President Trump, Remove Assad From Power, or You’re Just Like Obama

By Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh is a retired Senior Intelligence Service Officer, a founding director of the CIA's Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program and the Global and the National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico. Since retiring from the government, Nakhleh has consulted on national security issues, particularly Islamic radicalization, terrorism, and the Arab states of the Middle East. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

In response to the “barbaric” chemical attack by the “animal” Assad on Douma, a suburb of Damascus, over the weekend, President Donald Trump has promised that Assad and his patrons Russia and Iran would pay a “big price.”

Short of regime change, an American strike will be viewed as a pinprick. Similar to what happened in the recent past, a strike aiming only at punishing Assad for yet another gas attack would not force him to change his bloody behavior toward the Syrian people. Symbolic military strikes by the United States merely to send a message to the “Butcher of Damascus” have not alleviated the misery of the Syrian people or the barbarism of the regime.

If the Trump administration does decide to pursue regime change, Washington should inform Moscow without equivocation that ending Bashar Assad’s regime is now America’s policy objective of any American military retaliation.

To that end, Washington must realize that limited military strikes on selective targets will not bring about the desired results. Only well-coordinated attacks on major military facilities, including airfields, storage depots and heavily guarded bunkers will do the job.

Previous military strikes have only emboldened Assad and deepened the Russian and Iranian support for him. Assad has maintained his bloody dictatorship by destroying the country, killing hundreds of thousands of his people, and forcing almost half of the original population of 22 million people into displacement. He has shored up his regime by terror, fear and willingness to accept subservience to Russia and Iran.

Decapitating the regime will also put Russia and Iran on notice that the United States is back in the game in the Middle East—diplomatically and otherwise. Regime change in Syria will also undercut Hezbollah’s regional overreach and will help bring to an end the 40-year old tripartite alliance between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. Russia’s massive involvement in Syria in the past half-decade has empowered the Iran-Hezbollah-Syria axis.

Despite Trump’s recent statement that he would pull the American military out of Syria “very soon,” he has now committed himself to respond to Assad’s chemical attack on Douma. To maintain America’s credibility in the region, Assad’s removal from power seems the only option. The recent history of the Syrian civil war has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that Assad is not willing to negotiate himself out of power or to include his people in the governing process. Destroying the country has been a palatable price for him if it guarantees his staying in power. Russia and Iran have helped him do just that.

I have written previously criticizing the Bush administration’s hasty plans to bring about regime change in Iraq. However, the two situations differ significantly.

Iraq under Saddam’s dictatorship was a functioning state in which the Sunni-Shia divide was maintained by the power of the Baathist security state. The Iraqi society was relatively stable, and relations among the three major factions in Iraq—Sunnis, Shia and Kurds—were managed relatively peacefully although anger against the Saddam dictatorship was seething.

By contrast, Syria is being totally destroyed and pillaged by a regime that has shown no interest in a peaceful settlement of the conflict or in charting a future for Syria without the Alawite Assad dynasty. Furthermore, Syria for all intents and purposes has become a vassal state for Russia and to some degree Iran. Assad has regained much of the territory that was previously under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS), but has surrendered Syria’s sovereignty to Russia and Iran.

Unlike the horrendous tragedy that followed the demise of Saddam’s regime following the American invasion in March 2003, chaos and human misery already define Syria today. Removing Assad is not expected to create more chaos and instability, but it will end the on-going mayhem and destruction.

Even if a U.S. strike results in regime change, Washington would still need to get involved diplomatically in helping chart a future for a post-Assad and post-ISIS Syria. The absence of American diplomacy from the Syrian arena has led to the spectacle of so-called peace conferences being attended only by Russia, Turkey, and Iran. It’s as if Washington has relinquished its diplomatic responsibilities and leadership to Russia. Before Trump strikes Syria, he must be prepared for a post-strike diplomatic offensive. Otherwise, his military effort, no matter how successful, will be for naught.

Former President Barack Obama lost much credibility and influence in the region because he failed to follow through on his threat that Assad should not cross Obama’s “red line” about the use of chemical and biological attacks on his people – especially as Assad’s promise at the time to give up his chemical weapons has been proven false.

Now that Trump has promised to retaliate in a “big way,” he must deliver. Otherwise, his lofty rhetoric will not be dissimilar to Obama’s.

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