Recent defections of high-profile officials from the inner circle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are boosting an idea for change in Syria that until now has received little attention: focus on removing Assad but not the entire Syrian government.
In other words, instead of going for full regime change – which could result in a dangerous vacuum in a volatile region – or incorporating Mr. Assad into a political transition, which the opposition would never accept, the international community would work for the departure of Assad, but not all of the existing government and military.
The idea that driving a wedge between Assad and his government could work where other approaches have not in nearly a year and a half of conflict is gaining new stature after the defection of a senior Syrian diplomat and of a general with long ties to Assad.
This week Syria’s ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Fares, announced he was quitting his post and renouncing his membership in Assad’s Baath Party. Mr. Fares said he made his decision because the Assad regime “has turned into an instrument to kill people and their aspiration to freedom,” and he urged other party members to “follow my path.”
Last week a general from Syria’s elite Republican Guard, Manaf Tlass, renounced his post, causing a huge stir because he is the son of a former defense minister.
A “third way” of neither full regime change nor accommodation of Assad should be considered, supporters of the approach say, because it has the potential of answering the doubts that they say have discouraged more robust international intervention in Syria.
Amitai Etzioni, a professor of international relations at George Washington University, says that getting rid of Assad but not of the entire regime should mitigate concerns about bloody retribution in the event of regime change, or about Syria’s chemical and biological weapons falling into the hands of anti-Western groups.
The United States and its allies should “get other members of the Assad regime to remove him while leaving the regime intact,” Mr. Etzioni writes in the June 25 issue of The National Interest.
Others say this option could reduce the risks of a full-blown civil war that would be destabilizing for the region, and might also find more favor with Russia than the “regime change” option. Russia might see improved prospects for maintaining its geopolitical interests under the “Assad no, Syrian government yes” alternative.
The Obama administration is likely to say it is already encouraging a version of this “third way.” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other officials have insisted since last summer that “Assad must go,” and they have paired that demand with entreaties to military and civilian members of the regime to stop doing Assad’s dirty work for him and abandon the regime – or risk facing charges of crimes against humanity down the road.
But Etzioni says the US needs to do more – for example, the US and other Western powers should explicitly reassure the Alawites, Assad’s tiny minority Shiite sect that rules the country, and the military that “the West is not after their hide.”
The US could go a step further and help Assad’s departure along by undertaking some selective bombing, Etzioni adds. For example, the US could target command-and-control centers, and in particular “the post where Assad works,” he says.
But such military intervention is likely to look to the Russians and much of the Syrian government like the very thing it supposedly is not – full-blown regime change.