Why Regime Change is a Bad Idea in Syria

By Alexander B. Downes, George Washington University

* This memo was prepared for “The Political Science of Syria’s War” conference, November 8, 2013.

Shortly after the onset of the Syrian uprising, U.S. President Barack Obama called for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In language highly reminiscent of his statements a few months earlier about Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, Obama said on August 18, 2011, that the “future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way… . For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”[i] Obama went on to note that, “[T]he United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria,” a pledge that he has largely kept: the United States has for the most part resisted calls to intervene directly in the conflict with military force. The near exception to this policy — the administration’s threat to launch missile strikes in response to the Syrian government’s chemical weapons attack two months ago — was not carried out, and in any event was not intended to be a decisive intervention in the war. The only U.S. intervention in the Syrian conflict to this point has been indirect: a CIA-run program to train fighters associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as well as the recent provision of non-lethal aid and light weapons to the FSA.[ii]

Setting aside the oddity of making demands without any intention of following through on them — or giving others the means to follow through on them — what are the effects of demanding regime change as a condition for ending a civil war like the one in Syria? I argue that there are three effects, all of them bad. Demanding regime change effectively shuts down negotiations and prolongs the war, both by encouraging the rebels and asking the regime to commit suicide. It also puts Assad in an untenable situation: if he agrees to negotiate his way into exile, given the universal jurisdiction inherent in international criminal law, there is no guarantee that he won’t be prosecuted later for crimes he committed during the war. Finally, rhetorical policies of regime change have a tendency to escalate to actual policies of regime change. Increased direct or indirect U.S. involvement in the current Syrian civil war, however, could lead to new atrocities and another civil war. Should the United States help the rebels win the war with military aid or airpower, the likely result is first a bloodletting against the defeated Alawites and second another civil war between the “moderate” rebels backed by the West and the more “radical” Islamists, some of whom are affiliated with al Qaeda. Should the United States intervene and overthrow Assad with its own forces, it will likely face armed opposition from the radical rebel factions and possibly even spoilers among the less radical factions. Neither option is appealing.

Sabotaging Negotiations

By declaring that Assad has no future as president of Syria, the United States has effectively torpedoed meaningful negotiations to end the war short of decisive victory for one side or the other. The reasons are twofold. First, in calling for Assad’s overthrow, the United States has essentially endorsed the rebels’ principal war aim. The knowledge that the world’s only superpower supports their primary political objective has unsurprisingly made the rebels more intransigent. It should come as no surprise, for example, that the Geneva negotiations have failed to get off the ground in part because the rebels refuse to negotiate with the Assad regime. In rejecting participation in the Geneva II talks slated to open on November 23, for example, a group of nineteen Islamist rebel groups said that negotiating with Assad’s government would be an act of “treason.”[iii] Similarly, Ahmed Jarba, the president of the more moderate Syrian National Council, declared that “The Sultan must leave….Geneva cannot succeed and we cannot take part if it allows Assad to gain more time to spill the blood of our people while the world looks on.”[iv] Thus, Syrian rebel groups across the ideological spectrum refuse to deal with Assad, demanding his ouster as a precondition for talks.

Second, Assad has no incentive to negotiate, either, because he is being asked to agree to his own demise and exclusion from power. The Communique of the London 11, issued on October 22, explicitly states, “When the TGB [Transitional Governing Body] is established, Assad and his close associates with blood on their hands will have no role in Syria.”[v] Assad, however, has shown no willingness to leave power, and recently declared that he saw no obstacle to running for another term in office.[vi]

In short, in the language of bargaining theory, there is no bargaining space where the two sides’ positions overlap: the rebels demand that Assad must leave, and Assad refuses. The United States, by endorsing the rebels’ position, contributes to this deadlock.

Exile is Not an Option

The second problem with demanding that Assad leave power is figuring out where he would go. In the old days, as Daniel Krcmaric points out, leaders who had committed atrocities against their own people — such as Idi Amin — could always flee into a cozy exile abroad if they faced a powerful rebellion.[vii] Contemporary international criminal law (ICL), however, rests on the twin pillars of individual responsibility and universal jurisdiction, meaning that mass killers are responsible for their actions as individuals and may be apprehended and prosecuted anywhere. Although these facets of ICL were established by the Nuremberg and Tokyo Criminal Tribunals after World War II, Cold War dynamics generally discouraged prosecution. Nowadays, however, leaders who commit atrocities are more vulnerable, especially if they flee abroad. It is obviously difficult to apprehend sitting heads of state — just look at Sudanese President Omar Bashir, who remains free even though the ICC indicted him in 2009. But leaders who travel abroad (like former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet) or go into exile (former Liberian leader Charles Taylor) are easier to nab because (1) they can be prosecuted anywhere (Pinochet was detained in Britain on a Spanish arrest warrant), and (2) states that host former dictators have few incentives to protect them and thus may be persuaded to give them up. States may promise to host Assad now and shield him from prosecution, but these promises lack credibility should the host be subjected to sanctions or shaming in the future. In other words, Assad has nowhere to go where he can safely avoid prosecution, which gives him clear incentives to try to remain in power in Syria by winning the war.

