Rethinking ‘Assad Must Go’ Slogan

Official Washington’s “Assad must go!” slogan is threatening to destroy hopes for a political settlement of the horrific Syrian conflict and for an end to the chaos cascading from it finally prompting some U.S. officials to rethink the “group think,” as Gareth Porter reported for Middle East Eye.

By Gareth Porter

In the wake of the ISIS terrorist attack on Paris, President Barack Obama declared that his administration has the right strategy on ISIS and will “see it through.” But the administration is already shifting its policy to cooperate more closely with the Russians on Syria, and an influential former senior intelligence official has suggested that the administration needs to give more weight to the Assad government and army as the main barrier to ISIS and other jihadist forces in Syria.

Obama’s Europeans allies as well as U.S. national security officials have urged the United State to downgrade the official U.S. aim of achieving the departure of President Bashar al-Assad from Syria in the international negotiations begun last month and continued last weekend. Such a shift in policy, however, would make the contradictions between the U.S. interests and those of the Saudis, who continue to support jihadist forces fighting with al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, al-Nusra Front, increasingly clear.

Former CIA deputy director Michael Morell.

Former CIA deputy director Michael Morell.

Russia had proposed to the United States in September that the United States and Russia share intelligence on ISIS (also known as ISIL, Islamic State and Daesh) and exchange military delegations to coordinate on joint steps against ISIS. The initial Obama administration response was to reject either intelligence sharing or joint planning with Russia on Syria out of hand.

The reasoning was that the Russians were engaged primarily, if not exclusively, to shore up the Assad regime, which was unacceptable to Washington. Secretary of State John Kerry declared on Oct. 1: “What is important is Russia has to not be engaged in any activities against anybody but ISIL. That’s clear. We have made that very clear.”

But that was before Paris. The fallout from that attack has changed the political vectors pushing and pulling Obama administration policy. The most obvious shift came two days after the attacks and just hours after Obama announced new intelligence arrangements with France.

CIA Director John Brennan reversed the earlier U.S. decision to reject intelligence sharing with Russia on Islamic State. Revealing that he had had several conversations with his Russian counterpart since the beginning of Russia’s air offensive in Syria, Brennan said the ISIS threat “demands” an “unprecedented level of cooperation” among international intelligence services. Brennan said he and his Russian counterpart had begun exchanging intelligence focused primarily on the flow of terrorists from Russia into Iraq and Syria but that now U.S.-Russian cooperation needed to be “enhanced”.

At the G-20 summit in Antalya, Turkey on Nov. 15-16, Obama acknowledged for the first time in his meeting with Putin that Russia was indeed combating ISIS, according to a White House official. In fact, the Russians had been hitting ISIS targets regularly during October, including what it said was a command center in the ISIS capital, Raqqa. The Obama administration had refused to acknowledge that fact in October and instead focused on the Russian targeting of non-ISIS groups. But the White House press leak about the Obama-Putin conversation did not repeat that complaint.

The issue of whether Assad must go as part of a settlement has been a fixture of U.S. Syria policy ever since 2011, although it has now been modified to allow the Syrian president to stay in power for a period of six months as part of a settlement. But the Paris attacks may well be sparking new debate within the Obama administration on whether that demand makes sense.

In an interview with CBS News on Nov. 15, the former deputy director of the CIA, Michael Morell, suggested that the exclusion of Assad may need to be revised. “I do think the question of whether President Assad needs to go or whether he is part of the solution here, we need to look at it again,” Morell said. “Clearly he’s part of the problem. But he may also be part of the solution.”

It is not likely that Morell, who was acting CIA director twice in 2011 and again from 2012 to 2013, was merely reflecting a personal view on the matter. Statements by U.S. intelligence officials since 2012 have emphasized the importance of the Syrian administration and military as the primary buttress against both ISIS and al-Qaeda and its jihadist allies seizing power in the country a point that the Obama and Kerry chose not to make. Since the “moderate” forces have all but disappeared in late 2014 and early 2015, and al-Qaeda and it jihadist allies have become the only rivals to Islamic State, that point became even more critical.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week, “I cannot agree with the logic that Assad is the cause of everything” in Syria. That contrasts with John Kerry’s argument that unless Assad leaves Syria, “this war will not end.”

