Was it the al-Assad conflict that caused Hagel to resign?

Was it the al-Assad conflict that caused Hagel to resign?

The news about the resignation of U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel came right after it was announced that the nuclear talks with Iran had been extended to the end of June 2015.

There have been a number of speculations in the American media about President Barack Obama’s possible moves after failing in the mid-term elections, including changing Secretary of State John Kerry and National Defense Advisor Susan Rice. But Hagel’s name was not mentioned very much on those lists of educated guesses in the DC beltway.

Speculation started immediately about the reasons for Hagel's resignation. Some centered on him being the only Republican in the Obama administration and others mentioned the discrepancies between Hagel’s performance in Afghanistan and the strategy in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). But the one that seems most probable is the one with links to Turkey and Iran: Hagel's conflict with Obama over whether to include the removal of Bashar al-Assad in Syria in the target list in the fight against ISIL.

It seems that the story had started to surface a little before the mid-term elections on Nov. 4, with a New York Times report on Oct. 30 about a two-page memorandum by Hagel to Rice suggesting that the broader Syria policy should be part of the fight against ISIL.

That was actually a softer version of something that has been highlighted by the Turkish government for months. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have been saying ever since the ISIL forces seized Mosul and attacked the Kurdish-populated Syrian town of Kobane, (near the Turkish border), that only if the U.S. commited itself to the removal of al-Assad as a part of the campaign against ISIL, including the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syrian air space, could Turkey join with full military cooperation, including the opening of the İncirlik air base.

The White House hinted that Obama was also in favor of a Syria without al-Assad, but firstly the Congressional mandate was only against ISIL, not Syria, and secondly there were the critical nuclear talks with Iran to consider.

Iran has emerged as a power encouraging the Shiite militia as the only ground force against ISIL in the Iraqi theater, together with the Kurds. In addition, al-Assad is a natural ally for Tehran (as well as Russia).

The Iran-leaning Hezbollah militia from Lebanon have been fighting for al-Assad in the Syrian theater against both ISIL and other Sunni Islamist groups. If al-Assad was declared a target equal to ISIL, it could alienate Iran from that fight, perhaps triggering Hezbollah and other Shiite groups to attack U.S. targets. It could also lead to attacks from Israel and the Israeli lobby on Obama, accusing him of causing the collapse of the nuclear talks because of al-Assad.

On Nov. 13, CNN International ran a story citing unnamed senior U.S. sources, claiming that Obama is seeking a new Syria strategy to deal with ISIL and al-Assad together. That news was not confirmed by the White House, but it was welcomed by Davutoğlu, who was in Brisbane for the G20 Summit and said he would discuss the issue with Obama there, which he did. However, shortly after Davutoğlu said on Nov. 16 that Obama was leaning toward putting al-Assad on the target list, Obama himself said in a press conference that his anti-ISIL plans did not include the removal of al-Assad.

The issue was discussed at length between Davutoğlu, Erdoğan and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during Biden’s visit to Istanbul on Nov. 21-23. They agreed to disagree on the al-Assad angle of the anti-ISIL fight and Biden returned to Washington empty handed.

The next morning, Nov. 24, the deadline for the Iran talks was extended for another seven months and then Hagel resigned.