No question, the bombing that killed three top members of the Assad regime has accelerated that regime’s downfall. Now, with reports of fighting in Damascus and of the president’s family being evacuated from the capital, the whole governing clique might be gone far faster than anyone would have predicted even a few days ago.
That might be seen as vindication of the Obama administration’s go-slow approach which has consisted of providing some communications and intelligence support to the rebels—but no arms—all the while hoping against hope that Russia might allow the UN Security Council to endorse a more vigorous intervention. That strategy was dealt another blow yesterday when Russia and China vetoed a resolution piling more sanctions on Syria. But does any of that matter if the Assad regime is doomed to fall soon anyway? I believe it does, because, without greater U.S. involvement now, our ability to shape the post-Assad country will be severely limited and the odds of sheer chaos or an extremist takeover go up.
As always when dealing with the issue of regime change, the biggest challenge is not how to get rid of the old dictator but how to replace him with a stable, reasonably democratic regime. That is, of course, what we have struggled to achieve at great cost in Iraq and Afghanistan. Libya, today, continues to struggle with that very issue, although the fact that the international community actively intervened there gave a major boost to the secular, pro-Western forces that won the recent legislative elections. It helped too, that under cover of NATO airpower, the Libyan rebels were able to try their hand at governing in Benghazi before they had to take over the entire country.
A similar scenario could have played out in Syria if the U.S. had pushed Turkey to establish safe zones inside Syria, where the rebels could have created a government-in-waiting. That hasn’t happened, and now the odds are going up that the Assad regime will fall before the badly splintered opposition has coalesced to form a government of its own. Moreover, the rebels will know they did not get much support from the U.S., so they will not be as pro-American as the Libyan rebels—or their Kosovar predecessors.
This has the makings of a very dangerous situation, especially because the Assad regime has chemical weapons which could conceivably fall into the wrong hands. In Libya, there was at least the chance that NATO and the Arab League would agree on the dispatch of an international peacekeeping force—something I advocated at the time and still think would have been a good idea because it would have allowed the disarmament of the militias. There is even less chance of such a peacekeeping force being dispatched to a post-Assad Syria than to the post-Qaddafi Libya; few outside powers, and certainly not the U.S., want to risk ground troops in such a volatile situation.
Thus, my concern is the Syrians will be on their own once Assad falls. The U.S. and our allies should certainly plan now so that we can assist Syria with this difficult transition, but keep in mind—the more we do now, while Assad is still in power, the greater our leverage after he is gone.