But Kerry’s position is based on the assumption that the major forces fighting against the regime would end the war and enter into peaceful competition if Assad could be induced to leave. In reality, of course, those forces are committed to using force to achieve the destruction of the old “secular” political order in Syria and establish an extremist conservative Islamic State.

The issue of whether to continue to demand Assad’s departure arises just as the UN peace negotiations process on Syria – meaning negotiations among the outside powers intervening in the conflict – begin a new and highly political phase.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has revealed that the next phase will turn on bargaining among the international sponsors of anti-Assad groups about who would be allowed to join a new government. Those decisions, in turn, would depend on which of the groups are deemed by the foreign sponsors of those very groups to be “terrorists” and which are deemed acceptable.

As Hammond acknowledges, the Saudis are certainly not going to agree to call Ahrar al-Sham or other extremist jihadist groups allied with it and al-Nusra “terrorists.” They may have to give up al-Nusra Front, which has expressed support for the Islamic State terrorist assault on Paris.

Unless Obama is prepared to face a rupture in the U.S. alliance with the Sunni Gulf Sheikdoms over the issue, the result will be that the very groups committed to overthrowing the remnants of the old order by force will be invited by the United States and its Gulf allies to take key positions in the post-Assad government. It’s the right time for Obama to rethink the administration’s policy toward both Assad and his jihadist foes.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. [This story originally appeared at Middle East Eye,]

15 comments for “Rethinking ‘Assad Must Go’ Slogan

  1. Donna
    November 29, 2015 at 17:15

    What right do the “international sponsors of anti-Assad groups” have to decide for the Syrian people who “would be allowed to join a new government”? This is imperialism in action, the same old carving up a country and giving it away to power groups. The idea of democracy is dead, and Obama has killed it. It will be the Syrian people who will have to live with the consequences of having these murderous fundamentalists controlling their lives. ISIS buys and sells women, and slaughters children and the elderly — is the West really going to turn over Syria to these butchers? Europe and America have sold their souls to the medieval monarchs of the Gulf.

  2. Naresh
    November 24, 2015 at 02:56

    Assad follows in reality what America espouses in theory-secular and inclusive societal norms.

  3. David Smith
    November 23, 2015 at 12:57

    Negotiations? “Diplomacy is War by other means.” One the one hand we have: “No Negotiations! Assad Must Go!” One the other hand we have:”Yes Negotiations! Assad Must Go In Six Months!” Sounds to me like some very warlike ducks quaking as they walk……..And all that negotiating to negotiate how the negotiations should be negotiated could take a very long time. It takes time for a witches brew on “simmer” to cook up into something really nasty……………

  4. Mike Meyer
    November 22, 2015 at 20:23

    Dear Consortiumnews readers,
    Please consider supporting Tulsi Gabbard’s
    entrance into the presidential race.
    She has a fact based perspective on the
    crisis in governance and the emergency foreign policy
    situation now at hand.
    Obama was lied to by top advisors and
    he chose to believe the lies.
    I propose that Obama [red phone]call Putin,
    Ally with Russia and fall into a logistical
    support role as the administration reorganizes
    and ‘cleans up’ at the top level of U.S.Government.
    Employees guilty of insubordination and abject
    failure to serve faithfully must be detained
    awaiting charges.
    Emergency internal purge is required before
    effective governance is possible.

    Thank you for your consideration of this

    • F. G. Sanford
      November 22, 2015 at 22:00

      Mikey, Mikey, Mikey. Tulsi looks like a nice young lady, and I wouldn’t want anything untoward to happen to her. Perhaps you’ve heard of a nice young man named Jack Kennedy. If not, I suggest you go to Youtube and type in: John Barbour The Garrison Tapes. Please note that Mr. Garrison explains concisely the manner in which high profile dissidents are dispensed with in The United States of America. Given that today is 22 Nvember, it would be appropriate to remember the 52nd anniversery of the putsch which ended American democracy by watching that documentary. Oh…and keep in mind, they have a new mental diagnosis under which you can be arrested, detained without charges and confined to an institution as a danger to society. It’s called “ODD”, or “Oppositional Disruption Disorder”, kind of like “Attention Deficit Disorder”, but for grownups.

