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It has taken over a year, but the international community is finally starting to accept that Bashar al-Assad cannot remain the ruler of Syria. The international community’s hesitation allowed Assad to wage war against his own people, killing thousands and devastating Syria’s infrastructure. Diplomatic overtures intent on ending the conflict between the two warring factions have failed and will continue to fail so long as Assad’s intransigence continues. No international party is willing to directly intercede in the conflict, rightfully fearing the unforeseen consequences of military intervention. If the international community intends on removing Assad, then only two options are currently available: assisting in the overthrow of Assad by members of his ruling coalition, or supporting a victory by the opposition against the regime.
Neither of these options is optimal. Yet, other options are neither realistic nor tolerable. The conflict has passed any threshold in which a negotiated settlement would satisfy either party as they stand today. Assad’s onslaught against his own people shows he is intent on remaining president at any cost. The opposition, once composed of moderate activists calling for political reform, has evolved into an armed insurgency intent on making the regime pay for its crimes. If the international community wants to see a new regime in Syria, then it has no choice but to isolate Assad while empowering the opposition.
A coup would likely be the fastest way to end the conflict. The elite minority ruling Syria is interconnected by commerce, fear, and sectarian loyalty. The Syrian elite thus far remain loyal to Assad, a testament to both Assad’s ability to instill fear and the strength of the elite pact. However, no group’s loyalty is unlimited. Defections within Syria’s officer corps and the severity of the country’s economic collapse reveal dissension within the ruling coalition. Signs of weakness could be exploited in an effort to turn elite sentiment against Assad.
The coup could be presented as the only means by which the elite can save their own hides. Opposition fighters are gaining ground against Syria’s security forces and they intend on tearing down the whole political order, not just Assad. If the elite stay loyal and lose to the revolution, then they will be at the mercy of the long-oppressed Syrian majority. Yet, a successful move against Assad by members of his ruling coalition could soften hostilities. The opposition’s symbolic enemy, Assad, would be gone and the international community could use the coup as an opportunity to pressure the conflicting parties towards negotiation.
The second option, supporting a victory by the opposition, means that the conflict will continue unabated. Continued warfare within Syria means thousands more will lose their lives, hundreds of thousands of refugees will flee conflict zones, and the country’s already devastated infrastructure will be further destroyed. Being outgunned, the Syrian opposition can only win through attrition – inflicting minor wounds against security forces until the regime collapses. The Syrian opposition is fragmented, internally competitive, and constituted of a diverse collection of organizations that are often as hostile to each other as they are to the regime. Yet, the opposition is leading an effective revolution when it should have already been decimated. They enjoy the support of much of the Syrian population and have been successful in pushing the conflict into Assad’s main areas of control. As it stands today, the Syrian opposition cannot win militarily, but their capabilities are steadily improving.
The success of either of these options requires a great deal of luck. Syria is in chaos and likely will remain so for the foreseeable future. Trying to sow dissension among the elite may fail. The opposition could prove unable to finish off Assad. There are thousands of things that can go wrong in pursuing either of these options. Yet, the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria must be stopped and the international community has limited their options. Too much time has already been wasted on proposed political settlements and while the intent of these diplomatic efforts is good, they have only allowed Assad to continue his war against Syria itself. If the international community will not directly intercede in the conflict, then it must support the opposition. Otherwise, we are simply allowing a disaster to continue.
Mike Few interviews civil war historian Mark Grimsley, research affiliate at The Ohio State University and author of several books, about reconstruction and insurgency.