BEIRUT, Lebanon – The Obama administration is contemplating ways to remove the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad as part of its ISIS strategy, but the approach requires the acquiescence of Syria backers Russia and Iran, who don’t want to see him removed by force.
The Obama administration’s method for removing Assad is still open to discussion. Two possibilities are establishment of a no-fly zone over Syrian opposition-controlled territory and a Turkish military invasion.
The U.S. and a loose coalition of Sunni Arab countries have been bombing strictly ISIS targets in Syria, although the Arab allies are less inclined to go after ISIS than to topple the Assad regime.
Informed U.S. sources tell WND that airstrikes alone will not be sufficient to eliminate the ISIS threat. The thinking now is to go for the removal of Assad in an effort to prevent Syrian opposition fighters from joining ISIS, which has declared the establishment of a “caliphate” ruled by Islamic law over the territory it has captured in Syria and Iraq.
Sources say that the strategy of bombing only ISIS targets helps Assad and, by extension, Iran and the Shiite government in Iraq, which also is battling ISIS.
The majority of the population in Syria is Sunni while Assad is a Shia-Alawite. The Assad regime has protected many of the minorities in Syria, including Christians, even during the tenure of his father, Hafaz Assad, before him.
ISIS would be the strongest Sunni group to take over if Assad were forcibly removed. However, ISIS has no tolerance for religious minorities and has a reputation for beheading and crucifying those who do not convert to Sunni Islam under its strict interpretation of Islamic law, or Shariah.
The intent of the Obama administration is to weaken ISIS membership by redirecting Syrian opposition forces to topple Assad and not join ISIS. However, the Syrian opposition is comprised mostly of jihadist fighters who are siding with ISIS and the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.
Now, al-Nusra and ISIS have decided to put aside their differences temporarily in the interest of furthering the objectives of creating the caliphate and subjugating the population to its more radical Sunni interpretation of the Quran.
In effect, the Obama administration is bowing to pressures not only from the Sunni Arab countries that are members of the anti-ISIS coalition but also to Turkey, which has been a conduit for the flow of fighters and financial resources to ISIS and other jihadist groups.
The U.S. also is reacting to the growth of Iranian influence in Syria and the region through the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has sent fighters to back Assad in Syria.
Sunnis in the region have become more concerned recently about the growing influence of Iran, which backed the recent Houthi clan takeover of Yemen, which borders Sunni Saudi Arabia. They’ve also seen recent concessions by the U.S. to allow Iran to maintain some of its nuclear development program, which they believe Tehran would use to develop nuclear weapons.
Removal by force, if necessary
Still left unanswered by the administration is the approach to removing Assad.
It either can be done through a political transition subject to the approval of Russia and Iran or through a military campaign undertaken by a combination of U.S. bombing and a military invasion of Syria by Turkish forces.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been advocating the removal of Assad by force, if necessary.
According to a CNN report, the White House has convened four meetings of the president’s national security team on defeating ISIS and how its strategy on Syria can accomplish the objective.
Sources say the Obama administration believes its approach of training “moderate” Syrian opposition forces will take too long in light of ISIS’ increasing strength. Until now, removal of Assad wasn’t the priority.
Indeed, the vetting and training of any moderate Syrian forces by the Pentagon hasn’t yet begun.
“The vetting hasn’t started,” said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby. “Once it does start, that will be a three-to five-month process, and then it’s about eight to nine months of training after that. So we still got a ways to go.”
Calls for the administration to review its current Syria policy came after a letter from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last month to National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
In a three-page memorandum to Rice, Hagel warned the U.S. would risk gains in the war against ISIS if adjustments weren’t made to the policy, especially on the future of the Assad regime.
In weighing the approach to removing Assad, Secretary of State John Kerry has been meeting with diplomats from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Russia to work out a diplomatic transition for Assad, his family and inner circle while maintaining large portions of the government and its institutions.
The Arab countries, however, are impatient, sources say. But the sources add that the fundamental elements of the Assad government must remain in place, or Iran, which appears to be calling the shots on the future of Syria, will not agree.
The Russians already tacitly have agreed to a Syria without Assad but with the Shiite minority remaining in power. Sources have confirmed to WND that the Iranians want to maintain Assad in power, for now.
Syrian sources tell WND, however, that the Assad regime’s days are numbered anyway, and they see the country potentially dividing into three parts, for Sunnis, Shia and the Kurds. They add that this ultimately may be the outcome for Iraq as well.
Other sources contend, however, that Russia and Iran will insist on maintaining Shia leadership in Syria. It would retain Iranian influence while keeping the basic institutions of the Syrian government in place with added reforms. It’s a scenario the Syrian opposition originally wanted before becoming radicalized with the influx of foreign jihadist fighters.