The perils of regime change in Syria

Many Western leaders have called for regime change in Syria. As Barack Obama said in August:

We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.

Both the United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions. Turkey and the Arab League are likely to follow.

Many, including Richard Gowan of GD, bemoan the inability of the United Nations to act more resolutely.

But what exactly are all the leaders, analysts, and pundits promoting change in Syria actually expecting to happen? The Assad regime to simply hand over power and walk away after four decades?

This is highly unlikely. No other group has willingly given up power during the Arab Spring so far. In Libya, it took an eight-month civil war to topple the government. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh continues to hang on, if precariously.

Moreover, the Assads have much more going for them then any of these other rulers. Despite some desertions, Syria’s military and internal security apparatus remains a cohesive force unlikely to disintegrate anytime soon. The economic and political elites are more cohesive, and supportive then those elsewhere—and more fearful of what change might bring. Despite growing hardship, few in Aleppo and Damascus, the country’s two largest cities, have defected. Iran is providing support for its closest ally. Western powers are unlikely to intervene, at least in any way similar to what happened in Libya.

Therefore, the regime is likely to hang on much longer then anyone now forecasts. And if it begins to buckle or actually falls, what follows is unlikely to be pretty. This is especially true given that the Syrian opposition is badly divided:

Seven months into the uprisings, the Syrian opposition has yet to develop a united voice and platform. Unless these disparate groups unite and present a credible and viable alternative to the Assad regime, both Syria’s fearful majority and the international community will find it difficult to effectively push for meaningful change in Damascus.

There are two particularly bad yet highly plausible scenarios for the country’s future if the pressure on the regime continues long enough.

In one, the government grows increasingly anxious about its hold on power, and unleashes an even more brutal crackdown
then what is now occurring, possibly on the scale of what it perpetrated in 1982 in Hama, when over 25,000 people were murdered.

In the second scenario, the government loses control over at least some of its territory, unleashing a sectarian civil war with ugly parallels to what occurred in Iraq in 2006-08 and Lebanon between 1975 and 1990. As Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign
Relations, one of the few people in the West repeatedly warning against the perils of pushing for regime change, wrote a few months ago:

The numbers being killed now will wither in comparison with a possible future civil war, if an increasingly sectarian Syria splinters between the ruling Alawites, the elite and urban Christians, the majority Sunnis, the Kurds, Druze and others. There is no civil society to engineer a peaceful transition, while Syria could plausibly become another Lebanon, acting as a proxy battleground for regional powers.

Unfortunately, there is some evidence that this is beginning to happen in Homs, Syria’s third largest city. As the New York Times reported over the weekend:

As it descends into sectarian hatred, Homs has emerged as a chilling window on what civil war in Syria could look like, just as some of Syria’s closest allies say the country appears to be heading in that direction. A spokesman for the Syrian opposition last week called the killings and kidnappings on both sides “a perilous threat to the revolution.” An American official called the strife in Homs “reminiscent of the former Yugoslavia,” where the very term “ethnic cleansing” originated in the 1990s. . . .

Here it is not so much a fight between armed defectors and government security forces, or protesters defying a crackdown. Rather, the struggle in Homs has dragged the communities themselves into a battle that residents fear, even as they accuse the government of trying to incite it as a way to divide and rule the diverse country.

The risks involved at least partly explain why Turkey, the country with perhaps the most leverage over Syria, has been so reluctant to act more forcefully. They are also a perfectly legitimate reason for Russia and China and some developing countries to oppose a UN resolution (there may be other self-interested reasons involved too of course). As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned last week, “This is all looking very much like a civil war.”

Given this context, it is worth reminding ourselves of a John Maynard Keynes dictum:

We should be very chary of sacrificing large numbers of people for the sake of a contingent end, however advantageous that may appear…. We can never know enough to make the chance worth taking… It is not sufficient that the state of affairs which we seek to promote should be better than the state of affairs which preceded it; it must be sufficiently better to make up for the evils of the

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Seth Kaplan

About Seth Kaplan

Seth Kaplan is a Professorial Lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. He teaches, writes, and consults on issues related to fragile states, governance, and development. He is the author of Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development (Praeger Security International, 2008) and Betrayed: Politics, Power, and Prosperity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). A Wharton MBA and Palmer scholar, Seth has worked for several large multinationals and founded four companies. He speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese and Japanese.