Hawks in Congress have long pushed the White House to consider more aggressive options in Syria, from cruise missile strikes to no-fly zones to humanitarian corridors. But during an off-the-record briefing on Capitol Hill on Thursday, a staffer for Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) floated a distinctly bolder approach.
“What about assassinating [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad?” the aide said, according to three individuals in the room.
The question raised eyebrows at the event, a briefing of about 75 staffers hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. The expert receiving the question was Philip Gordon, the former White House Middle East coordinator, who dismissed the idea as both illegal and ineffective, according to a congressional aide at the event who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity.
“His response was basically: ‘That’s against the law, and it wouldn’t make a difference anyway, because the Russians still have an interest in Syria and the Iranians still have an interest in Syria,'” the staffer said.
The aide who asked the question was not identified, and the people who heard the exchange did not name the staffer when asked by FP.
A 1976 executive order explicitly prohibits assassinations; it was issued by President Gerald Ford following revelations that the CIA attempted to kill Cuban President Fidel Castro on multiple occasions. Every U.S. president since has upheld the ban, a section of which states: “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.”
An aide to Lamborn, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity when contacted for this story, said, “Any discussion that happened at that meeting didn’t reflect what Congressman Lamborn thinks.”
When asked about the assassination question, the Lamborn aide acknowledged that “it’s against U.S. policy.”
“Obviously, there would have to be a really big change to do anything different,” the aide added. “I haven’t heard that discussed in any serious way.”
It’s highly unlikely that the next U.S. president is going to approve a new policy to assassinate Assad, but Washington’s foreign-policy establishment is increasingly looking for more aggressive military solutions to the nearly six-year crisis. A series of new or upcoming reports by U.S. think tanks, including the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, call for stepped-up military action to pressure the Assad regime and Russian forces in the hope of advancing a political transition.
But even if Assad’s assassination were approved, experts said it would carry numerous risks and potential pitfalls.
“I think Assad’s assassination would certainly cause chaos in Damascus,” mused Andrew Bowen, a Syria expert at the Wilson Center. “But it wouldn’t necessarily lead to the regime’s collapse, and both Russia and Iran are providing a ton of personal protection to Assad and his family. So it might not even work.”
“I also don’t know if we want to set the precedent of decapitating leaders, Cold War-style,” Bowen added.
A representative from the Council on Foreign Relations said Gordon sought to answer the aide’s question by making a case that assassinating Assad — besides being against long-standing U.S. policy — might not have a real impact on the war.
“Even if somehow Assad died or were killed, the essence of the conflict — a regime backed by Russia and Iran versus opposition — might not fundamentally change,” said the representative.
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