Trump must not give up on ousting Assad

Trump must not give up on ousting Assad
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President Trump may be about to make a huge mistake.

Trump recently spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Syria high on the agenda. The call came just a day after Putin met Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in the Russian town of Sochi in Assad's second trip out of the country since cracking down on pro-democracy protesters in 2011. The White House has since released a statement stressing the need for “stability of a unified Syria.

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Putin is now going full-bore in an attempt to coax Trump and force the Syrian opposition to accept Assad keeping power. This is an outcome that will harm the United States and that neither the president nor Congress can accept.

 

Backed by Russia and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) — which the Trump Administration designated as a terror organization last month — Assad has gassed civilians, bombed schools and hospitals, and tortured thousands of innocents in an effort to retain power. He has left at least 500,000 Syrians dead and 5 million as refugees, with nearly half the country displaced. He has sparked a massive war that left pro-IRGC foreign fighters as the dominant force on the ground, with military bases to project Iranian power where pro-democracy protesters once marched.

Putin and Assad consider this outcome a victory. This week they used Assad's second trip out of Syria since 2011 to celebrate “mission nearly accomplished.” Putin's pitch to Trump likely mirrored this theme: Since the conflict is nearly over, it is time for peace talks to stabilize the situation. Peace talks in general have real potential to achieve peace in Syria. This specific round does not.

As Assad and Putin took a victory lap in Sochi, the head of the main Syrian opposition negotiating body — Riad Hijab of the Higher Negotiations Committee — resigned from his post. Nine other committee members quickly followed suit, with one citing “violations of the will of Syrians” and a second declaring “Russia is behind overturning the scales of the opposition...in the interest of Assad.” A protest movement is now building in Syria against a specific Russian demand that would turn upcoming peace talks into a laughingstock.

At issue is Russia's demand to force the opposition to include the Moscow platform, a political body with clear pro-Assad and pro-Russian leanings, in its next negotiating delegation. The platform is led by Qadri Jamil, who has ties to Russia dating back to over a decade. In 2011, while real pro-democracy protesters were being forced underground or hunted and killed, Jamil was leading a supposed “opposition” party that operated openly a short walk from the presidential palace.

Jamil went on to become a deputy prime minister in the Assad regime. Bizarrely, he was removed from his post on live TV in 2013 while interviewing with a news anchor for RT, a station recently made to register as a Russian foreign agent in the U.S. for influencing the 2016 presidential elections. Jamil later joined Assad's rubber-stamp parliament before being removed from his post a second time and resurfacing as a leading proponent of Russian efforts to “reorganize” the opposition.

Jamil and his Moscow platform are Russian puppets that do not belong in the opposition delegation. No peace talks can be credible if he or his platform are included in the opposition side. If Trump chooses to accept the Russian position, then, he will not be advancing the “stability of a unified Syria,” as expressed in the White House statement. He will have joined Putin in trying to ram Assad and the IRGC down Syrians' throats. 

Aside from the moral shame of legitimizing a man who has gassed his own people and whom Trump once called an “animal,” the decision also places Americans and American interests at risk. On Sunday, the IRGC attained for Iran its first “land bridge” to the Mediterranean in over a millennium. Hezbollah fighters were seen on the ground storming the last town needed to complete the land bridge, and IRGC head Qassem Suleimani himself was filmed strolling through the town just hours later. In between these two events, ISIS fighters managed to cross nearly 100 miles of Assad- and IRGC-held territory to attack Pentagon partners near a U.S. base.

This is the future for Syria if we let Assad stay: Iranian dominance, and a continued threat from ISIS and similar groups. We must recall that Iran has a long history with Al-Qaeda and that there are many precedents for Assad adopting a policy of salutary neglect with respect to transnational terrorists. The current antagonism between ISIS and Assad is the exception to the rule and cannot be expected to continue indefinitely.

If the White House statement about “stability of a unified Syria” means that Trump has accepted Assad's rule, then he has made a huge mistake. The president, Congress, and the State Department should speak out against Russia's rigged diplomatic initiative, ensure that future peace talks allow the legitimate opposition real agency to make decisions, and demand implementation of the Geneva II Communique that was endorsed by the U.S. and Russia calling for Assad's departure.

Shlomo Bolts is the Policy and Advocacy officer at the Syrian American Council.