How to avoid a failed post-Assad Syria

How to avoid a failed post-Assad Syria

Joel Rubin
Joel Rubin

WASHINGTON — Syria is in free fall.

Forty thousand civilians and combatants have been killed with the toll still rising; 175,000 Syrians have been wounded; half a million refugees have been sent over Syria’s borders; and 1.5 million Syrians have been displaced internally.  

The fate of this country, which is in the heart of the Middle East, directly affects our security interests and those of its neighbors, including Israel.  We have never experienced anything like this before, where a country, which also has a large chemical weapons arsenal, is collapsing before our eyes. We are in new territory now. 

While there are no good options for how to deal with this situation, there still are options that we must explore that will both put an end to this conflict while securing our interests.

The strategic objective of our policy should therefore be to seek a managed transition that moves Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of power without provoking a total state collapse.  Integrated into this delicate policy should be plans to secure the chemical weapons currently in Assad’s hands, and to work with the Syrian opposition to create a functioning representative political system that achieves broad support and national stability.

To do this, our diplomacy should focus on working closely with our allies, such as Turkey, Jordan, France, Britain and the Persian Gulf states.  We should also continue to actively engage our competitors, such as Russia and China, who have influence over Assad.  And we must criticize those who directly support Assad, such as Iran, with the hope of changing their behavior.

The goal of this diplomacy will be to help the emerging Syrian opposition political leadership and the Free Syrian Army to support a managed transition.  

There are alternatives to a managed transition, such as Assad holding out and continuing to fight, or a pure collapse of the regime with no one to fill the power vacuum that it leaves behind. Yet these alternatives will only guarantee further bloodshed and danger to our security interests.  

If there’s one lesson we learned from the invasion of Iraq, it’s this: When countries implode and their governing structures disintegrate, there is no one left to pick up the pieces and chaos ensues. A managed transition therefore is the only viable path toward ensuring an end to the Syrian conflict that will keep the country intact.

Syria today is volatile and being torn apart, but it is not yet Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. We must do our utmost to avoid that outcome.

A managed transition will also reduce the likelihood of the conflict spreading throughout the region.  Currently, the conflict is directly affecting Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. But these impacts are all still manageable. As time goes on, though, this conflict expansion could intensify and spread to Iraq and even Israel.  Fortunately, all of the neighboring countries are still intact, and international efforts to manage a Syrian transition will ensure that they stay that way.

A managed transition is also the best way to prevent jihadi terrorist groups and other radical organizations from profiting any further from the fighting.  The roots of the Syrian rebellion are from the early days of the Arab Spring, when peaceful protest erupted across the country and then Assad cracked down.  His crackdown has radicalized elements of the opposition, but not all of it, and it has also opened the door to other extremists.  As we work with the opposition’s external political leadership and internal military leadership, we must seek to manage this troubling evolution so that the more moderate forces supporting change in Syria take control, either before or soon after Assad’s fall.

Of course, a managed transition may be so elusive that we continue to witness the downward spiral of Syria.   

Some say that, as a result of the deepening conflict, we should move to send troops in to Syria as soon as possible, initially by creating a no fly zone.  This would not be wise if it were done for solely tactical effect.  Such an effort would need to be part of a comprehensive, internationally backed policy that would ensure that a no fly zone would be one part of a fuller plan for securing Syria’s chemical weapons, pushing out Assad, and supporting the opposition’s takeover.  Absent such support –– as is currently the case –– the managed transition approach is the least bad of only bad options.

So now, more than ever, the world is looking to the United States to orchestrate a policy toward Syria that moves us past this dark period.  There will be no clear outcomes and no easy solutions.  But make no mistake: the Syrian transition is coming.  Now is the time for us to decide how to manage it.

(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at or His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)