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Why The U.S. Needs Bashar Assad To Stay For Now

President Obama is no longer calling for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad, as the U.S. presses him to dismantle his stockpile of chemical weapons. Assad is shown here on Sept. 8.
President Obama is no longer calling for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad, as the U.S. presses him to dismantle his stockpile of chemical weapons. Assad is shown here on Sept. 8.

Throughout the Syrian war, President Obama has insisted that President Bashar Assad must go. But now, the U.S. may want, or even need, Assad to remain in power for a while longer so he can oversee the dismantling of his chemical weapons stockpile.

"For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside," Obama said back on Aug. 18, 2011, in his first explicit call for Assad's ouster, something the U.S. president went on to repeat on multiple occasions.

However, since the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus, Obama has focused on Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, rather than possible regime change. And under a U.S.-Russia framework plan announced over the weekend, United Nations inspectors would have to work closely with the Assad regime to identify, secure and destroy the chemical weapons.

As strange as it may seem, the U.S. president now sounds more willing to tolerate Assad in power following the chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,400 people, most of them civilians, according to the U.S.

"I don't think we should remove another dictator with force," Obama said in his nationally televised speech on Sept. 10.

But accepting Assad's continued rule in the short term raises questions about the longer-term goal of forcing him from power, according to some analysts.

"There's a natural tension between a policy that says Assad must stay around and destroy his chemical weapons, and another policy that you want him to disappear," says Andrew Tabler, author of In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle With Syria.

To bridge this contradiction, Tabler says, U.S. policy toward Assad could best be described as, "We want him to go, but not right now."

Fears Of Chaos

As long as Assad still has stocks of chemical weapons, his ouster could create chaos in Syria that would further complicate efforts to secure and destroy the chemical arsenal.

For this reason, Tabler believes that Assad will "move slowly and do the bare minimum. He will make this a long, drawn-out, torturous process. He wants to move fast enough to avoid an intervention, but not any faster than that."

But Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking in Paris on Monday, said the elimination of Assad's chemical weapons would make the Syrian leader weaker and therefore more vulnerable in the longer term.

"We are taking a weapon away from him that he has been using against his people," Kerry said.

Syria is believed to have roughly 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons and related material scattered over dozens of sites. The U.S.-Russia plan calls for Syria to account for its stockpile by Friday, for U.N. inspectors be in Syria by November, and for the entire arsenal to be destroyed by the middle of next year.

Removing chemical weapons is a laborious process that usually takes many years. Libya declared its stockpile a decade ago, and those weapons are still being destroyed.

The proposed timeline in Syria is "extremely optimistic," David Kay, a former U.N. weapons inspector, told NPR's Morning Edition. "It's an aggressive timeline. It's aspirational, in terms of what you would like to happen."

"Are the Syrians and the Russians serious about it, or are they going to throw roadblocks?" says Kay, who is now a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. "The most unrealistic deadline is that by June of next year, you will have destroyed all of the chemical weapons and their production facilities."

An Evolving War

Inside Syria, the government has declared the chemical weapons plan "a victory" that will prevent an attack from the U.S., while the rebels expressed great disappointment.

"What about the murderer Bashar who gave the order? Should we forget him?" Gen. Salim Idriss, the most prominent rebel commander, told a news conference in Istanbul. "We feel let down by the international community. We don't have any hope."

The rebels have been seeking U.S. help, and Obama agreed in June to supply weapons. The details remain fuzzy, but as NPR's Tom Bowman reported recently, it appears that some U.S. arms are now reaching the rebels. However, they do not include the heavy arms the rebels have sought, and are not considered likely to alter a war that has largely been a stalemate for the past year.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.