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Syria crisis: Time to rethink a future with Assad?

By Paul Adams
BBC News

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image captionJihadist groups like the Nusra Front are worrying the West

Three months ago, the US was on the point of carrying out bombing raids on Syria.

Washington's rhetoric about the Syrian president was increasingly harsh. Secretary of State John Kerry said that by using chemical weapons against his own population, Bashar al-Assad had joined a list including Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein.

A few weeks later, Mr Kerry was praising Damascus for co-operating with an ambitious international agreement to rid Syria of its chemical weapons, while still saying Mr Assad had to go.

At the same time, reports from across the country started to focus more and more on the violence perpetrated by the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), hardline Islamic radicals linked to al-Qaeda.

As the year draws to a close, and the West's chosen allies in Syria suffer one setback after another, have policymakers started to ponder the unthinkable - that there's more to be gained from working with Mr Assad than against him?

'No choice'

It's not a thought being openly voiced by the US State Department or the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but a week ago the highly respected former US diplomat Ryan Crocker told the New York Times that it was time "to start talking to the Assad regime again".

"As bad as he is," Mr Crocker said, "he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence."

The former ambassador to both Iraq and Syria made it clear he was talking about a dialogue over specific issues and said it would have to be done "very, very quietly".

But other observers go further.

"Someone has got to bite the bullet and say Assad stays," says Prof Joshua Landis, Director of the Centre of Middle Eastern Studies at Oklahoma University whose views are frequently sought by policy makers in Washington.

"We don't have another game in town."

image captionBashar al-Assad's forces have been making ground against the rebels

Prof Landis has consistently opposed arming Syria's rebels, a policy which he says "blew up in our face."

He doesn't think tentative contacts with the Islamic Front, a recently formed coalition of Islamist groups not aligned with al-Qaeda, are likely to yield better results.

Ambassador Crocker may be speaking for himself, Prof Landis says, but he knows what the state department is thinking.

US lawmakers are voicing their own concerns.

Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has spoken about his anxiety over an unprecedented pooling of al-Qaeda fighters in Syria.

"We don't have a good operation to vet rebels on the ground," he told a conference at Johns Hopkins University last week. "This is a recipe for disaster."

Part of the solution?

Against this backdrop, President Assad starts to look indispensable again. A man who can deliver up his country's chemical weapons and, perhaps, take on and defeat the hardliners of the Nusra Front and ISIS.

Progress on the first objective - dealing with Syria's chemical stockpile - has been encouraging but may be stalling. It seems fairly clear that the 31 December deadline for removal of the most toxic material won't be met.

image captionSyria has co-operated with the UN to destroy its chemical weapons arsenal

The Syrian army claimed to have taken control of the last contested stretch of the key Damascus-Homs highway earlier this week, but says it needs additional heavy equipment to ensure that convoys reach the Mediterranean port of Latakia.

Put simply, the success of this critical phase of the deal depends almost entirely on the Syrian government's ability to control events on the ground.

In the long run, the second objective - dealing with Islamist hardliners - is likely to prove even more crucial.

On the face of it, this also suggests a convergence of interest with the Assad government, which has long talked about this as the real danger.

But Syria's leaders have always been disingenuous, sounding alarm bells long before al-Qaeda was a genuine threat in Syria and conspicuously failing to take on al-Nusra and ISIS when they finally appeared on the scene.

Critics of the Obama administration say nothing good can come of seeking President Assad's help.

"We've made Assad our partner, rather than seeing him as the problem," says Kurt Volker, the former US ambassador to Nato.

Limited engagement

But for all his apparent indispensability, the West is clearly unwilling to rely too heavily on a leader with so much blood on his hands.

"It's very difficult for people to go there," says Daniel Levy of the European Council on Foreign Relations, who believes that the limits of the West's reliance on Bashar al-Assad have already been reached.

"The US is already having an uphill struggle with the Saudis over Iran," he says, referring to the recent interim deal over Tehran's nuclear programme.

"It's unlikely to want to pick another fight by saying, Assad's the man."

President Assad may never be "the man" again, as he briefly was in the wake of the invasion of Iraq.

But his recent success on the battlefield, combined with the West's urgent need to secure his chemical weapons and stem the tide of jihadism means we are going to be dealing with him, one way or another, for a while.

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