for such a short period of time. He was told to leave the scene by the US, France and Britain back in 2012, but has remained in situ ever since. It is a question of credibility—who would force Assad to leave in six months? There is no confidence that the US and its allies could make happen and it would not serve Russian or Iranian interests to do so, unless events on the ground changed significantly.

Second, it is inconceivable that the president of the main opposition Syrian National Coalition Khaled al-Khoja could 'sell' a deal to his constituency on the ground. Even if Khoja were to play Morgan Tsvangirai to Assad's Mugabe, he would be hard pressed to persuade armed groups to lay down their arms and join a political process that includes Assad. The opposition has accepted that parts of the regime should remain intact, but that does not include Assad or his cohort.

Third, it is difficult to understand why the armed opposition groups that have carved out spheres of influence in southern and northern Syria would accept anything other than a ceasefire—such as the Iran-brokered ceasefire in Zabadani—that gives them breathing space to not only consolidate their military advances, but also govern Syrian territory. Joining a political process that includes Assad would risk undermining the advances they have made in recovering and governing Syrian territory. The inclusion of Assad in a political transition would only strengthen their resolve to partition Syria.

Fourth, Turkey and Saudi Arabia's leaders have staked their reputations on Assad going. No matter what political solution is imposed upon the country, they will continue to fund and arm rebel opposition groups of all stripes and further entrench the move towards partition.

Finally, Syrian opposition groups, armed and otherwise, along with the broader population already feel betrayed by the international community for not intervening following Assad's use of chemical weapons. They have lost their faith in the international community to exercise moral or legal authority to protect civilians. Any move to include Assad in the transition would push any remaining Syrians with a shred of faith in international justice towards ISIS. It would also play into the hands of the ISIS strategic communications team and give them a major boost. As such, ISIS would be the main beneficiary of Assad joining the transitional government.

While Western leaders have very few levers to pull, acquiescing to Russia's insistence that Assad be part of the transition means that they will ultimately be complicit in prolonging the conflict and, at the same time, risk broadening the appeal of ISIS.

This article was originally published by Newsweek.

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