RT Howard is the author of Power and Glory: France’s Secret Wars with Britain and America 1945-2016.
For all its vacillation and incoherence, the policy of Western governments towards the Syrian civil war has in one respect been consistent. For almost from the moment of the conflict’s inception, during the spring of 2011, Western governments have insisted upon the removal from power – sometimes as a precondition of talks, at other times after a “transition period” – of the leader of the Syrian government, Bashar al-Assad.
But as Syria continues to bleed, and the possibility of a confrontation between Russia – Assad’s key ally – and the West becomes more real, it is time to challenge the very foundations of our policy and ask a searching question: why not allow him to remain in power but limit his powers?
Assad’s regime is undoubtedly guilty of heinous crimes, but a more flexible approach would have allowed more room for diplomatic manoeuvre and increased the scope for a lasting solution. Giving some ground and allowing, in principle, Assad to remain as head of state would have satisfied his supporters at home and abroad, notably Iran, Russia and, more recently, China. Instead, the decision to oppose Assad led to “a rupture of all diplomatic ties between Damascus and Western capitals, making a negotiated settlement even harder to achieve”, as one former Western diplomat told me when I researched my book, which covers Western policy to the crisis.
Removing Assad would also create a power vacuum that may prove impossible to fill, or could provide opportunities for Al Qaeda and its affiliates to exploit. But allowing him to stay in power avoids the hugely demanding – and sometimes impossible task – of replacing a regime and its infrastructure, however battered that may be by nearly six years of civil war.
The parallels with the removal of both Saddam Hussein in 2003 and Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 are clear: in both cases, we worked to remove these heinous individuals from power, but it would have been vastly simpler to have sustained their rule rather than replace them.
The West can compromise an undesirable necessity – of recognizing the unfortunate fact that Assad is an immovable object – with the demands of its collective conscience. It can do this by allowing him to remain as president but severely curtailing his powers, and perhaps even allow him to assume a role of only nominal importance.
For example, Assad could surrender control over his armed forces: a model for such an agreement is the 2013 deal between Russia and the United States, which obliged Syria to declare its stockpile of chemical weapons to an international watchdog before surrendering it altogether.
And if Moscow was assured that Assad, its close ally, had a long-term future, then it would be much more likely to agree to the establishment of a No-Fly Zone over Syria. Such an agreement would emasculate Assad in the same way as Hussein’s powers were similarly limited after 1991, when Britain, France and the US, with the sanction of a UN resolution, imposed No-Fly Zones over the Kurdish areas of north Iraq and Shiite areas of the south.
To suggest a more flexible approach to Assad’s future will provoke paroxysms of protest by those who argue that his appalling humanitarian record renders any compromise unconscionable. But an obvious counter-argument is that many, if not most, of his enemies also have a similar track record of brutality and would behave no differently if they assumed power in a post-Assad Syria. In 2012, for example, Amnesty International has accused opposition groups of committing war crimes by using improvised and inaccurate artillery fire against civilians.
It is also hard to see why this outcome would be so unpalatable for Western governments that have so often done deals with leaders whose hands are as blood-stained as Assad’s own. The numerous enemies of Saudi Arabia point to its well documented human rights abuses, while historically Washington has supported dictators as unsavoury as Hussein – an American ally in the mid-1970s – and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan.
Because Assad’s track record is so bloody, Western leaders often cite another supposed justification for their policy of regime change. Most ordinary Syrians, they claim, would simply not accept his continued rule, and the civil war would therefore carry on regardless. But there are numerous instances of communities that have suffered during a civil war but then accepted the rule of their former enemy: an example is Northern Ireland, where a power-sharing agreement of 1998 included several leaders of the Irish Republican Army that had fought a twenty-year insurgent campaign.
Keeping Assad in power is of course a deeply imperfect solution, but it may be preferable than allowing this tragic civil war to continue for years, or even decades, and perhaps provoking a vicious and unnecessary confrontation between Western governments and Moscow.