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 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT