The statement by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the reign of President Bashar Assad’s family “is coming to an end” suggests the U.S. is taking a much more aggressive approach about the Syrian leader.
The remark Tuesday came after a U.S. airstrike in Syria and threats of more punitive action.
Any attempt to unseat Assad faces huge hurdles and risks unleashing chaos. It could also relieve the suffering of nearly 1 million Syrians living under constant siege and bombardment.
Despite six years of civil war, Assad is firmly entrenched in his seat of power, Damascus, largely thanks to powerful allies Russia and Iran who continue to prop up his government politically and militarily.
Taking him out of the equation without a clear transition plan would be a major gamble with consequences that would likely resonate far beyond the Syrian borders and raises the following questions:
What is the U.S. Position on Assad?
The past week has brought about an almost seismic shift in the U.S. administration’s position on Syria. Only weeks earlier, U.S. officials, including President Donald Trump, were signaling a willingness to work with Russia and saying that Assad’s status was not a priority for the time being.
The April 4 chemical weapons attack that killed more than 80 people in an opposition-held town in northern Syria appears to have completely altered Trump’s calculus, triggering the first direct U.S. airstrike on Assad’s forces in the conflict.
The Trump administration continues to offer mixed messages about its ultimate goal in Syria and whether Assad must surrender power — and when.
“It is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,” Tillerson said. “But the question of how that ends and the transition itself could be very important in our view to the durability, the stability inside of a unified Syria.”
What is the Assad Family’s Power Base?
The Assad family has ruled Syria for nearly five decades. So entrenched is the dynasty that die-hard supporters label the country as “Assad’s Syria.” In battle zones, loyal fighters have sprayed “Assad, or we burn the country.”
Despite the spectacular devastation he has presided over, Assad has managed to retain a level of support. He maintained, from the beginning, that his war is one against terrorism, and through a deft policy of divide and conquer, he has made the war a choice between him and the Islamic extremists.
Among his supporters are members of his Alawite sect, as well as other minority sects such as the Christians and Druze who fear reprisals by extremists in case they take over the country. Many in the powerful business community also support Assad and see him as a source of stability compared to other, opposition-held parts of Syria that are run by scores of rebel factions and warlords. Syria’s powerful security agencies, notorious for human rights abuses, also will back Assad until the end.
What are the Alternatives to Assad?
There is no obvious replacement. Assad’s term has been an extension of the rule by his father and his father’s predecessor, both of which stifled any form of dissent for decades. Following the uprising, which began in March 2011, opposition figures have either been jailed, exiled or killed. Some analysts say the only replacement could be an Alawite army general, since the presence of such a leader would serve as a guarantee to Syria’s minorities.
Such a figure is not apparent for the time being. Thus, finding an alternative to Assad has bedeviled foreign policy experts for years.
More recently, as Russia helped reverse his military fortunes and left him in control of most of the country’s major population centers, much of the West had appeared to come to terms with the conclusion that Assad could stay on for the time being.
Could Assad be Removed by Force?
The U.S. can take any number of measures against Assad to degrade and ultimately remove him from power. That includes bombing command and control centers, grounding his warplanes and significantly increasing weapons support for rebels fighting to topple him.
Any such action risks a igniting a confrontation with Russia and Iran. Such flagrant action may also become counterintuitive and risk a backlash from rebel factions who may not welcome U.S. bombing of Syria even though they want Assad out.
What Would Happen if Assad Was Ousted?
Europeans and the previous U.S. administration have been very clear that they don’t want a collapse of the regime similar to what happened elsewhere, including neighboring Iraq.
The concern is that a sudden unseating of Assad would lead to a collapse of state institutions, unleashing sectarian massacres and facilitating the spread of militant groups, such as the Islamic State group, al-Qaida and the Shiite militias who have fueled violence in Iraq.
Russian officials often cite the U.S. failures in Iraq and Libya, where state institutions disintegrated following Western military intervention, to illustrate the perils of forced regime change in Syria.