So far, the debate over what is to be done about Syria has focused on two options. First, there is the concept of encouraging and pressuring Assad to change his brutal policy of suppression. This is called behavior change. Second, there is the idea of overthrowing his regime and replacing it with a democratic one. This is regime change.
But there is a third way, and it is the approach that the United States and its allies should pursue. They should seek to force Bashar al-Assad out while not upending the regime. In other words, get other members of the Assad regime to remove him while leaving the regime intact.
Into the category of behavior change, we can place Kofi Annan’s diplomacy, which accepts Assad remaining in place but seeks to encourage him to negotiate with the rebels. Russia surely is keen for its long-standing friend to stay in power. China is tagging along. The problem with this approach, however, is that there is no sign that Assad is capable of such a change in policy or behavior.
As for toppling the regime, this is a dangerous move. Those who warn against it correctly point out that the forces seeking to replace Assad may be equally brutal, could engage in ethnic cleansing as Libyan rebels did, or worse. One also cannot ignore that there are chemical weapons that may fall into the hands of groups extremely hostile to the West. Besides, Russia and China are dead set against such action.
Thus, the West—and whoever cares to join—should make it clear that Assad and his policies are the issue and that those around him (especially the generals) should replace him. This encouragement could be helped along through selective bombing of command-and-control centers, especially the number-one post where Assad works. His successor, to be chosen by those coming to power, will be expected to negotiate with the rebels and work out with them agreed-upon reforms rather than the West demanding a Westminster democracy. (The fact that additional forced succession could follow should help the new head of Syria see the light).
Opting for succession—for changing the top guy but not the regime—is in effect what the United States and its allies seem to mean when they keep stating that Assad should leave. However, they have never explicitly stated the difference between a succession and a regime change, and they havenever reassured the Alawites and the military that the West is not after their hide. Above all, the West has not even hinted that it is willing to pressure Assad to leave by select use of force.
Even hard-bitten realists can acknowledge that there is a moral minimum that commands action when atrocities reach a level that no government claiming to be a global power can accept. The brutal repression in Syria has dragged on for more than a year and is escalating. It is bad enough when civilians, including children, are killed as collateral damage, when misreading intelligence or technical mishaps cause such casualties. But when a regime deliberately slaughters children and shells cities, week after week, month after month, those who promote a global order cannot dither endlessly. Forced succession is a limited move, should be preferable to Russia and China over regime change, and does not undermine other U.S. interests in the region. Otherwise, when our own children will ask, “Where were you when…?” what will we answer?
Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University.