National Security

‘Assad must go’ demand should go, ex-White House official says

The removal of President Bashar Assad has been a main goal of the Obama administration’s Syria policy since President Barack Obama first issued the demand that Assad step aside in August 2011. But U.S. officials mention it less and less often.
The removal of President Bashar Assad has been a main goal of the Obama administration’s Syria policy since President Barack Obama first issued the demand that Assad step aside in August 2011. But U.S. officials mention it less and less often. AP

Phil Gordon, a former senior White House adviser who is now part of the Clinton campaign’s foreign policy brain trust, argued Thursday that it’s time to stop calling for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s departure, saying the demand is part of a U.S. strategy that has failed to end the conflict.

The willingness of such a prominent Middle East observer to make that call, on the record at a media briefing at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington, signals a greater openness now in bluntly stating what U.S. officials have accepted for months, if not years: Assad isn’t leaving.

While it’s still taboo to say it aloud, Assad’s departure hasn’t been a U.S. priority in a long time, and the Obama administration’s old mantra of “Assad must go” is now mostly hollow.

Gordon, however, takes Washington’s evolution on Assad even farther: He advocates outright ditching regime change as a precondition for peace talks, saying it’s the only way to change the course of the war short of a much more robust U.S. intervention on behalf of the rebels who’ve tried for five years to topple Assad.

Whether Gordon’s position will influence Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton remains to be seen. But what to do about Syria and Assad is likely to be a major foreign-policy issue in the coming campaign.

It’s not a question of the morality of Assad, but the practicality.

Phil Gordon, former White House aide

Clinton is considered the most pro-intervention candidate in the race, calling for a no-fly zone in Syria and a stepped-up effort to build up the so-called moderate rebel forces. Democratic contender Bernie Sanders and the de facto Republican nominee, Donald Trump, have shown little interest in taking on Assad.

Clinton’s campaign, when asked for comment on her stance on Assad, pointed to a speech last December in which she advocated increasing support to the rebels, saying they can’t be expected to fight the Islamic State and al Qaida’s Nusra Front “without the credible prospect of a transition.” The campaign declined to comment further.

Others of Clinton’s advisers are more hawkish than Gordon. Tamara Cofman Wittes, who directed Middle East policy during Clinton’s tenure at the State Department and now advises her campaign, said openly abandoning the goal of Assad’s ouster would anger not only the beleaguered Syrian rebels but also powerful regional forces that back them, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey among them.

“As long as Assad is in place, there are groups on the ground that will keep fighting and there are actors in the region that will keep supporting them,” said Cofman Wittes, who is the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Both Gordon and Cofman Wittes stressed that they were speaking in a personal capacity and not in conjunction with the campaign.

But Gordon’s willingness to address the issue publicly was a sign that however the outcome of the November election affects U.S. policy toward Syria, a robust conversation is likely already underway about what has been a demand since President Barack Obama first uttered it in August 2011.

The Obama administration supports the Syrian opposition’s stance that Assad’s removal is the ultimate goal of negotiations with the regime and its main patrons, Iran and Russia. However, the rebels have insisted on his ouster as a precondition to real talks – a nonstarter for the regime side.

Opposition leaders have watched in dismay as the U.S. administration has inched away from that goal of regime change; U.S. officials worry that a power vacuum in Syria would be filled only by extremist factions such as the Islamic State or the Nusra Front. Talks have progressed in fits and starts because of this perennial sticking point. Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly has said that the main U.S. interest in Syria now is defeating the Islamic State.

Gordon stressed that he thinks Assad is a war criminal who should be held accountable for atrocities in the brutal civil war that’s left more than a quarter-million people dead and displaced millions. But removing him, Gordon said, is a “means-and-ends struggle”: Unless the United States is willing to greatly increase the means, then it should shift the end goal.

“The United States is capable, militarily, of ousting the Assad regime, but the path to get there and the consequences of doing so need to be taken into account,” said Gordon, now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And, therefore, if you are not prepared to do what I think is necessary to achieve that political objective, then you have to change that political objective.”

Gordon’s proposal, in brief, is to drop calls for Assad’s departure, work with the regime to widen a fragile truce and allow humanitarian aid to flow, and start moving toward a decentralized style of governance in recognition that several rebel-held patches of Syria are unlikely to be restored to regime control anytime soon, if ever.

“It’s not a question of the morality of Assad, but the practicality,” Gordon said. “I think it would make more sense to defer that hardest question of all, because we’re not going to agree on that with the regime, with the Russians or the Iranians. And to maintain that as a precondition for de-escalating the conflict, I think, is a recipe for continuing the conflict.”

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam