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 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT