On Syria: Don't Take Regime Change Off the Table

An effective effort to prevent future chemical weapons use cannot exclude it.

Two weeks ago, the Syrian regime reportedly ordered the use of chemical weapons, which U.S. sources state killed over 1400 people. Over one year ago, President Obama declared that any movement or use of chemical weapons would cross a “redline.”

Right from the start, officials in the Obama White House assured the public that any decision to use force against Syria would not be designed to impose regime change. Why would the administration take such an option off the table?

As strategists and policymakers have understood since time immemorial, any decision to use military force must be guided by a strategy. If Washington’s strategy is to stop Assad from using chemical weapons, demonstrate that America is committed to enforcing this international norm, and undermine states that support such atrocious actions, regime change remains the critical instrument for the United States. In fact, all other options are highly susceptible to failure.

To be precise, any American decision to use military force should be guided by three objectives. First, prevent further use of chemical weapons while demonstrating that the United States is committed to enforcing this norm. Second, weaken the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad while accelerating the rise of moderate opposition groups in Syria. Third, undermine the influence of Syria’s principal geopolitical patrons, Russia and Iran, whose actions directly support Assad’s decision to gas his own people.

While policymakers shy away from regime change, the threat of regime change directly supports each of these objectives. I would argue further that the United States cannot accomplish these strategic objectives unless it is willing to invoke regime change. The failure to invoke regime change will embolden Assad to ride out any U.S. attacks. Assad as well as leaders in Iran and North Korea likely will conclude that any U.S. “shot across the bow” or “pinprick strikes” will be no more than a momentary inconvenience—a “speeding ticket” on the way to developing and using weapons of mass destruction.

What Do We Mean by Regime Change?

Since the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, the concept of regime change has been much maligned—and grossly misunderstood. Many policymakers and commentators herald it as the ultimate form of imperial power, which occurs when states seek to impose their form of government on others. The parallel conclusion, which is deeply ingrained in the conventional wisdom, is that any states so bold as to impose regime change with military force are likely to find themselves engulfed in a quagmire. By this logic, Afghanistan and Iraq are exhibits one and two for the prosecution.

Facing Syria’s actions, policymakers need much greater clarity about regime change if they are to protect the United States and its allies.

First, strictly speaking, regime change is no more than the policy of deliberately removing a government by force. This may involve a military invasion that removes a government’s political and military leaders. Regime change can extend to installing a new government, which ideally will be supportive of the policies and interests of the state imposing regime change. The case of Iraq in 2003 is the best modern example of regime change.

While regime change may be imposed by force, yet another form of regime change is to encourage the members of the society, after removing their government, to take matters into their own hands. The hope is that they will design and build their own form of government.

These modern ideas about regime change are, frankly, far too limited. There are more effective forms of regime change available to policymakers, which are directly relevant to helping the U.S. deal with Syria. Rather than taking it off the table, policymakers need to understand that regime change exists in more useful forms.

First, regime change does not require a military invasion. One could, for example, take actions, including military strikes and covert actions, which undermine the regime’s credibility while encouraging moderate forces within the state to exert greater political control, emboldening them to oppose the regime.

Regime change can involve a strategic, moral, or political imperative to remove the government based on the view that the regime’s actions constitute a threat to another state or to the international community.

In the case of Syria, the central problem for U.S. policymakers is that their understanding of the theory and practice of regime change was distorted by our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. The conventional wisdom among policymakers is that regime change, which is slightly repugnant morally because it removes a government, carries extraordinary risks of plunging the state into quagmires—notably, civil wars fought along sectarian (religious) lines.

It is absolutely critical for policymakers pondering whether and how to use military force against the government of President al-Assad to refresh their thinking. To be blunt, they need to unburden themselves of this intellectual and moral baggage that surrounds and wrongly informs current thinking about regime change. We need to divorce ourselves from the Iraq and Afghanistan experience and realize Syria is its own unique situation.

What Regime Change Achieves

Regime change is an important instrument of policy whose value rests directly on its ability to persuade the leadership of a regime that their policies and actions put them personally at risk. To succeed, the threat of regime change must pose a direct threat to the leadership of a state, on multiple levels.

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