"Assad must go."
President Barack Obama uttered those three words in August 2011, and they have since come to define the failure of US policy toward Syria. More than four years later, President Bashar al-Assad remains in power — indeed, it now appears likely that Obama will "go" first. And much of the US debate still revolves around the question of whether to accept Assad’s continued involvement in Syrian politics.
Assad’s fate has been the most divisive issue at every round of the Syrian peace talks, defining the US-Russian dispute over Syria and proving the most consistent obstacle to agreement. The US and its partners have been sending weapons to Syria to provoke his fall for years, stoking the proxy war in Syria. When Moscow began to fear they might succeed in the summer of 2015, it sent its bombers to Syria, causing yet further killing.
Meanwhile, the US media has become eternally vigilant for the slightest sign that the United States might have secretly abandoned the goal of removing Assad.
Alas, all this effort and controversy has caused us to lose sight of America's more fundamental goals in Syria. Assad's ouster was always meant to be a means to greater ends: saving lives, confronting extremism, and preserving regional stability.
Assad is indeed an asshole of historic proportions and deserves to face international justice. But our myopic focus on ending his rule has distracted us from our actual objectives and, more than that, risks making an already horrible situation worse.
War without Assad is still war
Over the past 15 years, the US military has repeatedly demonstrated that it is very good at overthrowing regimes. In Afghanistan, in Iraq, and in Libya, armies soon crumbled and dictators quickly fled when confronted with the full weight of American military might. But the dictator’s fall did little to foster stability or reduce extremism. Despite the vast sacrifices of American blood and treasure, those countries grew ever more unstable and violent. War persists and extremism flourishes, spilling across borders.
In Syria, there is substantial reason to believe that the departure of Assad could similarly make the situation worse. The Syrian civil war has long since become a militia war pitting dozens of pro-regime militias against an even greater number of anti-regime militias. Many of the militias on both sides are supplied from abroad, including by the US, and supported by foreign fighters.
Among these combatants, the regime is the only powerful actor still committed to maintaining the institutions and territory of the Syrian state. In the absence of the regime, the militia war would surely continue and grow even more complex as Syria's remaining peaceful areas were engulfed in fighting and Syria's remaining government institutions, including the Syrian army, further fragmented.
Many of the militias on both sides are riddled with extremists with a barely disguised agenda of ethnic cleansing. The destruction of the regime would unleash them to fulfill their plans. There have already been so many Syrian tragedies, but those who think the horrors of the Syrian civil war cannot get worse lack historical memory.
Yet there's an even more important point that is rarely acknowledged: Assad's removal by force is also not necessary, because his regime cannot long survive a negotiated peace, even one that leaves him in power.
The Syrian president has always known that he cannot accept any sort of political reform, which would necessarily involve some degree of power sharing. He sent his army out into the streets in 2011 to kill peaceful protesters because he understood that opening up the political system even a little bit would quickly expose his regime to unbearable pressures. The country’s large Sunni and now very sectarian underclass would use the opening to demand ever more power, threatening Assad's own internal constituents — including the country's Alawite population and other minorities.
Meanwhile, Assad's external backers, Russia and Iran, have very little attachment to him personally. Currently, they see him as their best option for maintaining their influence in Syria, for holding together the institutions of the Syrian state, and for opposing Western and Saudi influence in Syria. They would very quickly abandon him if he lost influence and control over his own power base and became an obstacle to achieving those goals.
But as long as the Syrian struggle remains a military fight for regime survival, his internal supporters have no place else to go, and both Russia and Iran will remain locked into Assad’s defense.
Assad doubled down on his strategy in February when he declared that he would continue fighting until victory, regardless of any truce negotiated by outside powers. Russia's UN ambassador publicly rebuked him for rejecting the ceasefire plan that Russia needs to be able to declare victory in Syria. But Assad can do little else if he is to survive. It is only the Western insistence on his removal that allows Putin and Assad to paper over this essential difference in their goals.
For the US, the key to fostering a gradual and more peaceful Syrian transition is to allow these contradictions to fester by accepting a deal that involves most any degree of power sharing.
A mistake that became a policy
The tragic irony of Obama’s "Assad must go" utterance is that it was never intended as a commitment to regime change. In those heady days of the 2011 Arab Spring, civil society movements in Arab dictatorships seemed unstoppable to the US government. The Obama administration had come under fire in February of that year for failing to get on the right side of history in Egypt and for sticking too long with the doomed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. It didn't want to make that mistake again.
In the debate within the US government over whether to call for Assad to go, any suggestion that this statement would create a responsibility on the part of the US to make it so was summarily dismissed. Assad was already "a dead man walking," as a top State Department official told Congress in 2011. Calling for regime change in Syria was seen as a cost-free option.
Except it didn’t work out that way. The Assad regime proved more tenacious than the Syria experts within the government expected.
In other words, the supposed US commitment to regime change in Syria is the result, at least in part, of an analytical mistake. President Obama appears never to have believed in the wisdom of US-sponsored regime change in Syria, but the bitter US domestic politics on the issue mean he has never felt politically able to atone for the original sin of his Syria policy.
Let's be clear: Abandoning the goal of removing Assad would mean choosing peace over justice, and that's a difficult trade-off. Assad has committed horrific crimes against his people and against humanity. He is chiefly responsible for the war, and his forces have caused the majority of the deaths in Syria. He deserves whatever justice the international community can dispense, up to and including a US Tomahawk missile arriving unannounced in his bedroom.
But let’s not allow our understandable desire for justice to distract us from the larger consequences of our actions, or from the ultimately more important goal of peace. Assad's overthrow will not help the situation, and it is not necessary to create a transition. To the contrary, the obsession with Assad has prolonged the war and increased the suffering of the Syrian people. If the obsession continues, the instability and suffering will only grow further.
We have to be open to the possibility, however distasteful, that our goals are ultimately best served by allowing Assad's regime to remain in place for now and focusing on a negotiated peace deal that his regime and its foreign backers can accept. This does not mean allying with Assad or treating him as a partner but rather putting the goal of ending the fighting before the goal of toppling Syria's government.
Justice is not the same as peace. In Syria, we have to choose.