How regime change can work

Story highlights

  • Zalmay Khalilzad: Bashar al-Assad's removal will be necessary to normalize Syria
  • But as Iraq and Libya demonstrated, regime change can be messy and risky, he says

Zalmay Khalilzad is a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan and the United Nations. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)During last year's presidential candidate debates, hopefuls from both parties dismissed the idea of removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. But they did not stop there -- they also questioned the idea of regime change as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy, arguing that the lesson of interventions in Iraq and Libya is that overthrowing dictators risks protracted civil conflicts and ungoverned spaces for extremists to exploit.

Yet while regime change should not be undertaken lightly, candidates risk overlearning the lessons from these conflicts. I hope that if foreign policy comes up again in Thursday's Republican presidential debate, the candidates will display a more nuanced understanding of a policy that historically has advanced U.S. interests.
Zalmay Khalilzad
Of course, Republicans are not the only ones wary of regime change following the experiences in Iraq -- the Obama administration also appears to have been chastened, backing away from the President's 2011 assertion that Assad must step aside.
    Yet the reality is that Assad's removal will be necessary to normalize Syria, defeat ISIS and de-escalate the sectarian tensions that threaten the entire region.
    There is, of course, no easy path to ending the horrendous conflict in Syria. However, a coup against Assad that paved the way for a stable and inclusive political transition would likely be the least bad option.
    Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe that a coup from within the Syrian state apparatus is imminent, or could be orchestrated externally. Part of the problem is that the Syrian opposition lacks unity, while its more extreme elements would likely destroy state institutions and fragment the country. In addition, there is little evidence that the aggrieved Sunni Arab population would refrain from reprisals against the Alawites, much less welcome them into a power-sharing coalition. The proxy war would therefore continue, fueled by Russia and regional powers, and a takeover by warlords would lay the groundwork for civil war. Terrorists would, meanwhile, continue to seize ungoverned spaces.
    There is, of course, the option of direct U.S. intervention. Yet while there is a compelling moral and geopolitical case for ousting the Assad regime, the benefits of a massive and prolonged U.S.-led invasion and indefinite occupation of Syria do not outweigh the costs. U.S. intervention on this scale would enjoy the support of some Syrian groups and some regional powers, but Russia would block any U.S. attempt to secure a U.N. mandate. Iranian and Iraqi opposition to a U.S. invasion would also allow Moscow to benefit from escalated tensions with the United States.
    The question then is how to facilitate a stable transition in Syria. Indefinite rule by the Assad regime is not a viable option -- so long as Assad is in power, ISIS will continue to find fertile ground among Sunni Arabs in Syria and Iraq, and draw recruits from around the world. And without Assad's ouster, Syrian leaders will not broker the compromises necessary to end the civil war and address the circumstances that sustain extremism, terrorism and sectarianism.
    With that in mind, Washington should pursue two objectives in tandem. The immediate priority is a ceasefire to stop the carnage, control the refugee crisis and prevent Syria's fallout from destabilizing the region. But a ceasefire would also provide space for the creation of a road map for political change -- one that would involve major stakeholders in the Syrian conflict reaching an understanding on Assad's future.
    A realistic compromise would be for Assad to head a transitional administration, which would last around one year, with limited powers, and then resign at the end of the transitional process. During the transition, a prime minister supported by the opposition and technocrats would incrementally assume the powers necessary to transition from unitary, single-party rule. Decentralization would allow minorities such as the Alawites and Kurds to run their own affairs, oversee the drafting of a new constitution, and make progress in establishing good governance and the rule of law.
    One of the most sensitive tasks of the transitional government would be to reform Syria's state institutions -- groups forming the opposition will need, for example, to determine how lightly to purge members from the old regime. (Those in the Assad government, particularly in the security forces, could wage an insurgency if their interests are not accommodated, although without sufficient reform, opposition forces will not have enough confidence in the new system to join the government or defeat ISIS.)
    None of this will be easy. As Iraq and Libya demonstrated, regime change can be messy and risky. But it can also be productive -- regime change stabilized Europe and East Asia after World War II, helped democratize Eastern Europe and Latin America after the Cold War, and enabled counterterrorism successes in Afghanistan after 9/11.
    Military intervention has not been the only U.S. method for securing such changes.
    The United States has, for example, intervened in countries' domestic political affairs in favor of preferred factions. These efforts, generally covert, have sought to orchestrate military coups or bolster particular parties in elections. (And they have sometimes had far-reaching, unintended consequences: U.S. involvement in the 1953 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh continues to affect relations with Tehran.)
    But if internal forces have not been enough to force change, U.S. military intervention has been used on numerous occasions, and has involved both U.N.-authorized and facilitated missions, as was the case in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, and also coalitions of the willing in Iraq (2003), Haiti (1994) and Panama (1989), among others.
    The U.S. record with regime change is, of course, decidedly mixed. And any future president would do well to keep in mind some key principles, including the importance of securing a mandate from the U.N. Security Council or a regional organization, building an effective international coalition and being prepared to maintain a long-term presence on the ground.
    But whoever is elected in November -- Republican or Democrat -- the reality is that regime change, for better or worse, will remain a bipartisan, enduring feature of U.S. foreign policy. It is one that must at least be prepared for, and one that should be talked about. And that means talking about Syria.