For more than a year, optimists have been predicting the end of the Assad regime in Syria. Those forecasts have been proven wrong, as the Syrian dictator has not lost his willingness to kill as many people as possible in order to hold on. Nor has he been deprived of the crucial foreign support from Iran, Hezbollah and most importantly, Russia. But today’s news that his prime minister has defected may finally be the signal that the tipping point has been reached in the conflict that has taken the lives of thousands of Syrians. While Bashar al-Assad’s forces still seem full of fight, they have noticeably faltered in their efforts to finish off the opposition or even to keep them out of Damascus and other major cities. No one could credibly accuse someone who had served in this brutal government of having much of a conscience about all the massacres committed in order to preserve Assad’s grip on power, but it may be that Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab has read the writing on the wall and understands it is better not to go down with a sinking ship.
Nevertheless, this latest sign that finally President Obama’s forecast about Assad’s demise is coming true is no reason for the administration to celebrate. Obama helped prolong the agony of Syria and the life of Assad’s government by not acting more forcefully to depose him earlier in the struggle. But now that the country is in a state of chaos with Islamists appearing to dominate the opposition forces, the United States is faced with a far more dangerous situation. During the weekend, the New York Times reported that both the State Department and the Pentagon were planning for the post-Assad era in Syria. That’s good, but the problem is it may be too late for the United States to have much influence on the outcome if, as now seems possible, Assad is actually defeated.
Having decided last year to “lead from behind” on Syria, President Obama is in no position to have much of an impact on what will follow Assad’s fall. While the U.S., along with its European allies, has been supplying the rebels with some help in recent months, that is not likely to buy much goodwill with a Syrian people who will be justified in thinking the U.S. stood by as they were being killed by Assad’s loyalists. Nor will the U.S. be in a position to prevent the humanitarian disasters that may well unfold in the coming months. Score settling could result in the mass slaughter of Syrian Alawites who are seen as supporters and beneficiaries of the Assad clan during their decades ruling in Damascus.
Having held itself largely aloof from the conflict, it will not be possible for the Obama administration to do anything different as conditions there worsen. By failing to choose in Syria, as it largely failed to do in Egypt, the president has set us up for the worst of all worlds, with a stable situation rendered unstable and the United States getting no credit for helping to affect change. If this is what some pundits consider a successful foreign policy, I’d hate to see what failure looks like.