News / Middle East

Column: If Maliki Can Go, Why Not Assad?

Men remove rubble at a water plant in Raqqa, after what locals said was an air raid by Syrian government forces that targeted the plant, resulting in a water cutoff for residents.
Men remove rubble at a water plant in Raqqa, after what locals said was an air raid by Syrian government forces that targeted the plant, resulting in a water cutoff for residents.

The impressive results of U.S. air strikes in Iraq this month are prompting new calls from some quarters for similar U.S. intervention in Syria.

Abdulrahman Dadam, president of the Free Aleppo Governorate Council, wrote an impassioned plea for a U.S./NATO no fly zone to protect his historic city from both the Islamic State (IS) and the regime of Bashar al-Assad and establish a safe corridor from Turkey for humanitarian aid.

“The fall of Aleppo would precipitate a series of catastrophic events in Syria, further tipping the scales in favor of Assad’s forces and the expansion of ISIS,” Dadam warned. “Without air support and weapons from the United States, we stand little chance to prevent this collapse and sustain our city as a beacon for Syrians engaged in the two-front conflict against both terrorists and the regime.” 

For someone who advocated such a no fly zone in Syria three years ago – before the rise of IS –  Dadam’s arguments have merit. But for now, it seems unlikely that the Obama administration will open a second front against IS without a broader regional and international consensus about what the future of Syria should be.

The peaceful removal of Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister of Iraq created an important precedent. Maliki – whose State of Law party actually won a reasonably fair election in April – agreed not to seek a third term under pressure from both the United States and Iran as well as the senior Shi'ite Muslim cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Other important countries that have been hostile to the Maliki government, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, also signaled their approval for the designation of a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi.

Unfortunately, such a broad consensus is lacking when it comes to Assad, who recently “won” a third seven-year term in an election that offered no viable competition.

Russia and Iran continue to support him and Assad has cleverly used the menace of IS to argue that even his bloody regime is superior to a group so extreme that it has been excommunicated by al-Qaida central. He was, of course, complicit in the rise of this Frankenstein’s monster – opening the prisons and releasing Islamic extremists in an effort to discredit more moderate opposition forces. He also bought time by dribbling out his known stocks of chemical weapons, all of which have now been destroyed.

Just because Assad sees himself as irreplaceable does not mean he is or need be much longer. The U.S. should build on the diplomacy it used to pass a UN Security Council Resolution last week against IS to revive consultations on a post-Assad future for Syria that can bring together elements of the regime with the moderate Syrian opposition. Squeezed between Assad and IS, the moderates currently have no chance of success – even with much greater U.S. military support.

Key players in this new diplomatic effort include the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iran. The latest UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura,  should be in charge of the process. Unlike the failed “Geneva II” talks – from which Iran was excluded at the last minute – Tehran must be an integral party  from the start.

Iranian officials have indicated that they have no love for Assad but have backed him in the absence of a credible alternative. However, the rise of IS – which is now on the border with Iran in Iraq’s Diyala province – has altered Iranian priorities and put the U.S. and Iran together in a tacit alliance against the Sunni extremists in Iraq.

If elements of the Syrian regime and opposition can coalesce on an anti-IS platform, that could change the calculations in both Tehran and Washington. It is certainly a topic worth discussing on the sidelines of upcoming nuclear negotiations.

The U.S. strategy against IS in Iraq is only succeeding because the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Peshmerga are cooperating and providing the necessary ground forces.

Interrupting his Martha’s Vineyard vacation earlier this week to mark the recapture of the strategic Mosul dam from IS,  President Obama noted, “this operation demonstrates that Iraqi and Kurdish forces are capable of working together in taking the fight to ISIL.  If they continue to do so, they will have the strong support of the United States of America.”

U.S. policy in Syria should shift from half-hearted opposition to both IS and Assad  to building a coalition against IS that a majority of Syrians can support.  This will be a major diplomatic project that might also entail more U.S. military involvement which could be easily justified by humanitarian aims, such as protecting a humanitarian corridor to Aleppo.  

Without a broader strategy, however, Congress is likely to balk – as was evident a year ago when Congress refused to approve U.S. air strikes on Syria's chemical weapons.

With nearly 200,000 dead, a third of the population displaced and much of Syria destroyed, it is imperative that the U.S. and the rest of the international community revive their efforts to find a political solution that will remove Assad and unite a majority of Syrians against IS.  Every day that the Syrian war continues, it creates more potential recruits for IS in Syria and in neighboring states overflowing with Syrian refugees. 

Although Obama hasn't mentioned Syria much lately. it is not sufficient just to fight IS in Iraq. This cancer must be attacked from both sides if it is to be defeated.


Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

1855 Slave Brochure Starkly Details Sale of Black Americans

Document lists entire families that were up for sale in New Orleans, offering graphic insight into the slavery trade More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs