Obama's Flexible Red Lines

By Tony Badran

In response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's latest address, US officials and spokespersons have dismissively described the embattled dictator as someone "detached from reality" and "delusional," even doubting whether he could be called "rational." However, Assad's posture reflects his reading of Washington's increasingly wobbly position and the political leverage he has sought to derive from it.

The Obama administration has focused mainly on the uncompromising "initiative" Assad laid out, once again proposing dialogue with individuals of his choosing and dismissing all calls on him to leave power. But the Syrian dictator was not at all concerned with addressing his domestic opponents. Rather, Assad's speech was aimed at Washington, which he now senses he's got on the hook.

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Why did Assad time his address at this particular moment? The first reason has to do with his likely assessment of US policy, especially since last June's Geneva agreement stipulating the formation of a national unity government in Syria. It is now obvious that Washington's strategic incoherence on Syria has come to a head. While the Obama administration clings to its line about the need for Assad to "step aside" and for a "political transition," it has become increasingly ambivalent about what would replace the Syrian dictator should he fall.

As it has made amply clear through multiple leaks to the media, the administration is unnerved by a host of possible scenarios in Syria, including the number and strength of Islamists among the rebels and the prospect of Iraq-style chaos. Citing these fears, US policy has intentionally paralyzed itself, further clouding its strategic judgment.

In attempting to address its dilemma, the administration has merely sought to square the circle. Rather than push to eradicate the Assad regime, it seeks to preserve parts of it, including, as several administration officials have stressed, the security services.

In Geneva the administration consented to the formation of a so-called "national unity" government, negotiated by the regime and the opposition, which would include so-called "non-criminal" elements of the regime. In other words, should the regime actually agree to this process, it gets a say in determining the shape of such a government. What's more, this conceit also allowed the administration to talk of "extremists on both sides," which Washington sought to isolate by designating Jabhat al-Nusra on the rebel side, and on the regime side, the Alawite "Popular Army" and shabiha militias. The problem was redefined. It wasn't the regime, per se. It was the "extremists" within it.

Assad must have seen this as an important achievement. Far from being sidelined politically, he and his Russian allies got the US to continue to treat the regime as a central interlocutor. Immediately following the Geneva agreement, Assad's movement and preparation of chemical weapons, with the implicit threat to use them, was designed to make the US acknowledge that he could not be circumvented as an interlocutor. That stunt, too, achieved its purpose. What's more, it not only showed President Obama's red lines to be flexible, but also that the West preferred for the chemical weapons to remain in the regime's hands rather than in those of his opponents.

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Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay. This article originally appeared in NOW Lebanon and is republished with permission.

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