Why Assad Still Must Go

Foreign Policy recently reported on an unpublished paper percolating through Washington policy circles that presents the Assad regime in Syria in an unusually positive light.
01/07/2015 11:30 am ET Updated Mar 09, 2015
Syrian woman in the camp for displaced persons in Qatma, Syria (January 2013)
Syrian woman in the camp for displaced persons in Qatma, Syria (January 2013)

Foreign Policy recently reported on an unpublished paper percolating through Washington policy circles that presents the Assad regime in Syria in an unusually positive light. The paper, authored by highly controversial reporter Nir Rosen, argues that the regime is "not the worst regime in the region" while moderate Syrian rebels are "warlords" who "still all favor an Islamic government." Therefore, according to Rosen, the United States should support local ceasefires that keep the Assad regime in power for at least five years, while "abandoning the notion of regime change."

I keep regular contact with moderate Syrian rebels and with Washington policy circles, and I have obtained a copy of Rosen's paper. Believe it or not, I believe the paper is essential reading -- but not because I endorse its conclusions. Rather, the paper should be Exhibit A for just how closely "local ceasefires" play into the Assad regime's hands. The paper should also serve as a warning for U.N. envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, who supports the idea of local ceasefires.

Rosen writes that the Assad regime is "not the worst regime in the region" because "It has strong systems of education, health care and social welfare." But the two measures most relevant to any ceasefire are violence and politics, and on these measures, the Assad regime is indeed the worst. On the eve of the Syrian Revolution, the Assad regime's Hama Massacre of 1982 was the worst single massacre committed by a sitting Arab regime. The past three years of massacres have been even worse.

Turning to politics, in the years leading up to the Syrian Revolution, Freedom House consistently placed Syria as one of the least free ten countries in the world, and emphasized its low score relative to even other Arab dictatorships. Only two Arab dictators were ranked lower than Bashar al-Assad by Freedom House. The first, Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, is now dead due to a NATO-backed popular uprising. The second, Sudanese dictator Umar Bashir, is the only sitting head of state indicted by the International Criminal Court.

Rosen's paper paints over Assad's plainly bloody and repressive record. Documented photographic evidence reveals that since 2011, some 11,000 Syrians have been killed in the Assad regime's prisons. The true death toll is probably much higher. These prisons have been likened to the death camps of Adolf Hitler and may have been modeled on them. But in Rosen's world, the Assad regime did not torture these prisoners. An abstract entity called "the war" did, as in "The war...led to the arrests of tens of thousands of Syrians...leading to massive industrial-scale torture."

Similarly, Aleppo City is now a demolished, largely-abandoned hellscape for a simple reason: the Assad regime's barrel bombs. The regime has barrel-bombed Aleppo, the main rebel stronghold, in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. It carried out its bloodiest wave of such attacks, forcing 500,000 residents to flee, while its diplomats were discussing good-faith measures at U.N.-sponsored negotiations in Geneva. But to Rosen, it's the rebels' fault: "In 2012 the insurgency in Aleppo invaded Aleppo city from the countryside and brought hell to the city."

U.N. Envoy De Mistura no doubt has genuinely positive intentions with his proposal for local ceasefires, or "freeze zones" as he likes to call them. This does not change the fact that local ceasefires reward the regime for so blatantly flouting De Mistura's predecessors, by sanctioning the Assad regime's brutal reign for a fixed period (five years in Rosen's proposal). For Rosen, who blames regime crimes on "the war" or "the insurgency," such an arrangement might make sense. For De Mistura, who is fully aware of Assad's crimes, the argument for "freezing" the war in its current place is far more tricky.

As to Rosen's assertion that most rebels are not moderates and that they picked up arms "out of religious zeal," Rosen classifies "moderates" quite narrowly: "The moderates do not carry weapons. This was the fault line." I have training in nonviolent conflict resolution, and I sought to help keep the Revolution nonviolent in late 2011. However, many reasonable people will elect to take up arms when confronted by a notoriously bloody regime that is spiriting thousands of peaceful demonstrators into its Nazi-style prisons. The American Revolution became violent over far less. That is why I eventually realized that an armed uprising was inevitable, and not because of the rebels' "religious zeal."

Furthermore, if most rebels acted out of religious zeal, how did they earn support from members of Syria's minorities? Salamiya, a majority-Ismaili Shite town of105,000, which held its first protests against the Assad regime in April of 2011, has hosted massive anti-regime protests deep into the Revolution's armed phase. The Free Syrian Army head in Salamiya is himself Ismaili. Is he acting out of Ismaili religious zeal? Syrian Christians have also established multiple anti-Assad brigades . Did they raise arms out of passion for Jesus? Just two weeks ago, a group of 30 armed Alawi draft-dodgers urged others to join them because "We are shooting at [other sects] for Bashar al-Assad...Enough." Were they acting out of love for Ali?

