Paul Pillar

Okay, Assad Should Go--Now What?

Seldom has an insignificant policy distinction been so pumped up in wider commentary and criticism. I'm referring to a distinction between, on one day, saying that a regime has lost legitimacy and the people in the country in question would be better off without that regime and, on another day, saying that it is time for the ruler of that country to step aside. Sounds to me like a distinction without a difference. But one would think, based on listening to critics of the Obama administration and of its policy toward Syria, that there is a big difference and that the administration just made a big shift in its Syria policy this week. That portrayal is largely motivated, of course, by a desire to bash Obama and to charge that Syria is worse than it otherwise would have been because he has dithered and has not come out strongly enough in favor of freedom and democracy. Critics of Obama are continuing to overstate the policy “shift” in order to preserve the future ability to score political points with that same accusation. Jennifer Rubin, for example, writes that “this is yet another reversal for the Obama team that earlier in the week had suggested such a call to go wasn’t that big a deal”—the statement earlier in the week being a remark by Secretary of State Clinton that “it's not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go.” What reversal? The secretary of state did not say the United States would not call for Assad to go, but instead that such a call would not be a noteworthy new development. The secretary was right.

The administration did announce additional U.S. sanctions on Syria, but the direct effect of those is insignificant. What matters more is what other governments, especially Turkey and the Europeans, which have been more extensively engaged economically with Syria, will do. That is part of what Secretary Clinton was saying, and the administration had been working on that front well before this past week.

Amid all the energy devoted to parsing the Obama administration's statements about Syria in an effort to find either reversals or insufficient democratic gusto, there is a dearth of rigorous thinking in debate outside the administration about exactly how additional pressure and sanctions are supposed to bring about the desired result. Although the general sense that Bashar al-Assad's days as president of Syria are numbered is probably correct, there is still not a clear scenario for bringing his regime to an end. There also is still a lack of attention in most of the commentary even to the fundamental ways in which sanctions in general could work, and thus little basis for determining how well the sanctions against this particular country will work. A new piece by Andrew Tabler, for example, has some sensible things to say, including a recommendation for the Senate to end the silliness about not confirming the nomination of the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford. But Tabler also states that “bringing concerted multilateral pressure to bear on Damascus” is historically “a diplomatic tactic that works with Assad, most recently in forcing him to pull his forces out of Lebanon in April 2005.” The subject evidently is how to use pressure to influence Assad's decision-making. But the decision that would be required from Assad now would be to make the ultimate political sacrifice of giving up power. The type of pressure that was sufficient to elicit a lesser decision such as the troop withdrawal is unlikely to be sufficient to elicit that sacrifice.

To the extent the envisioned scenario for getting rid of this regime is not a decision by the president to go but instead a forcible ouster or crumbling of the foundations of the regime, that raises longstanding questions (which also apply, by the way, to strategic bombing of cities in warfare) of how the infliction of pain that goes beyond a regime can be expected to lead to the end of the regime. The questions include how much the regime can shift resources to preserve the sources of power most important to it, how much the hardship inflicted on a population energizes it rather than enervating it, and how ethical it is to make a foreign population suffer to achieve a political objective.

Insofar as sanctions do work, how they work also will help determine what comes after the Assad regime and will affect the course of post-Assad Syrian history. That history is likely to be very messy in any case, but how the regime falls, which is partly a matter of to whom it falls, will matter. In thinking of possible post-Assad outcomes, it becomes apparent that one needs to be careful about what one wishes for. Under most scenarios, for example, Islamist influence is likely to be substantially greater in Syria than it is now. It is easy to imagine nervous reactions to this by Islamophobic Israelis, who will long for Bashar al-Assad as someone who was an inveterate adversary but at least one who was a known quantity who could be relied on most of the time to keep the frontier quiet. And given the large Israeli influence over American politics, it also is easy to imagine the ripple effects of that nervousness in the United States, including accusations about who “lost” Syria to the Islamists.