In August 2011, about six months into the civil war that has now been going on in Syria for nearly four years, President Obama issued his most unequivocal statement about the future of its dictator Bashar Assad, who was engaged in an increasingly bloody crackdown:
The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.
The statement came two years before the Assad regime nearly became an American target after its forces were widely accused of crossing the "red line" of using chemical weapons, and three years before a United Nations report placed the death toll in the Syrian civil war at 191,000.
On Monday, The New York Times reported that the State Department had signed off on two separate diplomatic initiatives aimed at bringing about the end of the Syrian civil war. One omission made both proposals particularly notable: Neither contains the prerequisite for the end of Assad's rule. In declaring American support for the plans, Secretary of State John Kerry explained:
It is time for President Assad, the Assad regime, to put their people first and to think about the consequences of their actions, which are attracting more and more terrorists to Syria, basically because of their efforts to remove Assad.
How the U.S. got from "the time has come for President Assad to step aside" to "it is time for President Assad ... to think about the consequences" can be summed up in large part by the rise of ISIS. The radical Sunni group (and Assad's nominal enemy in Syria) became the target of airstrikes by an American-led coalition after a bloody offensive across Syria and Iraq raised widespread alarm.
But that's not the entire story. As Dominic Tierney explained back in July, Assad has ensured his survival (at least temporarily) by strategically enabling extremists and, more tragically, killing off any palatable opposition.
"Assad casts himself as the nation’s guardian against Sunni jihadists, but he has deliberately encouraged the rise of extremism," Tierney wrote. "The Syrian president’s forces have allowed ISIS to consolidate a rump caliphate in northeastern Syria as a visible warning about what the alternative to his rule looks like. Indeed, Assad’s troops rarely battle ISIS, saving their fire for more moderate enemies."
Assad has since received a de facto coalition partner in the form of the United States itself, which has not only launched strikes against Islamic State targets within Syria, but also targeted other groups battling the Assad regime like the Khorasan group.
Even if Assad does ultimately step aside at some future date, some of the countries that initially sought his removal, like the United States and members of the EU, have at least two good reasons to keep part of his regime intact: Iraq and Libya. When the dictators of those two countries were deposed, power vacuums emerged in both places, leading to chaos and pitched sectarian violence.
“The political solution will of course include some elements of the regime because we don’t want to see the pillars of the state fall apart," France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said last week. "We would end up with a situation like Iraq.”
In the meantime, Bashar Assad's third seven-year presidential term is set to expire in 2021. That's exactly 50 years after his father Hafez first took control of Syria.