Rhetoric and regime change in Syria
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad (Getty Images)
July 21st, 2011
03:30 PM ET

Rhetoric and regime change in Syria

Editor's Note: Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs and where this piece originally appeared. You can also follow him on Twitter.

By Micah Zenko

On July 11, when asked about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton answered: “From our perspective, he has lost legitimacy, he has failed to deliver on the promises he’s made,” adding that “we would like to see even more countries speaking out as forcefully as we have.”

Proponents of a low-cost regime change in Damascus seized upon Clinton’s use of the phrase “lost legitimacy” to press the case for the Obama administration to see through Assad’s removal. The Washington Post editorial board, in a piece titled “The U.S. has Gotten Tough with Syria; Now it Needs to Get Tougher,” noted that it was good that the Obama administration has finally spoken that truth” but that “now it must act on its words.”

Soon after Secretary Clinton’s judgment about who should be the rightful political leader of Syria, the administration has wisely de-escalated its demonization of Assad.  During her trip to Turkey over the weekend, Clinton expressed hope that the Syrian opposition “can provide a pathway, hopefully in peaceful cooperation with the government, to a better future.”

In a piece in this morning’s Los Angeles Times,U.S. Softens its Criticism of Syria,” an unnamed State Department official acknowledged that the administration was still undecided about whether to ramp up its rhetorical attacks on the Syrian leader: “Whether we take it farther will depend on events on the ground. We need to think through carefully what we say.”

Read: Excessive secrecy in national security.

That final sentence should be printed on large banners that hang prominently in briefing rooms at the White House, State Department, Pentagon, and every other U.S. government agency. While the ability of the United States to compel changes in the behavior of other states is diminishing, what the United States says still matters to dictators hanging onto power, civilians protesting against those dictators, neutral third-parties, regional actors, and close allies.

Proponents of regime change demand clarity and specificity from U.S. government officials about whether a dictator has lost legitimacy and, therefore, should voluntarily step down from power. More important than what the United States says, however, is what it is willing to do to achieve the objectives it expresses. It is one thing to make aspirational statements that shape administration thinking, test allied support, and gauge public opinion. This is what President Obama did on March 3, when he stated  flatly, “Muammar Qaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead and he must leave.”

Read: The consequences of stalemate in Libya.

However, neither President Obama nor any members of the western-led intervention into Libya ever presented what military strategists call a “theory of victory” for how this could be achieved. This glaring disconnect between maximalist objectives (regime change) and minimalist tactics (selectively-enforced no-fly zones and arms embargoes, and close air support) should have been a clear indicator that the intervention would not proceed as quickly or easily as was believed.

Those now demanding that the U.S. government clearly articulate its support for regime change in Damascus should also seek a plausible explanation for how this happens. Then, we can decide if that plan is believable, what the likely costs and consequences are, and whether regime change in Syria is in the US’s national interest.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Micah Zenko. You can read more from Micah at CFR.org.

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Topics: Conflict • Middle East • Syria

soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    The author is in a comfortable position to criticise Obama and his peers for their inertness and ignores the fact that the Arab Spring is a fledgling business for everybody. The whole world was taken by surprise by the developments in Tunisia and Egypt, which still are lost in transition. History had seen many tortuous paths that revolutionarues took. Syria and Libya are no exceptions.

    July 21, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Reply
    • Onesmallvoice

      The French Revolution of 1789 also took a long and torturous path as 1793 came around. Many people lost their heads needlessly as the Reign of Terror got out of hand. Both Georges Danton and Maximillian Robespierre lost their heads in the end also. It finally simmered down under the reign of Napoleon in the 1800's.

      July 21, 2011 at 7:50 pm | Reply
  2. T E Low

    From the perspective of many in the world, the US has no legitimacy to tell the rest of us what to do. Though many of us (including me) do not agree with some of President Bashar al-Assad's methods of dealing with the opposition in his country, we however, do agree that in flipping the US the finger, he has done at least one thing right. The US needs to learn how to bugger off and mind its own business or there will come a time when it will be put in its place.... with serious consequences.

    July 22, 2011 at 6:32 am | Reply
  3. lex

    Assad's head should be cut off. And perhaps it should be done by Turkey. Strange how Turkety has scape goated Israel while letting Syria get away with murdering its own citizens.

    September 25, 2011 at 6:51 pm | Reply

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