Lion's Den: ‘Fin de Régime’ in Syria?

The time has come to brush aside fears of instability and push Assad from power.

Protestors in Syria 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Protestors in Syria 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
The ongoing revolt in Syria offers great opportunities, humanitarian and geo-political. Western states should quickly seize the opportunity to dispatch strongman Bashar al-Assad and his henchmen. Many benefits will follow when they land in their appointed dustbins.
FOREIGN: The malign but tactically brilliant Hafez al- Assad blighted the entire Middle East with disproportionate Syrian influence for decades. His son, the feckless Bashar, has continued this pattern since 2000 by sending terrorists to Iraq, murdering Lebanon’s prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, overthrowing his son Saad, aiding Hezbollah and Hamas, and developing chemical and possibly nuclear weapons.
His disappearance will be a universal boon.
But Bashar’s main role internationally is serving as Tehran’s premier ally. Despite Westerners usually seeing the Syrian-Iranian alliance as a flimsy marriage of convenience, it has lasted over 30 years, through shifts in personnel and circumstances, due to what Jubin Goodarzi in 2006 called the two parties’ “broader, long-term strategic concerns derived from national security priorities.”
The Syrian intifada has already weakened the Iranian-led “resistance bloc” by politically distancing Tehran from Assad and fomenting divisions in the Iranian leadership. Syrian protesters are burning the Iranian flag; were (Sunni) Islamists to take power in Damascus, they would terminate the Iranian connection, seriously damping the mullahs’ grandiose ambitions.
The end of Assad’s rule can also have other important consequences. Bashar and the ruling Islamist AK party in Turkey have developed such close relations that some analysts predict the Assad regime’s removal will lead to a collapse of Ankara’s entire Middle East policy. Also, unrest among the Kurds of Syria could lead to their greater autonomy, which would in turn encourage co-ethnics in Anatolia to demand an independent state – a prospect that so worries Ankara, it sent a stream of high-level visitors to Damascus to urgently push a counter-insurgency accord.
Turmoil in Syria also offers relief for Lebanon, which has been under the Syrian thumb since 1976. Similarly, a distracted Damascus permits Israeli strategists – at least temporarily – to focus on the country’s many other foreign problems.
DOMESTIC: In a smug interview discussing developments in Tunisia and Egypt just weeks before his own country erupted on March 15, Bashar al-Assad explained the misery also facing his own subjects: “Whenever you have an uprising, it is self-evident that... you have anger [which] feeds on desperation.”
The word desperation nicely summarizes the Syrian people’s lot; since 1970, the Assad dynasty has dominated Syria with an iron Stalinist fist only slightly less oppressive than that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Poverty, expropriation, corruption, stasis, oppression, fear, isolation, Islamism, torture and massacre have been the hallmarks of Assad rule.
Thanks to Western greed and gullibility, however, outsiders rarely realize the full reality. On one hand, the Syrian regime financially supports the Center for Syrian Studies at the University of St. Andrews. On the other, an informal Syria lobby exists. Thus, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refers to Assad as a “reformer,” and Vogue magazine publishes a puff-piece on the tyrant’s wife titled “Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert” (calling her “glamorous, young, and very chic – the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies”).
One potential danger of regime change must be noted. We can expect not a relatively gentle coup d’état as in Tunisia or Egypt, but a thoroughgoing revolution directed not only against the Assad clan but also the Alawi community from which it comes. Alawis, a secretive post-Islamic sect making up about one-eighth of the Syrian population, have dominated the government since 1966, arousing deep hostility among the majority Sunnis. Sunnis carry out the intifadas and Alawis do the dirty work of repressing and killing them. This tension could fuel a bloodbath and even a civil war – possibilities that outside powers must prepare for.
As the current impasse persists in Syria, with protesters regularly filling the streets and the regime regularly killing them, Western policy can make a decisive difference. Steven Coll of The New Yorker is right that “The time for hopeful bargaining with Assad has passed.”
The time has come to brush aside fears of instability for, as analyst Lee Smith rightly observes: “It can’t get any worse than the Assads’ regime.”
The time has come to push Bashar from power, protect innocent Alawis, and deal with “the devil we don’t know.”

The writer ( is director of the Middle East Forum, Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of three books on Syria.