ISTANBUL — They came, they talked and they agreed their struggle against the militants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State is making headway. But they hardly had a word to say about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—the man whose refusal to accept demands for political reforms prompted the civil war in Syria and gave the jihadists their opening to expand dangerously in the Levant, taking huge swathes of Syria and Iraq.
At the gathering in Brussels on Wednesday of foreign ministers and officials from nearly 60 countries backing the US-led intervention against Islamic State, there was nary a mention of the man President Obama used to say should “step aside” for the sake of the Syrian people. The focus was all on the jihadist group, widely known as ISIS or ISIL, that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says will take years to vanquish.
So there was a lot of talk about staying the course against ISIS. But with Assad, Western countries have not displayed the patience or resolution they claim they will show when combating the Islamic militants. Indeed, Assad would have been the invisible man in Brussels had Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu not insisted on bringing him up. The minister called for a comprehensive strategy in the region and warned that unless the anti-ISIS coalition broadens its campaign to tackle the Assad regime in addition to the jihadists there will be no peace, the conflict will continue, and the militants can exploit that for their own ends.
Now that their country is in its fourth year of bloody civil war, and after at least 200,000 deaths, infuriated Syrian rebels fear a behind-the-scenes bargain with the Devil is in the works, one permitting Assad to get away with murder and remain in power.
They say the West is displaying an indifference to their struggle and the latest peace plans being pushed by the UN, NGOs and Moscow don’t reassure them. All three envisage Assad staying in power—at least in the short term.
The lead plan, advocated by Staffan de Mistura, the UN secretary-general’s special envoy to Syria, calls for a freezing of hostilities between moderate rebels and government forces so the two can face the common threat of Islamic militants. The UN envoy has argued the rise of ISIS represents a new factor that can coax the warring sides to look at the conflict in a different light and recognize the jihadists are taking advantage of the civil war and are the real enemy. For the Assad regime, a freeze would have the twin drawbacks of accepting the status quo on the ground and according the rebels some legitimacy. But it would also have the benefit of consolidating the regime’s hold, presumably a reason why the Syrian leader’s initial response to Mistura’s proposal has been unusually positive.
For Syrian rebels, the UN approach is fundamentally flawed. “Assad’s brutality and repression has been an incubator for extremism,” says Hadi al-Bahra, president of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition. “Ceasefires and limiting existing violence provide a temporary solution but not a permanent resolution of the crisis. Ceasefires without a clear vision for a full and comprehensive political solution will give the regime time to regroup and reorganize itself to continue its crimes against the Syrian people at a later stage.”
That argument applies as far as many rebels are concerned to local ceasefires between Syrian insurgents and government forces being proposed by groups like the Geneva-based Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, a conflict resolution NGO that has received US funding and brokered a deal between Islamists and secularists in Tunisia. The hope is that ceasefires could build to political reconciliation. But again there is no precondition for Assad to go, making the ceasefire route anathema to the rebel commanders I have spoken with.
A Moscow peace process that calls for inter-Syrian meetings in Russia’s capital is engineered to keep Russian-ally Assad in power. In recent weeks, Moscow has invited a series of opposition figures to discuss a peacemaking deal. One of those who has held talks with Russian diplomats, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib—who once led the Syrian National Coalition—says it is time there were direct negotiations with the Syrian leader to find a solution to the civil war battering the country. “It is in the Syrian people's interest for us to sit down together once and for all, and to find a way to save the people from this pain and suffering," he told AFP this week.
Russian diplomats say their process is designed to kick start another round of Geneva Syrian peace talks, but they add there can be no return to the so-called Geneva II negotiations and the demand for Assad to step down.
In an interview this week with France’s Paris Match magazine the Syrian leader gave no indications he might fear his days are numbered. Asked if he worries he’ll meet the fate of the now dead Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi, Assad responded: “The captain doesn't think about death, or life, he thinks about saving his ship. If he thinks about sinking, everyone will die.”
Assad argued that the US-led airstrikes against the jihadists are not proving as effective as Washington is making out, and he appeared to offer the West a deal: join him in the fight against ISIS. “Had these strikes been serious and effective, I would say they would be helpful for sure, but it’s we who are battling against ISIS on the ground.”
It is a boast that enrages Syrian rebels, who argue Assad indirectly helped boost the jihadists by freeing hundreds from his jails when the uprising started, all with the aim of being later able to claim he is defending Syria from Islamic militants. If that was what was in his mind three years ago—it was a masterstroke and one that may end up prolonging his regime.