The Civil War after the Civil War

A final problem with a declaratory policy of regime change is that it has a tendency to escalate from words to deeds. The longer the civil war in Syria goes on and the longer Assad remains in power, and the more the bodies pile up, the greater the pressure to “do something” becomes. Obama will be open to charges of hypocrisy: how can he stand by and do nothing while innocent women and children are being killed by a criminal regime he has declared must be deposed? In Libya, the road to escalation was remarkably short: Obama first declared that Qaddafi should step down on March 3, 2011; by the end of the month, NATO was bombing.[viii] In Syria, the president has resisted escalation longer, but has begun to take steps that could lead to greater U.S. involvement in the conflict.

The problem with mission creep in Syria is that the greater that U.S. involvement becomes, the more responsible it will be for the aftermath, which is likely to be unpleasant. In one scenario, the United States limits its intervention to arming and training the moderate rebels. Should the rebels succeed in overthrowing Assad, they are likely to take retribution against the Alawite population, which could be bloody and create a new refugee disaster. The second thing that is likely to happen is a new civil war among rebel factions, probably pitting the more extreme Islamist factions against the U.S.-backed moderates. U.S. policy would thus have traded one civil war for a different civil war, and find itself back at square one.

In a second scenario, the United States (and its allies) intervenes directly, using military force to bring down the Assad regime. This, too, is likely to have unhappy results, with the added complication that the United States will be even more involved. If a “hammer and anvil” strategy — U.S./NATO airpower plus rebel ground power — succeeds in toppling Assad, the United States can stand down, but will not be able to prevent the retribution against Alawites and potential civil war among rebel factions outlined above. If the United States chooses to send ground troops, it may be able to prevent a slaughter of Alawites, but is likely to face a violent response from the more radical Islamist and al Qaeda-affiliated factions. Given the highly factionalized nature of the rebellion, any number of factions could play the role of spoiler if they do not get their way. Even the current chaos of Libya is probably out of reach, since there are many groups hostile to the United States among the rebels, there are large minority populations that will need protection, and a possible separatist group (the Kurds) in the northeast. It is more likely that the United States will face at least one, and possibly multiple insurgences in Syria, an outcome much like it faced in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What is to be Done?

If the United States truly wishes to foster a negotiated end to the Syrian conflict, it needs to drop its insistence that Assad leave power and pressure Syrian rebel groups to negotiate with him. If the United States truly thinks Assad must go, then it should stop insisting on negotiations and do what it takes to help the rebels win. In the latter case, however, the Obama administration should think long and hard about what rebel victory in Syria means. It may find that the more it thinks about it, the less attractive it becomes. Dropping regime change and encouraging negotiations — or staying out of it entirely — may be a wiser policy.

Alexander Downes is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University. His research examines international security, specifically the causes and effectiveness of civilian victimization in warfare, the effects and utility of foreign-imposed regime change, and the determinants of military effectiveness. He is the author of Targeting Civilians in War (2008) and “The problem with negotiated settlements to ethnic wars” in Security Studies.

[i] “President Obama: ‘The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way,’” http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/08/18/president-obama-future-syria-must-be-determined-its-people-president-bashar-al-assad. For an example of Obama’s earlier statements about Qaddafi, see Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Nicolas Sarkozy, “Libya’s Pathway to Peace,” New York Times, April 14, 2011.

[ii] Paul Richter, “Senator Criticizes CIA Training of Syrian Rebels as ‘Incredibly Slow,’” Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2013; and Ernesto Londono and Greg Miller, “U.S. Weapons Reaching Syrian Rebels,” Washington Post, September 11, 2013.

[iii] Aljazeera, “Syrian Rebels Reject Geneva Peace Talks,” October 27, 2013.

[iv] Ian Black, “Syrian Rebels Urged to Take Part in Geneva II Peace Conference,” The Guardian, October 22, 2013.

[v] Communique of the London 11, October 22, 2013, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2013/10/215729.htm.

[vi] “Assad Sees No Date for Syria Talks, Mulls Re-election,” Reuters, October 21, 2013.

[vii] Daniel Krcmaric, “The Justice Dilemma: International Criminal Law, Mass Atrocities, and the Dynamics of Civil War,” Ph.D. dissertation in progress, Department of Political Science, Duke University. This paragraph is based on Krcmaric’s work.

[viii] Mark Landler, “Obama Tells Qaddafi to Quit and Authorizes Refugee Airlifts,” New York Times, March 3, 2011.

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