Soon after the Syrian civil war began nearly three years ago, Western leaders called for President Bashar al-Assad to step down, siding with the people in a popular uprising against a despotic leader. In August of 2011, President Obama stated, "We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. ... He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside." In July 2012, British PM David Cameron demanded a political transition, saying:
It is in everybody's interests – the Syrian people, the region, the wider world, the fight against terrorism – that transition takes place quickly. The sooner that happens, the sooner the people of Syria can be freed from the tyranny under which they are currently suffering.
And in September of last year, the U.S. appeared poised to strike after a chemical attack killed more than 1,000 people in late August. Leaders largely believe (but have not proven) that Assad was behind the attack, a red line for the Obama Administration, and it was only by the grace of an eleventh-hour plan for Syria to remove and destroy its chemical arms that military action against the Syrian government was avoided.
Since then, Western leaders seem to have conceded that Assad will, and possibly should, remain in power — a sentiment bolstered by two recent developments.
Last month, the United Nations made a $6.5 billion aid appeal for Syria — the largest single request in the organization's history. According to the U.N., the civil war has set Syria back 35 years, developmentally, returning fifty percent of its population to a state of poverty. In response to the appeal, a number of countries have pledged donations — including the U.S., which promised $380 million to the cause. Of course, a commitment to humanitarian aid does not translate to supporting Assad, but the donation's stipulations — or rather, lack thereof — shows Washington's changing views on the leader. The New York Times explains:
[Secretary of State John] Kerry did not identify any punitive measures — economic, diplomatic or military — that might be taken if the Assad government refused to heed appeals to provide humanitarian access or did so intermittently.
Though the donation carries certain caveats — Kerry said Syria must permit the aid to reach rebel-held areas and stop "using starvation as a weapon of war" for the funds to make a difference — it is unconditional, a move which suggests a tacit recognition of Assad as Syria's autonomous leader for the indefinite future. Kerry used a much more conciliatory tone than he would have a year or two ago, saying, “If the regime can allow access to United Nations and international weapon inspectors, surely it can do the same for neutral international humanitarian assistance." This comes just weeks after the U.S. stopped providing non-military aid to the rebels and warns that if the group fails to attend Syrian peace talks scheduled for September, Western support for the rebel cause will wane further.
In another sign that Western leaders are prepared to work with Assad as Syria's leader, Western intelligence officials have reportedly consulted with Assad over how to handle Islamist extremists who have joined the fight against the Syrian government. Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad spoke to the BBC:
Asked if Western intelligence agencies — including British intelligence — had recently visited Damascus, he said: "I will not specify but many of them have visited Damascus, yes." On the subject of whether Syria was getting more requests from Western countries to have their diplomats return to Damascus, he added: "Yes, there are many countries who are approaching us. "Of course some are waiting for Geneva, some are saying we are exploring the possibilities, some are saying we want to co-operate on security measures because those terrorists they are sending from Western Europe into Turkey, into Syria, have become a real threat to them."
The Syrian National Coalition, an affiliation of opposition groups that does not identify as Islamist, said that such a meeting would be disturbing. "It would show a clear contradiction between the words and actions of the Friends of Syria group," said spokesman Khaled Saleh, referring to a U.S.-led group of countries who had idealistically aligned with the rebels, who he said had "clearly identified the Assad regime as a source of terrorism in the region."
Western re-acceptance of Bashar al-Assad as a viable Syrian leader has coalesced as the opposition has morphed from a popular movement to a splintered collection of coalitions, united only — and not always — by a desire to see Assad unseated. The opposition started as a pro-democracy movement, but has been co-opted by Islamist groups supported by al Qaeda and similarly anti-American fighters recruited from throughout the region. Now, infighting destroys the anti-Assad movement from within. Western fears of the civil war's spilling into neighboring nations has morphed into a fear of repeating mistakes done years ago in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And as Western leaders realign their positions, Syrians are suffering. Since the civil war broke out 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced within the country, 2.4 million have fled and as of last year, 115,000 civilians have been reportedly killed, and, despite Western aid commitments, no solution is in sight.