The Associated Press reports it has seen documents that show the State Department expects Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to remain in power until at least March 2017, which is “two months after President Barack Obama leaves office and more than five years after Obama first called for Assad to leave.”
The timeline described by the AP is a “staff-level think piece” that is “preliminary and pre-decisional,” rather than an “official position” or an “accurate projection of plans by the international community to effect a political transition in Syria,” according to State Dept. spokesman John Kirby.
In other words, this is the best-case scenario, the plan administration strategists would like to implement if everything went their way, and they still do not see Bashar Assad leaving his throne until March 2017, or maybe even later.
The AP notes that a major hurdle to ousting Assad is the growing feud between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, which are on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war. Iran probably is not in the mood to make any further concessions about deposing Shiite rulers. (More precisely, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad is a member of the Alawite sect of Shia Islam. He’s unquestionably Iran’s man, and there is no sign of enthusiasm in Iran for any State Department timetable to send him packing in spring 2017.)
“Assad has steadfastly refused to step down while his nation’s terrorist threat, as he sees it, persists. The timeline offers no explanation for exactly how Assad would leave or what his post-presidential future might hold,” the Associated Press notes. “And his chief backers, Russia and Iran, have resisted all efforts by outside powers to determine Syria’s future leadership, insisting that is a decision for the Syrian people. Russia and Iran may object to the U.S. timeline’s call for Bashar Assad to leave six months before elections would be held.”
There is also the matter of the Islamic State and their godfathers in al-Qaeda, who are waiting in the wings to take over post-Assad Syria. The Russians have a lot more swing in Syria than anyone from the Obama administration at the moment, and they keep urging Western powers to team up with Assad to tackle ISIS.
The State Department timeline has the U.N. Security Council brokering a deal between the Assad regime and opposition leaders in April 2016, with the deal including amnesty for top leaders on all sides of the conflict. A transitional government would be formed by May, followed by the dissolution of the Syrian parliament, a Security Council blessing for the transitional government, the formation of a new legislature, an international fundraising drive to pay for Syrian reconstruction, and the drafting of a new constitution, after which Assad waves goodbye and cheerfully departs with his inner circle.
There is very little indication anyone actually involved in the Syrian civil war, on any side of the conflict, is comfortable with any aspect of this timetable. Even if Assad were persuaded to relinquish power, he would never do so in a way that made it appear the “terrorists”—as he and his Russian and Iranian patrons refer to nearly all opposition groups—had forced him out.
Assad does not seem inclined to depart before elections are held, given the suspiciously high levels of support he always claims to achieve. Russia also supports allowing Assad to participate in the next round of elections.
If he stepped down without completely departing from Syria, there would be fears of Assad working behind the scenes to destabilize the successor government, as happened with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen.
Meanwhile, international foes of the Assad regime have not been able to agree on which elements of the resistance are legitimate groups with a political future, and which are terrorists. The regime has been doing pretty well on the battlefield of late, well enough to leave besieged rebel towns starving to death, forcing trapped residents to eat grass, leaves, house plants, and household pets.
It is significant that even the most wishful thinking from the Obama administration indicates it expects the Assad regime to outlast it.