The US military strike against the Shayrat military base, in response to a brutal chemical weapons attack on civilians in the rebel-held area of Khan Sheikhoun, has the Twitterverse and media fulminating over the idea of US-led regime change in Syria. Now to be fair, no one knows really what the president is thinking, not even apparently his chief diplomat or his UN envoy, who have sent conflicting messages. But let’s cut to the chase – this is a very, very bad idea.
President Obama was heavily criticized for not doing more in Syria, but he made a difficult decision that was in many ways the right one. The continuing devastation there cries out for a response; “do something” is the inherent plea. But do something is not a strategy and regime change is a particularly bad take on doing something.
Bashar al-Assad is not a good person. He has reduced once great Syrian cities such as Homs and Aleppo to rubble. All six of Syria’s Unesco world heritage sites have been damaged. Worse still, more than 500,000 Syrian civilians have been killed in the civil war, 6.1 million have been internally displaced and another 4.8 million are seeking refuge abroad. Save the Children describes children in Syria as living in a situation of constant “toxic stress”. Assad uses indiscriminate weapons such as barrel bombs and chlorine gas on a regular basis against his own citizens.
Given the situation, it is understandable why some people may think ousting Assad is necessary. Such thinking has a long pedigree in the United States, where there is a robust belief in a supposed American ability to fix what is wrong.
Boston College Prof Lindsey O’Rourke calculated that during the cold war, the US tried 72 times to change regimes Washington found undesirable. Most of these attempts failed. These interventions, like the idea of regime change in Syria, are top down affairs. The logic is that by removing and replacing an undesirable leader, the political situation in the country will change. This is flawed logic.
Regime change can and has occurred successfully, but not in a top down manner. Authoritarianism did give way to democratic movements in eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America over the past 30 years. This change, however, was initiated from the bottom up. In essence, there must be incremental change in the political climate and culture of a state among the masses before it culminates in regime change at the top.
Sometimes these changes take root and last – such as in Brazil, Argentina, Poland and East Germany. Other times, countries, such as Pakistan, wobble between democracy and authoritarianism, never quite making a permanent transition (at least not yet).
The critical component of success is ownership of the situation. If the US implements change, even with the supposed blessing of some domestic element challenging the government, it circumvents the necessary social and political changes within society to successfully transition.
The intervention triggers resentment and hostility at the new government, the legitimacy of which is reduced through the participation of an outside government. Soon, the new regime is considered a “puppet” and its existence is questioned by the people. Interestingly, the Middle East has proven particularly resistant to durable regime change and democratization, further making the success of any US-led intervention doubtful.
The situation will be even more fraught if other external actors turn any attempt at regime change into a proxy war, as Russia and Iran are likely to do. The US experienced the downside of this during the ill-conceived war in Vietnam. During the Soviet-led war in Afghanistan, the US played the spoiler of Soviet efforts, funnelling money and weapons to the anti-Soviet mujahideen, turning the USSR’s intervention into a protracted, bloody war.
It is entirely understandable that a liberal heart wants to see justice done, but that justice must come from within. There is no shortcut to lasting peace. As uncomfortable as it is, the best that western governments can do is provide aid and assistance to those in distress, while pressuring those countries that continue to feed money and weapons to the combatants to change their positions. It is a tragic state of affairs, but such is the reality of Syria today.