Skip to main content

U.S., forget about ousting al-Assad

By Kapil Komireddi
updated 6:15 PM EST, Fri January 24, 2014
In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
HIDE CAPTION
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
99
100
101
102
103
104
105
106
107
108
109
110
111
112
113
114
115
116
117
118
119
120
121
122
123
124
125
126
127
128
129
130
131
132
133
134
135
136
137
138
139
140
141
142
143
144
145
146
147
148
149
150
151
152
153
154
155
156
157
158
159
160
161
162
163
164
165
166
167
168
169
170
171
172
173
174
175
176
177
178
179
180
181
182
183
184
185
186
187
188
189
190
191
192
193
194
195
196
197
198
199
200
201
202
203
204
205
206
207
208
209
210
211
212
213
214
215
216
217
218
219
220
221
222
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kapil Komireddi: In 2012, from outside Syria, it seemed the regime would fall
  • He says that proved mistaken; military still backs Bashar al-Assad
  • He says the U.S. goal of an al-Assad ouster is unrealistic
  • He says U.S. should try to head off al Qaeda gains from Saudi backing of the opposition

Editor's note: Kapil Komireddi is an Indian journalist who writes on South Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter

(CNN) -- "The French, British and Americans have no understanding of what's happening here," a foreign diplomat posted in Syria told me in the summer of 2012. At the time it was still possible for an outsider like me, having recently arrived in Syria from London, to imagine Bashar al-Assad's imminent departure. Even a U.S. State Department official had dismissed his regime as "a dead man walking."

But non-Westerners who had spent years in Syria were less hopeful. They rejected reports in the American press prophesying the demise of the government. Al-Assad, they said, was popular among the minorities. Besides, the army's loyalty to him was near-absolute.

Today, Bashar al-Assad is more powerful than he was 15 months ago. For all the predictions of his impending overthrow, his Baathist machine remains the only stable feature in Syria. Despite the carnage, daily life in Damascus, al-Assad's bastion, largely continues as before. There have been no major defections, and most importantly the Syrian Arab Army, despite suffering more than 30,000 fatalities, continues to pledge its allegiance to al-Assad. In the past two months, it has reclaimed from the opposition territory outside Damascus.

Kapil Komireddi
Kapil Komireddi

Yet, instead of recalibrating its response, Washington remains tethered to its same narrow policy goal: al-Assad's removal from power. John Kerry devoted his speech Wednesday in Switzerland, where representatives of the Syrian government and some opposition groups have assembled to hold peace talks, to reiterating this demand. This is an unrealistic expectation. Far from achieving al-Assad's exit, it will prolong the violence. Syrian government representatives did not go to the negotiating table to throw away his gains. The so-called Geneva Communiqué that forms the basis of Kerry's demand does not in fact call for Assad's removal.

And he is unlikely to budge without a credible threat of force from the United States.

Kerry claimed this week that such a threat was still "on the table." In truth, Washington's options are severely limited by the embarrassing fact that the opposition that has come to Switzerland to wrest power from al-Assad does not have a significant constituency in Syria. Its members hold little sway over the mujahideen fighting government forces.

Much of the territory outside the government's control is held by groups linked to al Qaeda, and al Qaeda is opposed to the peace talks. It is aware that it could emerge as the unintended beneficiary of any Western attempt to dislodge al-Assad.

Even the "moderate" elements of the opposition appear to be beyond Washington's control. The peace talks in Switzerland were deemed crucial by Washington. Yet members of the opposition repeatedly threatened to derail them if their demand to exclude Iran from the process was not met. Kerry had been attempting for weeks to get a seat for Tehran at the talks because he grasped that, as a regional power that has abetted Syria in its civil war, Iran's presence was vital to progress. This irked Saudi Arabia, the Sunni theocracy that is alarmed by the thaw in relations between Tehran and Washington.

Syrian Christians fear Islamist rebels
McCain: Keep economic sanctions on Iran
McCain: Keep economic sanctions on Iran

Saudi Arabia's intervention in Syria has always been part of its effort to blunt Iran's influence and cripple what it sees is a Shia corridor of power in the Middle East. As the principal backer of the opposition, Saudi Arabia has played a key role in transforming Syria into a haven for foreign jihadists cut from the same ideological cloth as the men who carried out the 9/11 attacks. Iran hurt its own interests by refusing to adhere to preconditions, which in Tehran's view bound it to an unfavorable outcome -- a Saudi-backed transitional government -- even before the talks had begun. But its abrupt exclusion from the peace talks is a triumph of Saudi policy.

All of this explains why al-Assad, despite having presided over the slaughter of so many Syrians, was able to ridicule the negotiations as a "joke." His decision to dispatch a delegation to participate in them was in deference to his sponsors in Russia who, having labored hard to halt the threat of a U.S. military strike against their client last year, are eager to demonstrate the utility of diplomacy. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, was quick to cast the opening day as a success. "For the first time in three years," he said, "the sides -- for all their accusations -- agreed to sit down at the negotiating table."

But the framework for the negotiations already looks obsolete. Hammered out in 2012 by Kofi Annan, then the U.N. peace envoy to Syria, its terms -- calling for a transitional governing body by mutual consent of all parties, a national dialogue, free elections, and a comprehensive review of the constitution -- hark back to a time when al-Assad seemed weak, the opposition was unified, and the phrase "Arab Spring" could be spoken hopefully in the West. The major powers that helped forge the Geneva Communiqué, perhaps anticipating al-Assad's fall, refused to place their weight behind it when it mattered. Annan quit his job in frustration.

To ordinary Syrians, the ongoing talks in Switzerland look like a meaningless sideshow. Al-Assad, feeling triumphant, refuses to go. An internally riven opposition refuses to temper its demands. The West, unwilling to intervene militarily and incapable yet of forcing change diplomatically, watches with impotent rage. Al Qaeda, once enfeebled, looks on expectantly.

Syria is now a homicidal theater for a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran -- the Middle East's Sunni and Shia powers. A dialogue between the two may do more to halt the fighting in Syria than negotiations between Assad and his Syrian adversaries operating from abroad. Washington's energies are better spent in nudging the two rivals in that direction.

More immediately, the United States' ambition should be to end the violence. Rather than push for al-Assad's departure, it should work toward obtaining a pragmatic power-sharing deal centered on reconciliation rather than regime change. Finally, it should press its allies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar to drop their support for radical Islamists. If not, the flames that are now devouring Syria may soon engulf the West.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kapil Komireddi.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT