Back to Square One, Obama Says Assad Must Go

After Vienna international talks created a political transition in Syria, Trinity College’s Vijay Prashad says Obama’s pre-condition that Assad must go is lock in step with Turkish and Saudi interests

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Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Efforts to agree to a political solution in Syria just took a turn. After the Paris attacks there was much hope that Russia and the West would get over the issue of Assad being a part of the peace negotiations and focus on defeating ISIS. But now President Obama has thrown cold water on that plan for a quick political transition in Syria, and instead is standing by his previous position that Assad must go. Let’s take a listen.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I do not foresee a situation in which we can end the civil war in Syria while Assad remains in power. And by the way, that’s not a matter of my decision-making. Even if I said that was okay I still don’t think it would actually work. You could not get the Syrian people, a majority of them, to agree to that kind of outcome.

DESVARIEUX: Now joining us to discuss the president’s stance is our guest, Vijay Prashad. Vijay is a professor of international studies at Trinity College. Thank you so much for joining us, Vijay.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Pleasure, thanks.

DESVARIEUX: So Vijay, do you see America’s attachment to get rid of Assad as actually hurting their efforts to degrade and destroy ISIS, which they say is their objective? And if so, why won’t the U.S. give up the claim to see Assad go?

PRASHAD: Well, it’s a fascinating problem that the Americans face. Yes, in Vienna, 17 countries are around a table again. Yes, they’ve come up with the framework for a political transition which would of course lessen some of the tension inside and around Syria. Yes, all these things are happening. And then President Obama goes on Italian television and says that Assad must go, there is no question.

This is an interesting problem that the Americans have set for themselves. And I feel like some of this is a consequence of much broader entanglements than merely the politics of the State Department. In some ways the United States government is channeling the kind of message coming out of Saudi Arabia, the message coming out of Turkey. These are the two close allies of the United States in this struggle. And neither Turkey nor Saudi Arabia have budged from their position that Assad must go. So it’s actually no surprise that caught up in these entanglements than the United States would hold fast to this Assad must go scenario, which goes against what has been taking place at Vienna, with the diplomatic meetings, and what has been happening on the ground. In other words, the fact that the Russian entry into Syria has made regime change, or Assad must go, almost impossible.

DESVARIEUX: Yes. But Vijay, you know, Americans are going to say that they’re sort of taking this stance because of Turkey or Saudi Arabia. What the president is saying is that it’s more of a moral position. That Assad has committed brutal atrocities against his own people. President Obama said essentially the Syrian people wouldn’t even accept a future with Assad in the picture. What’s your response to that?

PRASHAD: Well I mean, let’s not get into hypocrisies and that there are other leaders in the world, you know, people with blood on their hands should not be given a second life, or whatever. So that issue, to me, is an issue of rhetoric. You know, the United States says somebody has got blood on their hands, they should go. Meanwhile the United States is very close to the current head of government in Rwanda, who has blood on his hands from sending in the M23 rebels into the Congo.

So you know, this is a game in international foreign policy where leaders say this thing about, you know, the other people that they don’t like. Fine. The question isn’t really moral, here. Or the question isn’t the morality of Mr. Assad. The question is that you have a country which has been destroyed, you have perhaps 250,000 people dead. Half the population displaced. You need to find a practical and pragmatic approach that minimizes the suffering in Syria and starts to draw down the bulk of the fighting which has been in western Syria, not in the ISIS area. If your goal is not to ride a white horse into Damascus but to slow down the pace of death, I think this position of Assad must go has hindered the diplomatic conversation. I think on the other hand, a slightly less dramatic position, which is what I think the Russians have proposed, which is the question of a transition.

You see, what I think the Iranians and Russians have been saying for the last few years is that the Assad must go position should not be the starting point of negotiation. It might indeed end up being the final assessment, that Assad will go. But you cannot start there. If you want to start there you close off, foreclose any diplomatic possibility. So I think, you know, either you want to be this moral champion and hold on to some kind of, you know, burnished ideals, you know, which we [note] because they are hypocritical, or you take the more practical and pragmatic issue and say the real morality isn’t the crimes of Assad. The real morality here is the question of the suffering of the Syrian people.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah. And the suffering of the Syrian people usually isn’t at the forefront of a lot of these negotiations. So Vijay, what would be alternatives to what the United States is currently doing in the region? And especially if you take into consideration that the major goal right now is to defeat ISIS?

PRASHAD: There are many ways to go. I mean, there’s a short-term possibility that has opened up as a result of the Russian entry into Syria. What the Russians have done is they’ve suddenly put pressure on Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, saying we are now inside Syria. Any attempt at hitting us is going to have repercussions for you. So rather than in a sense saying okay, let’s assume that your presence there has made regime change impossible, what’s the next diplomatic step? Rather than do that, of course, the United States has strengthened or given false hope to the Qataris, Turks, and the Saudis.

So I would say the first thing is to remove that false hope, come back to the table, produce some kind of regional dialog, you know, for the proxy armies to begin to draw down their sense that they can win. You know, what has continued this war, in fact since July of 2011, is the assumption among some of the rebels and the proxy armies that eventually the American bombers are going to come in and Libya-style they’re going to knock out the Assad army.

So this false hope, I think, has dragged this war on. I think that needs to be withdrawn. Without the withdrawal of that false hope, there will be no regional settlement. There will be no political solution. Because there is no way, really, to confront groups like ISIS unless the chaos in the rest of Syria is brought down a few notches.

DESVARIEUX: All right. Vijay Prashad, always a pleasure having you on our program. Thank you so much for being with us.

PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.