US Not Relenting on “Assad Must Go”
By: Nasser Charara
Published Monday, March 4, 2013
Despite recent suggestions – including by Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad – that the US administration is softening its line on Syria, the US has continued to insist on the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.
That was made plain to an Arab diplomat by Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria who, though withdrawn from Damascus in October 2011, has been closely involved in formulating policy toward Syria in the two years since the start of the crisis.
Ford told the diplomat at a recent meeting that it would be wrong to interpret President Barack Obama’s scant mention of Syria in his State of the Union address as reflecting a change of thinking, explaining that the president had focused on domestic affairs and simply did not have time to dwell on Syria.
If anything, Washington appears to have adopted a harder line over the past two months as to the prospect of talks between the regime and the opposition.
Various US officials have made clear in diplomatic contacts that Washington was not behind Syrian National Coalition (SNC) leader Moaz al-Khatib’s recent call for dialogue with the regime, and that he only discussed the initiative with UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
But Ford appeared to go further, suggesting that the administration wants the opposition to defer any offer of dialogue until it has strengthened its military positions on the ground by making gains in Damascus. He remarked that the failure of the last rebel offensive against the capital did not mean the battle for Damascus was over.
Ford added that opposition fighters were making fresh advances near the city center, and that he did not expect Assad to survive for long.
These views contradict recent speculation that Washington is coming round to viewing Assad’s regime as the “lesser of two evils” when compared to al-Nusra Front, the Salafi jihadist group seen as the most effective component of the armed opposition in Syria.
Rather, the Arab diplomat was left with the impression that US policymakers hope groups like al-Nusra Front can be used to increase pressure on Assad to agree to a deal that strips him of power. In the meantime, Washington hopes to pursue something akin to a policy of “dual containment” against both the regime and al-Nusra Front.
The diplomat who met Ford said the US official conceded that there was chaos and lawlessness in many opposition-controlled areas, as well as a severe deterioration in living conditions.
Ford charged that Hezbollah, along with Iraq and Iran, was also inflaming the sectarian aspect of the conflict by helping Shia communities in Syria form pro-regime militias. He warned that Israel would act to prevent weapons transfers from Syria to Hezbollah, noting the recent Israeli airstrike on a military facility near Damascus.
He suggested the Lebanese would do well not to misinterpret recent US tactical moves, and to appreciate that Washington is not going to drop its demand that Assad must go.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.