We know why Syrian Christians, Ismailis and even Alawis have taken up arms against Assad, because they tell us why in their defection videos: the regime is "corrupt" and "tyrannical." It "perpetrates massacres" and "destroys houses onto the heads of children." These were the same reasons given by most Syrian Sunnis who defected. They are related to simple dignity and humanity, not religious zeal.

Rosen also claims that pro-American rebels are sectarian "warlords," while the Assad regime is "staunchly secular." Perhaps he can explain how the events of Qusair in summer 2013 burnished Assad's secular credentials.

At the time, rebels were making slow and steady gains against Assad forces. Residents of Aleppo, Syria's largest province and the stronghold of the "warlords," had just held Syria's first democratic provincial elections since 1963 after expelling regime troops. George Sabra, a Christian, was the elected head of the main opposition political body. Qusair had a civilian local council and was controlled by the U.S.-endorsed Free Syrian Army.

Into this breach stepped Hezbollah, a Shiite sectarian militia and Iran's Lebanese proxy. During just one week in May 2013, Hezbollah flooded over 3,000 fighters into Syria to attack the rebel stronghold of Qusair. This allowed pro-Assad forces to capture Qusair, besiege the nearby city of Homs, and starve residents until they agreed to a "local ceasefire." Hezbollah would later conquer the multifaith town of Yabrud, with its elected local council of both Christians and Muslims, after releasing a baldly sectarian music video that threatened, "We've defeated the Jewish armies, and you're next."

Since May 2013, Iran has facilitated the entry into Syria of 10,000-15,000 Shiite sectarian foreign fighters, some from as far afield as Yemen and Afghanistan. I doubt this bothers Nir Rosen, who seems to regard Shiites as inherently superior to Sunnis: "sectarian Shiite movements in the region encourage their constituencies...unlike Sunni leaders who act like feudal lords." But for the rest of us, the Assad regime's clear sectarian tendencies are a major obstacle to a positive outcome in Syria, be it the removal of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or peace for ordinary Syrians.

That is why I hope De Mistura's "freeze zones" project also includes a plan to raise pressure on the regime. The main downside Rosen gives for such pressure, "more direct Iranian intervention," has already been in full swing since Qusair. The main advantage Rosen names for local ceasefires, "removing layers of regime authority," was accomplished long ago in rebel areas. While Rosen is correct that Syrian "guns must be pointed toward ISIS," he really should raise this issue with his regime contacts. According to IHS Jane's, anti-Assad groups are already ISIS's main targets in Syria, while only a pathetic 6% of purported regime "counter-terror operations" target ISIS.

There are ways for De Mistura to pressure the regime while implementing his "freeze zones" project. They require fixing existing so-called "local ceasefires," specifically in Homs and the suburbs of Damascus, so that they are in fact beneficial to residents.

Following the Homs ceasefire, most civilians were unable to return home. A refugee that fled Homs City last week has told me that anti-Assad former residents have been banned from returning, and that their homes are often confiscated by pro-regime Alawites. Meanwhile, the nearby rebel-held neighborhood of Waer, which De Mistura has visited, is packed with IDPs. Regime attacks on Waer have escalated since De Mistura's visit, and recently, regime air raids there killed 35 IDPs in one day.

Meanwhile, local ceasefires in the Damascus suburbs have not led to free-flowing humanitarian aid or a safe zone for civil society. According to U.N. reports, Assad continues to deny humanitarian access to besieged areas most of the time, in defiance of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2165. Although the ceasefire in Damascus' Barzeh neighborhood is sometimes viewed as a model, the Barzeh Local Council reports regular arrest raids against civilians, especially women, amidst a heightened regime security presence.

De Mistura should seek means to pressure the Assad regime until it allows full humanitarian access to the Damascus suburbs, especially those that have signed ceasefires. He should demand that bombardments and arrest raids on ceasefire neighborhoods halt immediately, along with the immediate release of prisoners from these areas. Most importantly, there must be a real political dialogue in Homs, and the safety of residents that wish to return must be guaranteed.

Assad still must go, regardless of what Nir Rosen might believe. That was why Syrians rose in protest in 2011, and it remains true today. Whatever steps De Mistura takes toward local ceasefires, he should ensure that they bring Syrians closer to their ultimate goal.
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Mohammed Alaa Ghanem is the senior political adviser and government relations director for the Syrian American Council in Washington, a board member of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, and a fellow at the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies. @MhdAGhanem