Washington Is Pursuing Risky Regime Change in Syria

In the days before President Obama retreated from his arrogant, unconstitutional stance that he could order missile strikes on Syria without congressional passage of even a vague resolution of approval, much less the required declaration of war, administration officials insisted that the goal of such strikes was merely to punish Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for the use of chemical weapons, not carry out regime change. That rationale was, and remains, profoundly illogical—and less than candid.

The reality is that Washington has sought the overthrow of the Assad regime almost from the moment that fighting erupted in 2011.  Assad’s departure has been the stated goal of U.S. policy for the past year, and the Obama administration has provided aid to insurgent forces.  Although the aid began as humanitarian and supposedly nonlethal items, it now includes military assistance and training.  Given that track record and the nature of the overall U.S. policy toward Syria, it is preposterous for the administration to argue that missile strikes would not have a similar goal of regime change.  One cannot segregate elements of policy in that fashion. 

The administration needs to be honest with Congress and the American people and admit that the proposed U.S. attacks on Assad’s forces would be designed to advance the goal of regime change.  Representatives and Senators should also ask hard questions about just how Assad’s overthrow would be in the best interests of the American people.  Yes, Assad presides over a thuggish regime, but the insurgent movement seeking to oust him is hardly an association of secular democrats.  Most worrisome, it includes an increasingly powerful faction of radical Islamists, some of whom are directly connected to al Qaeda.

Legislators also should keep in mind that Syria is a fragile ethno-religious tapestry.  To a large extent, the current insurgency is a Sunni Arab bid to overthrow Assad’s “coalition of religious minorities” government (consisting of Alawites—a Shiite offshoot—Christians, and smaller groups.)   It is no coincidence that two especially prominent external sponsors of the insurgency are Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the two leading Sunni powers in the region, while Shiite Iran is Assad’s principal ally.

The most likely outcome of Assad’s overthrow is a fragmented Syria, similar to what has occurred in Libya, the target of the most recent U.S.-led campaign of missile strikes. The second most likely scenario is a Syria dominated by Sunni Islamist elements. A secular, pro-Western successor regime based on the reconciliation of feuding ethno-religious factions is—by far—the least likely outcome.  Members of Congress need to press Obama administration officials to explain how either of the first two scenarios would benefit America’s security in any conceivable way. 

Above all, Congress should not let the administration continue the fiction that missile strikes would have only a limited objective and result in minimal U.S. involvement in the Syrian maelstrom.