Assad must go, but support for transition is essential

Assad must go, but support for transition is essential
7 min read
12 Apr, 2017
Comment: Trump's airstrikes on Assad's airbase were punitive. The US, supported by the international community, must now provide consistent support to Syria's opposition, writes Anisa Abeytia.
Washington should not act unilaterally in Syria, writes Abeytia [Anadolu]

Last week, Trump made good on his campaign promise to maintain an "element of surprise" as a battle tactic in Syria, and stunned the world by authorising an attack on the al-Shayrat airbase in northern Syria.

Trump's Syria policy remained ambiguous in the run up to the strike. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's comments contradicted statements made by Nikki R. Haley, American envoy to the United Nations, who, on 6 April warned the UN Security Council of a potential unilateral US attack against Syria's Assad.

President Trump's remarks following the airstrike made it clear the attack was punitive and limited. There was no indication there was a push to unseat Assad, or that the strike was part of a wider policy and military trajectory change.  

A few days later, Ambassador Haley asserted in an interview there can be no political solution while Assad remains in power. So for the time being, Washington's intentions in Syria remain nebulous to outsiders, perhaps intentionally as an extension of Trump's expressed surprise battle tactic.

"It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons," Trump said. 

This marks a critical break with Obama's Syria policy, that refused to recognise the threat posed by the use of chemical weapons by Assad.

The question now is, will Washington continue to retaliate against Assad?

Linking Assad's violation of international law to US security interests, as well as making it a point of contention worthy of action is tantamount to George W. Bush's stance on Iraq in the run-up to war. Saddam Hussein was removed as president of Iraq on the mere suspicion of stock piling weapons of mass destruction, while Assad has openly used them for years with impunity. 

Trump's post-strike comments, and subsequent remarks by his administration seem to be a nod in the direction of establishment republicans who are hawkish on Syria.

Tillerson's comments at the G7 summit reinforce this interpretation, "I think it is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end."

Trump further stated, "As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen, and the region continues to destabilise, threatening the Unites States and its allies."

These are the critical links Obama failed to make and his inability to contain Assad's genocidal tirade in Syria created a refugee crisis that allowed IS to gain power and territory.

Assad is a threat to the US and its allies, Trump has made this much clear. The question now is, will Washington continue to retaliate against Assad, and will Europe adopt a similar stance? 

Western democracies are now facing a crisis created by their inability to see the danger posed by a lackadaisical response to the war in Syria

The European Union finds itself in a tailspin, dissolving under the weight of a refugee crisis created by Assad, Iran and Russia. Western democracies are now facing a crisis created by their inability to see the danger posed by a lackadaisical response to the war in Syria, and to Assad's Iranian and Russian allies. It is in their interest to remove Assad.

Washington however, should not act unilaterally in Syria, nor without congressional oversight. In turn, the international community has an important role to play and it is time they recognised this.

The Trump administration should now seek to remove the Assad regime, to end the bloodletting and to defeat IS. But in doing so, Washington and the international community must be careful to take steps to maintain stability in the country, in order to ensure the transition to a new, democratic government in Syria.

The international community and the US should equip vetted factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), strengthen the governance structures of the Syrian National Coalition, and lastly seek to implement and enforce a ceasefire. 

Those arguing against the removal of Assad claim it would create a power vacuum for IS to fill, and cause a chaotic environment in which extremism would flourish. Iraq and Afghanistan are often used as examples.

However, the context surrounding the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan differs substantially from that of Syria's popular uprising. The US invasion of both these countries received very limited support among the Iraqi and Afghani people.

  Read more: Trump's Syria airstrikes were not humanitarian

In addition, the liberated regions of Syria already have local governing structures in place. As well as the stabilising effect offered by Syrian Local Governing Councils (LGCs), the FSA and local law enforcement are local entities that are not imposed on communities by foreign governments.

The FSA, particularly in Deir Az-zour - the region bordering Iraq - were an effective counter weigh to IS until they were castrated by the lack of US and international backing, contributing to the growth of IS. The FSA can be relied on as allies in the fight against IS, but the US needs to view them as such. 

The recent successful FSA offensive in Hama against Assad forces, and the rapidity with which a well-supplied FSA was able to liberate large parts of northern Syria early in the conflict, demonstrates their competency as a fighting force.

The Syrian people do not require boots on the ground. The FSA successfully carried out a military strategy that prevented the rise of IS and dealt substantial blows to regime forces. The Syrians are more than capable of fighting their own battle, but they require supplies and air cover.

The Syrians are more than capable of fighting their own battle, but they require supplies and air cover

Along with a successful military strategy, the Syrian people require the cultivation of strong governance structures to prevent the potential quagmire of another failed state.

Cultivating democratic governance requires decades of dedicated coalition-building, and cannot be expected to occur spontaneously.

The Syrian National Coalition has not enjoyed support from the international community. As a result, their bargaining power at the negation table was weakened, and their legitimacy diminished. They will require support and the space to evolve and transition into a democratic Syrian state. 

Currently the Syrian National Coalition's stated goal is the establishment of an executive branch. Yet, democracy is inclusive of three branches of government and neglecting to cultivate a legislative and judicial branch to balance an executive office clears a path to future despotism.  

Establishing a parliamentary structure should be a priority, championing inclusiveness - despite its difficulty - as the hallmark of democracy.

War criminals and those who provided material support must be held accountable for their crimes, for revenge killings will only prolong the violence and instability.

South Africa faced a similar challenge after years of brutal apartheid. When I meet with Patrick Chamusso, South African freedom fighter, member of the African National Congress and subject of the film, Catch a Fire, I asked him, "If you could give any advice to the Syrian opposition, what would it be?"

War criminals and those who provided material support must be held accountable for their crimes

He replied, "Unity, purpose and perseverance." Chamusso explained that Syrians face a challenge similar to South Africans - the ability to remain united. "Without unity, you won't succeed," he said.

The African National Congress was a diverse organisation whose members had roots on three continents and various faith traditions. They did not share a common culture or history. Their commitment to a shared purpose kept them united; their cause was their bond.

All Syrians have an interest in the future success and rebuilding of their country, but this will require a bond that transcends political divisions.

Establishing a cease fire is now a foundational requirement for initiating a transition to a new government, and would mark the international community's firm commitment to a process.

Though a cease fire without the capability and will to enforce it, will be futile. An enforced cease fire would signal to the Syrian regime and its handlers the US coalition's commitment to the removal of Assad, and the coming of a transitional government. In addition the US coalition could be instrumental in delivering Assad and his supporters to The Hague for trial.

The African National Congress did not succeed on its own. Many historians assert that it took a large and well organised boycott of South Africa by individuals, organisations and celebrities to finally inflict a fatal blow to the apartheid government.

It was not only the actions of nation states, but the actions of people of conscience who used their purchasing power. However, it was ultimately the South African people who ended the apartheid system when they voted to end it on March 17, 1992. 

The Syrian people have learned to not rely on the support of the international community, and to respond to promises made by western governments with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Washington's Syria policy remains undefined, but in the long term, it will be the Syrian people who must decide the trajectory of their country.

Anisa Abeytia is a writer whose work has been featured in The Hill, Brunei Times, The Dubai Sun, and the Middle East Observer. Abeytia holds an MS and an MA from Stanford University in Post-Colonial and Feminist Theory.

Follow her on Twitter: @AbeytiaAnisa

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.