      • Yuliy
        November 23, 2015 at 15:05

        Dear F.G.,
        Thank you for an eye opening mention of The Garrison Tapes – this is something that every American should see… Totally agree with your concern for safety of any honest person like Tulsi Gabbard trying to make a change…
        The Democracy has failed…

    • Joe Tedesky
      November 23, 2015 at 12:12

      I hear you Mike. We would be wise to take F.G. Sanford’s advice, and to form a human fence around Tulsi Gabbard, and protect her, for all its worth. Furthermore, we would do ourselves well, too stop with all of the Muslim bashing. Add to that, create real economies which provide good jobs. This is Society 1.01 stuff, it’s not that hard to understand. So, no more war, do you hear me CIA? Mossaud? Saudi (al Qaeda) Arabia? Turkey?

      BTW, the real battle needs won on social media. These radical youth are being recruited by ISIS over the Internet. This is the potential enemy who lives next door. They may feel right joining ISIS, believing their actions will avenge the death of innocents who died from drone attacks. These misguided recruits must learn, that the truth is, is that they will end up killing far more Muslims than their killing any followers of the great Satan. Lastly, if the western governments were actually open for participation by all of its citizens, as opposed to being controlled by just the one percent, then that would be an even greater help to maintaining a civil, and just society for all. Bombs, will help stop the violence in Syria, but far more is needed than just bombs, if we are going to turn this ship around, anytime soon.

  5. Anti-Assad Propaganda
    November 22, 2015 at 18:23
    • Joe Tedesky
      November 23, 2015 at 12:57

      Great reads, thanks.

  6. Drew Hunkins
    November 22, 2015 at 16:26

    The constant refrain “Assad must go” that’s echoing to and fro and night and day throughout the establishment press and mass media is totally and completely emanating from the Zionist power configuration in America, period. (Okay, granted the Saudis are also assisting in the propaganda to have Assad exit stage left.)

    It’s sickening, disheartening and frightening to see almost all the major presidential candidates genuflect to this orthodoxy of “Assad must go.” It’s as if you’re dealing with a street hustler who you know is feeding you a line of b.s. yet he won’t let up with his windbaggery nonsense.

    What’s truly scary is the way Hillary Clinton saber rattled recently at the CFR conference. She’s likely going to be the leader of the United States, with her finger near the nuke launch button; yet she droned on and on to the CFR ruling class recently that she won’t back down from any perceived threat anywhere. Contemplate for a moment what this means… Of course this means she’d seriously consider attacking Russia if the paranoid and imperialist Washington establishment deemed Moscow a worthy target!

    This is serious business, when the supposed coolest and smartest head in the room (the Harvard educated and former head of the State Dept., Hillary Clinton), with all the forthrightness she can muster, implies to fellow elites at the CFR about the worthiness of launching bombs on Russia. Let that sink in.

    • Roberto
      November 22, 2015 at 19:29

      I just can’t understand where they expect to find cooperation from millions of people. No government can rule against its citizens successfully.

  7. Pupinia Stewart
    November 22, 2015 at 15:51

    Assad must go.

    • Roger
      November 22, 2015 at 16:58

      What the hell gives anybody the right to say ‘Assad must go’, except the syrian people’s sovereign decision at elections? At the last elections, in 2012/2013 (?), the syrian people voted overwhelmingly in support of Assad.
      So, Pupinia Stewart, unless you are trying to be ironical about the situation, I will reply that you must go.

  8. Roberto
    November 22, 2015 at 15:41

    There is no reason why the oligarchy in Syria can not transform itself into respectable government. But, it can only happen in an environment of stability.

  9. James lake
    November 22, 2015 at 13:50

    Syria and its allies are the only ones seriously fighting.
    Negotiations will therefore be dictated by how the war develops.
    The Americans and the UK do not have the leverage to get rid of Assad, they were using ISIL for that and the tactics have backfired.
    The Russian arguement for the Syrians being allowed to make their own choices is a much more powerful argument in support of democracy than the slogan Assad must go

Comments are closed.