A Coup for America

Why the United States needs to work with Syrian government insiders to topple Bashar al-Assad.


As the unrest in Libya and Egypt over the past two weeks demonstrates, extremist forces can benefit from instability in the wake of political transitions. In that respect, the Obama administration’s Syria policy risks the worst possible outcome — prolonging the conflict, fomenting sectarian strife, empowering radicals, and collapsing the state institutions that will be needed to stabilize the country after the departure of President Bashar al-Assad. It is time to change course.

Instead, the United States and relevant allied and friendly countries should empower the moderates in the opposition — including through the provision of arms and other lethal assistance — and encourage a coup by officers willing to break with Assad. The United States should then assist in brokering a power-sharing arrangement between these forces that will marginalize extremists and attract the support of all of Syria’s diverse communities.

America has important interests at stake in Syria, including the opportunity to transform this pivotal Middle Eastern country from an Iranian proxy that sponsors terrorism, pursues weapons of mass destruction, and brutalizes its own people, into a stakeholder of regional stability. American credibility is also on the line, in light of President Barack Obama’s call for Assad to step down. If Syria descends into chaos, Iran and other adversarial actors are better adapted to prevailing in such environments. Tehran has already deployed elements of its elite Quds Force, both to bolster Assad and to prepare for a wider struggle for influence. Thus, U.S. interests can only be secured through a stable transition — one in which the Syrian state remains intact and a more liberal government emerges with the capability and will to prevent an extremist takeover.

To date, the administration has been too passive, particularly in its refusal to provide arms and other lethal assistance to the opposition. I see four concerns driving this policy. First, the administration may fear that the provision of lethal assistance could put the United States on a slippery slope to military intervention. Yet, as the United States has shown in other cases — as in its support for the resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s — a strategy based on arming local allies does not necessarily lead to direct military involvement.

Second, the administration may worry that stronger action could lead Russia to be less cooperative, not only in Syria but also on other issues such as Iran’s nuclear program, or could provoke Iran to retaliate against U.S. interests elsewhere in the region. However, the fact is that U.S. restraint has not won Russian cooperation for a diplomatic strategy at the U.N. Security Council to address the crisis in Syria or to restrain Iran. In fact, Tehran has been escalating its support for Assad and is already pursuing an aggressive policy to undermine the U.S. position in the region.

Third, the administration may fear that the United States would be blamed for any spillover of weapons into neighboring countries or would have to assume some responsibility if rebel groups used U.S. arms against civilians of a rival sect. Yet the current policy — which outsources the provision of lethal aid to regional partners like Turkey and the Gulf states — raises the greatest risk of spillover or rising sectarian violence given that our regional allies already are providing arms to sectarian or religious extremists. The best hope to avoid negative externalities is for the United States to lead the covert arms shipments and channel them to moderates who seek an inclusive and tolerant Syria.

Fourth, the administration may calculate that the status quo — a protracted and mutually painful stalemate on the battlefield — will likely produce conditions for a negotiated settlement. In this view, both sides will eventually tire of the fighting and accept the reality that outright victory is impossible. Pragmatists will become stronger, ultimately carrying the day, and thus create the circumstances for diplomacy leading to cease-fire talks and an interim authority acceptable to both sides.

There are serious problems with this approach. The belief that a settlement will spring forth amid continued fighting is fanciful. It might take a very long time for a mutually painful stalemate to come about. Further bloodshed and brutality are more likely to harden positions and lead to a fight to the death than to produce an opportunity for a negotiated settlement. A longer war favors the extremists and works to the disadvantage of moderates. The chaos of war could create opportunities for al Qaeda and outside Islamists to make inroads among the local population.

The longer the war goes on, the greater the likelihood that it leads to the disintegration of state institutions, jeopardizing prospects for a stable post-Assad transition. Dissolution of the Syrian national army would leave postwar Syria without a needed mechanism for curtailing warlordism — a problem that has plagued Afghanistan since the post-Soviet period.

The administration’s unwillingness to provide the opposition with arms and other lethal aid is damaging relations with allies and partners, such as Turkey, that are essential parts of the coalition to assist those opposed to Assad and to transform Syria. Already, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed disappointment with U.S. policy.

What kind of a strategy might be able to address the Obama administration’s fears yet accelerate a stable transition in Syria? It should have three parts:

Organizing the opposition: The United States should elevate moderates in the opposition to be the core of a future Syrian leadership. While the opposition has proved resilient and capable of attracting substantial support, it is still divided and lacks a coherent political and military program. It has a strong base of support among Sunni Arabs but has failed to win the support of Alawites, Christians, and Kurds. The Free Syrian Army is divided and lacks adequate weapons. And extremist elements have secured outside support, while moderates have not.

