Part of Foreign Affairs Report: Syria in Crisis

How to Oust Assad

And Why the United States Should Try

A protester holds up a poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
A protester holds up a poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a demonstration against Israeli air strikes in Syria, in Sanaa, May 10, 2013. (Khaled Abdullah / Courtesy Reuters)

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of the recent chemical attack in Syria as an “undeniable” fact -- not a subject for debate. He called it “moral obscenity” and laid the blame squarely on the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The statement was an undisguised war speech. The only question now is what form that war might take and how long the battle will last.

There are several rumors swirling. One is that the Obama administration would prefer a mere “punitive” campaign. Some precision-timed leaks to the media seem to point in this direction. But such a strategy would accomplish nothing if the goal is to deter the Assad regime from ever using chemical agents again. Over the past year, Israel has waged half a dozen pinprick strikes on caches of advanced weapons inside Syria, likely because they were destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. The very number of operations attests to how little they altered Assad’s mindset: he still imports high-tech hardware.

Another rumored plan, which NBC reported, citing senior U.S. officials, is that sorties over the next few days would not aim to kill Assad or topple his regime, but may seek to destroy or to degrade his command-and-control facilities, artillery systems, and airfields. That is surely a smarter option, provided that the strikes rise above sending a message and do some lasting damage to the regime’s military infrastructure. Anything short of that would be strategically useless and a waste of expensive missiles.

Indeed, U.S. President Barack Obama should rearticulate his policy of regime change for Syria, which he first announced in the summer of 2011 and has quietly revised and rescinded ever since. And he should gear any intervention toward furthering that policy, in accordance with what key American allies have said is their own preferred method for dislodging the 40-year dynastic dictatorship: the opposition’s gradual assertion of control. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, there are already examples that this can work in Syria.

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