by Erin Rodewald // April 12, 2017
(This article originally appeared in The Philos Project)
If the days of Syria’s brutal dictator are numbered – and following last week’s airstrikes by the United States, the whispers have returned – who might be the alternative leader after six years of bloodshed and destruction? It is in the interest of the U.S. to identify and influence Assad’s successor sooner rather than later.
Last week’s strike on the Shayrat Airbase in Syria by American forces was applauded by many international observers as long overdue and morally appropriate. President Donald Trump ordered the targeted military strike on the airfield from which President Bashar al-Assad had launched a deadly chemical weapon attack that killed dozens of his own people.
In remarks following the strike on April 6, Trump seemed to signal a shift in what many believed would be a solid, non-interventionist foreign policy agenda: “Tonight, I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria, and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.”
If, in fact, Trump has opened the door to more muscular U.S. involvement in Syria, the calculus has changed and so must America’s long view about possible outcomes to the Syrian civil war.
“Syria will never be stable while Assad remains in power, and the longer he sticks around, the more extremists will reap the rewards of his brutality.”
“President Trump’s action has begun to challenge long-held assumptions about the inexorability of the Syrian disaster,” said Christopher Griffin, executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. “By overturning entrenched assumptions about the war, Trump’s airstrikes have opened the way toward a complete rethinking of the policy he inherited from his predecessor.”
Whether the Trump Administration adopts a wholesale change of policy in Syria, however, remains unclear. In the aftermath of the strikes, administration officials have delivered cryptic, if not conflicting, messages about the way forward in Syria. In an interview Sunday on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that there would be no change to U.S. military posture in Syria. He described the strikes as a measured response to a specific violation of the use of chemical weapons by Assad. Taking out the Islamic State remains the first priority in Syria, according to Tillerson.
United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, on the other hand, offered a more pointed response:
There’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime. We don’t see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there.
Before there is regime change, however, the U.S. will likely continue lobbing other solutions at the complex Gordian knot that is Syria: additional airstrikes, creation of safe zones, and suppression of Assad’s air defenses, for example. But as Danielle Pletka, senior vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, suggested, “It is right to ask ourselves this question: ‘What if Bashar al-Assad were overthrown?’” If Assad is out, who is in? And how?
In her analysis, Pletka identified five groups that potentially have Assad in their crosshairs. The first includes members of Assad’s own inner circle, the minority Alawites, who might sense their hold on power slipping away after six years of Assad’s brutal policies. Another group with Assad in their sights is the heavily entrenched Jabhat al-Nusra, which has pledged its allegiance to Al-Qaeda and receives support from a variety of Gulf countries.
Competing with al-Nusra for the hearts and minds of disenfranchised Sunnis and for control of Syria is a third group, the Islamic State. Both al-Nusra and ISIS represent an extremist, jihadi opposition to the regime. More moderate rebels – groups like the Free Syrian Army – comprise a fourth group seeking to oust Assad. And the fifth group, according to Pletka, would be Assad allies Russia and Iran. If they perceive Assad to be a liability, they will likely seek to shore up their influence by creating a new Alawite regime, minus Assad.
This mix of players on the ground in Syria has been likened to a cage match in wrestling – a sort of free-for-all to see who is left standing to go head-to-head with and ultimately defeat Assad. Among these alternatives, the U.S. would clearly benefit most by aligning itself with and supporting the moderate rebels whose original goal was to bring about democratic reform in Syria.
“As long as Bashar al-Assad is in power in Syria, you will have a reason for people to be radicalized in Syria,” cautioned Sen. Marco Rubio, who sits on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and has long championed support of moderate opposition groups in Syria.
Rubio said he believes that it is the Syrians themselves (not foreign fighters or forces) who must remove Assad. “We need to rebuild and reinvigorate the non-jihadist elements on the ground,” he said. “It’s going to be harder than it was three or four years ago, but I still think possible to identify elements on the ground that are not jihadists who we can help to become … major players in the future of Syria as an alternative to Assad.”
Leading Middle East scholar Charles Lister agreed. “Syria will never be stable while [Assad] remains in power, and the longer he sticks around, the more extremists will reap the rewards of his brutality.” Lister counts Syria’s diversity of community and perspective as an important factor in battling not only Assad, but also extremist forces seeking to co-opt the war-torn nation. “Of a population of roughly 23 million people, no more than 20,000 (0.09 percent) have chosen to join al Qaeda or ISIS,” he said. “Therefore, U.S. policy is best served by securing a future for the remaining 99.91 percent.”
Identifying and influencing what is left of the moderate factions within Syria may, in fact, be a heavy lift. Their numbers have been reduced by relentless military action (most recently aided by Russian reinforcement), and in the absence of meaningful assistance from the West, many have turned to radical extremist groups out of desperation.
Indeed, throughout the country’s six-year civil war, U.S. credibility, in particular, has been degraded among Sunni Arabs. A newly released study by the Institute for the Study of War and the Critical Threats Project concluded that the current strategy in Syria – as conceived and adopted by the Obama Administration – is inadvertently fueling a global Salafi-jihadi insurgency.
That study noted that “Sunni around the world see America in de facto alliance with Iran, Russia, Shi’a, Alawites and Kurds attempting to re-subjugate Sunni Arabs in Syria and Iraq to Persian-controlled Shi’a regimes. Both ISIS and A-Qaeda benefit from this perception by portraying themselves as the only defenders of the Sunni community against an existential threat.”
Winning back the trust of the moderate Sunni community will be an important step in the broader fight against ISIS and an essential one for the U.S. to successfully regain the initiative to drive a multinational strategy in Syria. The strike against Assad’s airfield as ordered by Trump might have opened the door to restoring that trust and recalibrating U.S. policy.
The U.S. is fairly efficient at removing tyrants – think Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi – but we are less adept at filling the void that is left behind. Even when we have had time to adjust our support from a failing ally to a more viable option (the Shah in 1979 or Mubarak in 2011), we have lacked the foresight and nimbleness to act in time with a plausible alternative. In Syria, finally, we now might have the opportunity to thoughtfully prepare for what comes next. Because what fills the void matters.
This article originally appeared at The Philos Project