We should use moderate forces as the principal channel for U.S. covert funding and arms transfers. We should work not just with expatriate groups but also with internal forces that are emerging organically in the conflict, particularly in local councils in areas vacated by the Baathist regime. This support should be scaled to marginalize the extremists by making the moderates the principal political-military actor driving the opposition. We should also work with these leaders to articulate a political program capable of attracting support from all of Syria’s diverse communities and reassuring them that a post-Assad government will be broad-based, inclusive, and tolerant.

Washington should use the leverage of its potential assistance to ensure that the opposition sets forth a liberal political program. A danger exists that the collapse of Assad’s government will lead to enduring war among Syria’s communities. The prospect of our help should be used to induce rival groups to coalesce around a moderate platform. We should set forth political benchmarks that the opposition must meet as we prepare to escalate our support. It is vital that we get the politics right from the start.

Inducing a coup against Assad: While not a silver bullet, a coup would not only remove Assad from power but would ensure the preservation of state institutions in the course of a transition. The United States should reach out to those close to, but not part of, the inner circle of the Assad clique and his immediate family. If these elements lead to a coup, the United States could then broker a power-sharing arrangement with the moderates in the opposition.

That said, engineering a coup in a tightly control authoritarian regime is extremely difficult. Some Iraqi opposition leaders were counting on a coup to get rid of Saddam Hussein for years. It did not happen. No doubt a significant part of Assad’s intelligence apparatus is focused on preventing a coup. Moreover, many of the officers who would be in a position to carry out a coup are members of Assad’s Alawite sect. In an environment of rising sectarianism, these officers are likely to be reluctant to move against Assad.

To increase the likelihood that such officers will roll the dice, the balance of power on the ground has to start shifting against Assad and the opposition has to embrace a credible program for power-sharing among Syrian different sects and ethnic groups. This program has to provide credible assurances that those who defect will have a place in the new order.

Identifying officers who are potentially acceptable as partners for the opposition and who are sufficiently influential to form a rump regime will not be easy. However, if they can be found, each side will have a powerful incentive to strike a deal. For the opposition, a power-sharing arrangement can truncate a costly struggle. For the coup leaders, it provides a path to survival in the post-Assad era. For all Syrians, it promises to avoid the collapse of state institutions and the risk of anarchy.

Keeping the door open to Russia: As the administration pursues the first two legs of this strategy and as the balance on the ground changes in Syria, it must still be prepared to engage the Kremlin and give assurances that Russia’s interests can be protected in a post-Assad regime, in exchange for its cooperation. The Syrian military will continue to be led by senior officers who have long worked with Moscow. Key strategic and economic interests, such as port access or commercial deals, can be carried over by the new government. While Russia is unlikely ever to support an undefined policy of destabilizing the current Syrian government, it might be persuaded to accept a stable transition that preserves Russian influence.

According to press reports, Russia has proposed a conference of the kind used to end the Lebanese civil war, which in 1989 brought all elements to the table in the city of Taif, Saudi Arabia. While the details should be scrutinized, the concept can be useful, and Washington should be agile and creative in engaging with Moscow. While a crucial issue will be whether Bashar al-Assad or his representatives could participate, the erosion of his position may lead Moscow to think past his regime. If Iran becomes convinced that Assad’s time has passed, Tehran, too, may be interested in exploring a vehicle that could lead to a settlement, though it will also likely continue to operate against us on multiple covert tracks.

This combination of steps — empowering the moderates in the opposition, shifting the balance of power through arms and other lethal assistance, encouraging a coup leading to a power-sharing arrangement, and accommodating Russia in exchange for its cooperation — is the best available course to help fragment the regime. It will signal that Assad’s toppling is likely and even inevitable and that the post-regime environment will not be controlled by extremists and will have a place for all of Syria’s communities including traditional Assad loyalists.

However, we should not make the same mistake we made in arming the Afghan resistance in the 1980s without helping Afghans establish a stable post-Soviet order. The United States allowed arms to flow the worst extremists and walked away from Afghanistan after the Soviets departed, setting the stage for Afghanistan to fall into chaos and domination by extremists and terrorists. We should support the Syrian opposition to Assad, but we should also have a strategy for establishing order in a post-Assad Syria that informs our efforts to help the opposition and to fragment the regime.

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