Consumers of news are well aware that the old saw “if it bleeds, it leads” comes with an unstated qualification: it depends who else is bleeding. This isn’t the only variable, but it’s a potent one. And so the current age of global instability–the Arab Spring, European protest movements, etc.–has meant that no matter how much Syria bleeds, it rarely leads. While the conflict has not experienced any major transformations recently, the lack of interest in Syria compared to, say, Egypt or Ukraine or the perennial newsmakers in Israel and the Palestinian territories means it’s possible, even likely, we’ll miss subtle shifts.
And Syria has undergone such a shift. The New York Times reports that Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, believes Bashar al-Assad will stay in power. This isn’t breaking news. But it’s a significant story because it’s not breaking news. We’ve written here over the last year or so that Assad’s survival has gone from unlikely to tenuous to probable, culminating in the Russian-brokered deal to pretend to eliminate all of Syria’s chemical weapons, a deal which (as the Times notes) did more to solidify Assad’s hold on power than virtually any other development there since the beginning of the uprising.
Assad’s survival, then, has become the new conventional wisdom, ushering Syria into an era of status quo chaos. The Times adds that this story appears in today’s print edition of the paper on page A10. Assad’s survival means Syria will continue to bleed, but won’t come close to leading.
The Times mentions that Ford’s “assessment was starkly different from one the Obama administration presented as recently as last year, when it insisted that Mr. Assad’s days were numbered and that he was losing a battle of attrition with the moderate opposition.” Syria was always a prime example of the president’s belief that he could make something so by simply saying it. Obama declared Assad’s days to be numbered; what else could possibly have been needed?
The Times asks Ford why Assad is now expected to stay in power–that is, why Assad might have won. Here’s his response:
Mr. Ford said there were three reasons Mr. Assad had been able to hang on to power. First, Mr. Ford said, the Syrian opposition had been unable to assure the Alawite minority that it would not be threatened by Mr. Assad’s overthrow. “First and foremost,” Mr. Ford said, the Syrian opposition “has been very unsuccessful at explaining an agenda that would not threaten the communities that are the pillars of support for the regime, first and foremost the Alawite community.” Mr. Assad himself is an Alawite.
Another factor that has helped Mr. Assad’s prospects has been “Iranian and Russian financing and huge amounts of arms coming from both Russia and Iran.” Tehran’s decision to encourage Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, and Iraqi Shiite fighters to join the fray has also provided the Syrian government with badly needed manpower, Mr. Ford said.
The third factor is that the Assad government has had a “certain unity and coherence, which is lacking on the opposition side,” he said.
Mr. Ford appeared to hold out little hope that diplomacy could resolve the crisis anytime soon. He said the Syrian government was not interested in negotiating the establishment of a transitional administration that could govern the country if Mr. Assad yielded power. Nor, he added, has the United States had any serious negotiations over the Syria crisis with Tehran.
In other words, Assad had received significant help from his backers, while the Obama administration has neither given such help to Assad’s opposition nor seriously engaged in diplomacy with Assad’s benefactors. Of course, the window for significant material support to the rebels has probably closed, and been closed for some time. At the outset of the uprising, there seemed to be an opportunity to try and pick winners and losers among the rebel groups. The ever-contemplative Obama just had to think about it for a while, say, several years.
It’s not just Ford or U.S. intelligence officials who admit the odds in favor of Assad’s continued reign. Wherever there is a foreign-policy crisis, you are likely to find an insipid and dismissive quote from this nation’s chief diplomat, the blundering John Kerry. And Syria is no different. Here is Kerry’s acknowledgement of the current state of the conflict:
On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to recognize Mr. Assad’s tenacity on the battlefield in remarks to a group of university students.
“Whether they win, don’t win, they can’t regain legitimacy,” said Mr. Kerry, who argued that the Syrian leader would face armed opposition as long as he sought to hold power.
The most charitable explanation is that Kerry simply doesn’t understand how offensive and callous his statements are to the many, many, many victims and their families of this incredibly bloody civil war. Is that their consolation prize from the leader of the free world? The Obama administration may not lift a finger to stem the barbarous mass murder they are subjected to, but rest assured the president has resolutely extracted from Assad his international legitimacy.
What the president and his embarrassing secretary of state don’t say is that such legitimacy may not be theirs to bestow anyway. Victors tend to accrue legitimacy in the real world. And Assad is on pace to claim a costly, but no less real, victory.