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Time US changed Syria policy and talked with Assad

By Wang Hui | China Daily | Updated: 2015-03-19 07:33

It is too early to say whether US Secretary of State John Kerry's remark that the United States would have to negotiate with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad marks a major change in Washington's policy toward Damascus.

Kerry's remark came on Sunday, which marked four years of the Syrian conflict and saw many across the world, including United Nations agencies, calling for an "early" resolution to the most serious crisis in the Middle East. Kerry, though, added that, "we've always been willing to negotiate in the context of the Geneva I process (a 2012 conference that called for a negotiated transition to resolve the crisis)".

One day later, in an apparent attempt to dispel any misunderstanding arising from Kerry's remark, Marie Harf, US State Department's deputy spokeswoman, said there had been no change in the US policy and ruled out the possibility of direct talks with Assad.

Such explanations and clarifications only lay bare Washington's ambivalence in its policy toward Damascus. As the devastating crisis drags into a fifth year, the US now finds itself at a crossroads: maintain its hostile policy toward Assad or seek reconciliation with him to fight the Islamic State.

The rise of the IS group in the Middle East has intensified the chaos in Syria. While the Syrian government forces are combating both the IS group and the rebel forces, the US is leading an international coalition in regularly bombing the strongholds of the IS in Iraq and Syria.

Whether the US likes it or not, the Assad government constitutes an important force that cannot be ignored in the fight against the IS. The only logical choice for Washington, therefore, is to deal directly with the Assad government to either eliminate the IS group or end the civil war in Syria.

Yet the confusing signals sent by US diplomats over the weekend indicate the sole superpower is not yet ready for a big change in its Syria policy. Since the crisis broke out four years ago, Washington has tried everything to topple Assad. The US, along with its allies in the West and the Middle East, has provided all possible support, funds and, in particular, weapons, to the opposition forces in Syria in the hope of helping topple the Assad government.

The rampant march of the IS group in Syria (and Iraq), however, changed the political atmosphere in the region last year. The ousting of Assad is no longer the focal point now that Washington and Damascus are fighting a common enemy, even if they don't trust each other.

Last year was the darkest in the Syria conflict, because the country plunged deeper into civil war and terrorism. According to the UN, the conflict has claimed more than 220,000 lives and pushed 80 percent of the Syrian people into poverty since 2011.

It is no longer a secret that Western support to Syria's opposition forces has in one way or another led to profligacy of weapons and helped the emergence of extremists groups, especially the IS, in the region. The IS group poses a serious threat not only to Syria, but also to the region and the world as a whole.

To prevent the Syrian crisis from crossing into another year, Washington needs to do some soul-searching and change its Middle East policy, because by continuing to place bets on "vetted" and "moderate" rebels and refusing to hold direct talks with Assad it will only worsen the Syrian crisis and thwart the fight against the IS.

The author is a senior writer with China Daily


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