Skip to main content

Preparing for Bashar al-Assad's exit

By Marc Lynch, Special to CNN
July 23, 2012 -- Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
A woman holding a placard protesting against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
A woman holding a placard protesting against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Last week, key Syrian security leaders were assassinated by Syrian insurgency
  • Marc Lynch: Briefly, many thought that Bashar al-Assad's regime would rapidly fall
  • He says the regime's determination to survive at any price could draw things out
  • Lynch: The U.S. is prudent to not interfere, but it can help in the transition

Editor's note: Marc Lynch is director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, editor of the Middle East blog on ForeignPolicy.com, and author of "The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East" (PublicAffairs).

(CNN) -- The stunning assassinations of several key Syrian leaders and the outbreak of serious combat in Damascus last week momentarily held out the possibility that President Bashar al-Assad's regime will rapidly fall. Many hoped for a cascade of defections, a rise in popular demonstrations and a rebel surge to bring down the government.

Those hopes were exaggerated, fueled by a feverish rumor mill, psychological warfare and notoriously unreliable information coming out of Syria. While the regime has been shaken, its military capability stands as demonstrated by its bloody reassertion of control over Damascus. Along with the support of Russia, its determination to survive at any price could draw out the endgame.

The assassinations struck at the heart of the security machine that sustains the regime, and they highlight the extent to which political and military tide has long since turned against al-Assad. The assassinations were more of an inflection than a turning point.

Marc Lynch
Marc Lynch

Diplomatically isolated, financially strapped and increasingly constrained by a wide range of international sanctions, al-Assad's regime has been left with little room to maneuver. It resorts to indiscriminate military force and uses shabiha gangs and propaganda to inflict terror.

The government's violence against peaceful protestors and innocent civilians has been manifestly self-defeating. Al-Assad has failed to kill his way to victory. Day by day, through accumulating mistakes, the regime is losing legitimacy and control of Syria and its people.

Nonetheless, it's premature to think the end is close.

Damascus hospital under fire
Syrian resolution vetoed at UN
More Syrians abandoning their homes
Syrian crisis zeroed in on Aleppo

The opposition's progress, reportedly with increasing external funding and training, has put greater pressure on al-Assad's forces. But the opposition's military success has exacerbated the fears of retribution attacks and a reign of chaos should the regime crumble.

The much-maligned political efforts of U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan, backed by the United States, were meant to find a political solution that could prevent precisely such a deterioration of the situation on the ground.

Now, even if al-Assad's regime collapses, violence may prove difficult to contain given that the country is deeply polarized and awash in weapons. Al-Assad's end could pave the way for an even more intense civil war.

Making matters worse, the continuing fragmentation among the Syrian opposition groups raises deep fears about their ability to unite themselves or to establish authority. Few foundations exist for an inclusive and stable political order after al-Assad.

The Obama administration was prudent and wise to avoid a direct military intervention in Syria. A legion of pundits deemed an American military role necessary for any progress against al-Assad. Clearly, it was not.

Indeed, a limited intervention would likely have strengthened al-Assad's hand at home and abroad. Had the U.S. chosen to carry out airstrikes to enforce a no-fly zone or safe havens, Syria's crisis would likely be no closer to resolution but America would be deeply embroiled.

Some have suggested that the U.S. should provide weapons to favored factions among the opposition groups. This, too, is a dangerous idea. There is no reason to believe that these factions would reward the U.S. with loyalty.

What the U.S. should do is focus its efforts on maintaining international pressure and sanctions on al-Assad while preparing for a transition. It should disseminate credible information about the regime's atrocities. It should aggressively plan to bring the architects of Syria's well-documented massacres to face international justice. (It is far too late for an amnesty for al-Assad and his top aides, but lower-level officials should be offered a deadline to defect to avoid prosecution.)

When al-Assad falls, the Syrian opposition will urgently need to unite Syria and short-circuit the emergence of an insurgency from supporters of the old regime. Preventing reprisal killings, including all groups in the political process, and incorporating public servants who are not implicated in war crimes will be essential.

The U.S. should help prepare the Syrian opposition for the challenges of governing a fractured country by facilitating the negotiation for a representative and unified political entity, with a greater role for pragmatic leaders on the inside. It could send a small U.N. stabilization force to Syria to as a monitor. And it will have to persuade the armed insurgency to police its own ranks to avoid sectarian fights.

The hopes of a soft landing in Syria have been destroyed by the regime's violence. The U.S. must now try to deal as best it can with the grinding struggle to come.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marc Lynch.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 2122 GMT (0522 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1608 GMT (0008 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 13, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT