Skip to main content

Preparing for Bashar al-Assad's exit

By Marc Lynch, Special to CNN
updated 9:53 AM EDT, Mon July 23, 2012
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
updated 2:19 PM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
As a woman whose parents had cancer, I have quite a few things to say about dying with dignity.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
David Gergen says he'll have a special eye on a few particular races in Tuesday's midterms that may tell us about our long-term future.
updated 10:52 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
What's behind the uptick in clown sightings? And why the fascination with them? It could be about the economy.
updated 9:01 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
Midterm elections don't usually have the same excitement as presidential elections. That should change, writes Sally Kohn.
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
updated 2:32 PM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
updated 5:03 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
updated 5:25 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT