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U.S. Policy Toward Syria and Assad’s Choices

JINSA Report #: 

August 12, 2011

Political betting in Washington is that President Obama is preparing to demand that Syrian strongman Bashar Assad step down. After the Saudis, Kuwaitis, Bahrainis and Omanis - those bastions of human rights and civil liberties - withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus. After five months of brutal repression of the Syrian people; tanks and artillery used in cities; refugees cut off from refuge over the border in Turkey; more than 2,000 deaths, including women and children and including victims tortured; and more than 10,000 arrests, including more than 1,000 people who have disappeared, President Obama seems prepared to accept that Assad is not the "reformer" he was supposed to be. And he appears to be ready to demand that Junior quit.

But will Assad leave and under what circumstances? The "Arab Spring" has given us a series of models for Arab leaders who have come to the end of their ability to rape, torture, steal and pillage. Different leaders, different ends. Which, if any, will Assad choose?

  • There is the Mubarak model (Egypt) in which you decline to use your army against the people and resign at the command of the American President. This results at best in sitting in a cage at a show trial; at worst, you die in disgrace before the trial. It is too late for this option.

  • There is the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali model (Tunisia) in which you take the family and flee to a friendly capital but without money, sentenced to 35 years in jail in absentia and under threat of an Interpol warrant for your arrest.

  • A close cousin is the Ali Abdullah Sallah model (Yemen) in which you leave the country for "medical treatment" in a friendly capital rather than resigning, resulting in - well, living in a friendly capital and remaining the nominal ruler. For now.

  • The Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa model (Bahrain) requires having a neighbor such as Saudi Arabia willing to use its forces to protect your position, and a very long causeway.

  • And there is the Gaddafi model (Libya) in which you decide to fight it out frontally and brutally. This could result in NATO bombing your cities while the International Criminal Court indicts you. The indictment - as opposed to a request for an Interpol warrant - obviates the Ben Ali/Sallah model and makes going out in a literal blaze of glory seem almost rational.

There should be no sympathy for any of them, but the one to avoid is Libya. For many people, possibly including Assad, a martyr is better than a convict. Even if NATO isn't willing to bomb Syria, there are increasing suggestions that the Syrian army could fracture between its Alawite officer elite and the Sunni soldiers, setting the stage for even greater bloodshed than we have seen thus far.

In the larger order of things, the removal of Assad from Damascus would be a serious blow to the Iranian axis - Iran, Turkey, Syria, Hezbollah/Lebanon - which is already suffering from Turkey's apparent rethinking of its place in a Shiite-dominated association. It would further encourage Turkey to rethink its rocky relations with Israel and the United States. It would enormously complicate Hezbollah's arms supply and Syrian-based training grounds - which could change the balance of power in Lebanon, strengthening the non-radical communities, including some Shiite groups. All of which would strengthen the American position in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond.

Rather than demands, threats or pronouncements, President Obama should consider diplomatic mechanisms - maybe through Turkey - that would leave Assad an escape route to Iran if he is willing to take it. It won't be as viscerally satisfying as pounding the table and demanding justice, but the debacle of Libya, which has cost billions of dollars, NATO's political unity and countless lives, is no closer to resolution now than when it began.

That should be the guidepost for an American approach to Assad.

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