The US is no longer insisting that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has to step aside. This is disastrous as it could encourage all the potentates in the region, writes Kersten Knipp.
It's unclear what's behind it: naivety, or cynicism? The Syrians should decide Assad's political fate for themselves, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared on Thursday during a visit to Ankara. The president's "long-term status" must be defined by the Syrian people, he said.
Along with the declaration by Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, that the Trump administration was no longer focusing on "getting Assad out," Tillerson's comment officially ushers in the new administration's change of course concerning the war in Syria. This attitude is naïve, because a butcher like Assad - Amnesty International has documented that thousands have been arbitrarily executed in his prisons - simply cannot be trusted to respect the will of the people. The move is more likely, though, to be cynical - the result of realizing that they can't get to grips with the political criminal in Damascus anyway.
Not, at any rate, by continuing to pursue the course the United States - followed by the other Western countries - has steered to date. Viewed in this way, Tillerson's declaration is simply the logical consequence of Barack Obama's method of dealing with the Syrian crisis. This was to be careful and restrained, and after the disastrous experience of the 2003 intervention in Iraq, Obama may well have had good reason for it. However, the former president enabled far more aggressive forces to establish themselves in Syria, and later throughout the region: namely Russia, Iran and the Frankenstein they created, Hezbollah.
By summer 2013 at the latest, Obama's reluctance to carry out his threat to respond if poison gas were used - a "red line" he himself had laid down - was taken by all malevolent forces in the region as an invitation to pursue their own interests. The consequences are all too familiar: Potentates felt emboldened, the war escalated, the culture of violence became more extreme.
New emphases under Trump
This is certainly not all Obama's fault, but the fault of a politician who can be counted as one of the classic "Oriental despots." However, as president of the world's most significant peacekeeping power, Obama failed to counter the escalation. And he allowed a power of a quite different moral caliber - Russia under Putin - to play an essential role in determining the fate of the region.
The Trump administration is now continuing this course. It differs from the previous one primarily in form. Where Obama and his secretary of state John Kerry were reluctant to publicly consider the idea that Assad might be allowed to remain in office, this is clearly less of a problem for the current president and his secretary of state.
There are, perhaps, reasons for this decision: The terrorist organization known as "Islamic State" (IS) has not yet been beaten, and there are grounds for confronting this band of murderous, rapist psychopaths with full military force.
Such a decision would, however, overlook the fact that there will never be peace in Syria under Assad. And the effects of this culture of violence will be felt not only in the environs of Damascus: Traumatized and radicalized Syrians will carry them with them everywhere. Assad is anything but a guarantee of peace.
The fact that Tillerson chose to make this statement in Ankara, of all places, lends it a certain spice. The US Secretary of State is indicating that his country is prepared to cooperate with a government that has a very distinct idea of political responsibility. In recent weeks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shown that he would not hesitate to trigger a political earthquake for the sake of his own political future.
In Germany, for example, his Nazi comparisons have in large part wiped out years of detailed work on integration policy. And it's not only elements of the Turkish community that have fallen out with one another – the ethnic German population has also become deeply unsettled over the question of whether many of these almost three million people really are willing to integrate.
Certainly, one cannot always choose the partners in cooperation. But it is disconcerting that the United States is now opting to work with another highly authoritarian regime, after its new president already flirted with Russia during the election campaign. Europeans are increasingly discovering on their own shores what it's like when autocrats no longer recognize any limits. Europe is still peaceful, for now. But Erdogan's propaganda campaigns, as well as concerns about Kremlin interference in the German federal election, provide a premonition of what might happen if strong men need scarcely reckon with either opposition or sanctions. Syria is the epicentre of current political tragedies. But they are creeping ever closer towards Europe. Assad is not the only one responsible. But the idea that he might be able to contribute to stability and peace is utterly mistaken.
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