"It's not a question of… if Assad leaves. It's a question of when" - President Obama last Wednesday revved up the rhetoric against the Syrian President, Bashar al Assad. But as the people of Syria continue to be the victims the brutality of his regime, it is misleading and unhelpful to talk of his downfall with such certainty.
Obama is not alone in mobilising the rhetoric of inevitability. In a recent interview with Al Akhbar newspaper, Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces Party, said the fall of the Assad regime will be subject to "historical inevitability". In January, White House spokesman Jay Carney said "Assad's fall is inevitable', and as early as mid-December, Dennis Ross, a former senior Middle East adviser to President Obama in an interview with the Council of Foreign Relations' Bernard Gwertzman said that it is "almost inevitable" that the regime of Bashar al-Assad will collapse. In fact, Carney went one step further. Speaking to governments around the world he went on to say, "it's important to calculate into your consideration the fact he will go." Has history taught us nothing?
As atrocities continue to be committed, shells to fall, death tolls to rise, hope become jaded and brutalities to show no sign of abeyance, couching debate in the language of inevitability is inaccurate and unhelpful at best, and deadly at worst. Politics aside, regardless of where you stand in the debate over intervention in Syria, at the very least we have a responsibility to ensure the debate is an honest one - the language used must reflect the reality of the situation and all its possible outcomes. Some commentators take a fairly extreme view, wondering whether false hopes are being given to the Syrian opposition, encouraging them to continue fighting a battle that will cost big in terms of human casualties, that they cannot necessarily win, and especially not alone.
Obama, speaking on Wednesday, went on, "it is my belief that, ultimately, this dictator will fall, as dictators in the past have fallen." The fall of dictators is certainly one truth, you only need to look to the recent history of some of Syria's neighbours to know that dictators can be toppled. But as we keep being reminded, this is no Libya, and neither is it an Iraq, an Egypt or a Tunisia. You only need to look to Bahrain for an example of where a popular uprising has not resulted in the fall of a regime. Talking with such certainty about any situation as it is still going on is unwise and we know better.
It cannot be ignorance that is causing this misrepresentative terminology. Historical precedent, for one, makes glaringly obvious the folly of assuming inevitability. As Chris Philips points out in Tuesday's Guardian, Bashar al-Assad's fall is far from inevitable from the perspective of historical precedent, with other regimes in the region's recent history successfully crushing uprisings. Philips cites "Saddam Hussein's suppression of the Iraqi Shia rebellion in 1991 and the Algerian government's victory in the civil war of 1991-2000." Closer to home still, Philips looks to the Assad family's template for rebellions - Hafez Assad's bloody crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in Hama in 1982. Whilst it is true that there are key differences (such as the more-mobilised anti-Assad international and regional community and more comprehensive media coverage of brutalities) that may yet undo Assad, it is equally possible that they may not.
In his article in The Atlantic on January 17, Steven Cook articulated his thoughts on the reasons for this widely publicised assumption that Assad will fall - "it is largely a self-serving hunch that does not necessarily conform to what is actually happening in Syria, but nevertheless provides cover for doing nothing to protect people who are at the mercy of a government intent on using brutality to re-establish its authority." Clearly these are the words of someone firmly in the intervention camp. Anne-Marie Slaughter of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies calls the assumption "the triumph of hope over expectation."
The posturing on the inevitability of Assad's fall could be due to several factors, and which you think it is will be dictated by whether you are in the intervention, or non-intervention camp. It could be a desperate hope, a 'head-in-the-sand' mentality, or partially-sighted optimism. It could be shame at a perceived failure of the international community to uphold its responsibility to protect under international law, or an attempt to buy time. It could be out of real conviction that the regime will fall, regardless of outside military intervention (supported by a desire not to see the west throw its weight around another time in a region not its own and a belief it would do more harm that good), or it could be an attempt to warn Russia and China off continued support for Syria. For some, Obama's words, a day after Republican Senator McCain's call for US-led airstrikes on Syria, are an indicator not of the reality of the situation, but of a President in election year battling to see off any Republican one-upmanship on foreign policy issues. Assad "will" fall sounds far more Presidential than Assad "might fall, but I can't say for sure."
Regardless of whether you believe there should be a military intervention in Syria - be it an enforced no-fly zone, the use of air power, safe zones, or arming the FSA - or whether you do not, preferring non-military options, it is misleading to speak of the inevitability of Assad soon becoming a member of the ousted despot club. For the people still trapped inside Homs or any other of the Syrian towns and cities currently under siege - increasingly fearful, increasingly feeling abandoned by the international community, and increasingly at risk of not being around for what happens next in Syria - to speak of the inevitable is in some way to denigrate what they are suffering now. Whatever happens next, nothing is inevitable, but an honest debate is vital.