How will Assad fall?
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Getty Images)
August 29th, 2011
04:31 PM ET

How will Assad fall?

Editor's Note: Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, from which this piece is reprinted. You can read Abrams' blog Pressure Points here.

By Elliott Abrams,

It is easy to say that with Gadhafi gone, the next vicious regime to fall is that of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.  ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished, but realists and pessimists have rightly asked “how exactly does that happen?”

That’s a fair question, because the Assad regime has yet to crack and none of the previous models—Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya—can work the same way in Syria.  In my view, there are two possibilities that head the list.

One possibility is that the Army will split, largely on sectarian lines. The New York Times reports today as follows:

There were reports that dozens of soldiers, possibly encouraged by the rout in Libya of Col. Moammar Gadhafi, had deserted their positions in a village near Homs, the country’s third-largest city, and also on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, to join the five-month-old popular uprising against Mr. Assad and his Baath Party. Activists said that since the uprising started in mid-March, most such desertions have taken place in the eastern tribal area of Deir al-Zour, bordering Iraq; in the northwestern province of Idlib; and in towns around Homs and Damascus….The Free Officers of Syria, a group of soldiers and officers who left the army last month in protest of the crackdown and say that they now represent defectors, published an online statement saying that “large” defections were reported in Harasta, another suburb of Damascus and that armed troops loyal to the government were chasing those defectors.

There have been numerous other reports about defections in the Army (from Reuters, for example) but it is difficult to assess whether they have yet reached a significant size.  If the demonstrations grow, I assume the numbers of defectors will grow as Sunni troops refuse to shoot peaceful and unarmed Sunni demonstrators.

But there is another possibility, that the Alawite “Establishment,” civilian and military, will remove Bashar from power in a kind of “palace coup.”  This would only happen, I believe, if the economic and financial sanctions grow stronger and stronger and demonstrations continue.  Removing Bashar might then appear to the Alawite generals and “business leaders” (i.e., Assad cronies) as the only way to settle things down and end the rebellion.  They could call for some sort of government of national salvation, schedule elections, denounce Bashar, and send a new foreign minister to negotiate an end to the sanctions.

I doubt the demonstrators would accept such a cosmetic change, and we should reject it as well.  It would mean the regime is beginning to collapse, and it would be very much in the interest of the United States for it to collapse entirely.  We should not rescue it, nor any remnant of it.

There are other possibilities: perhaps the Sunni and Christian business community will turn against Assad if sanctions are tough enough, and will help bring him down.  Perhaps over time hundreds of thousands will flee to Turkey, giving the Turks the incentive they need to bring Bashar down.  All these possibilities make it clear that the pressure should be increased: more sanctions, more isolation, more denunciations of regime violence.  Meanwhile we should be reaching out privately to the business community, Sunni, Christian, and Alawi, and to the generals to say it is time to switch sides and prepare for the post-Assad future.  Change in Syria never had a chance of being a “velvet revolution” because of the brutality of the Assad clan, but anything the United States, the EU, and Arab allies can do to shorten the period of violence and bring change faster will be a great favor to the people of Syria.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Elliott Abrams.
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Topics: Syria

soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. rick

    Abrams says that the US should reject anything less than the total collapse of the Assad regime. This is a great idea. After Syria's collapse, maybe, we could merge Syria with Lebanon. After all, Lebanon has been the middle east poster child for toppled government results for the past 40 years.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Reply
    • khaled

      There IS an important point about iran . If NATO decided to go in military strikes for the Syrian regime IRAN will not get involve because IRAN can not expose there Nuclear reactors for the military stikes . specialy that IRAN in its way to make an nuclear bomb.

      August 31, 2011 at 6:34 am | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    Elliot Abrahms, Bashar al Assad is just a figurehead. His younger brother Maher, head of the Republican Guard and a few others in the inner circle de facto rule Syria. They have the military and intelligence forces under their control. Despite defections, a palace revolution is unlikely. The fearless Syrians have demonstrated their patience and courage. They don't want to resort to violence. Indeed a civil war might just be the last resort to topple the regime, while the Syrians and the region will have a high price to pay. Assad's good fortune can't last much longer. An implosion is waiting to happen. We humans are unpredictable creatures and things sometimes happen without our making it happen!

    August 29, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Correction – without making THEM happen!

      August 30, 2011 at 10:54 am | Reply
  3. Matt

    They could depose him but within 12 months they will all lose power, it is apartheid an Alwaite minority over a Sunni majority. What happened in SA is going to happen to them. So in the long term that is not really an option for them. He dies, they die. I mean it is over for them.

    As the military fractures all it does is bring the deployment of gas closer, he has to control more unrest with less forces and to do that he will need help, and a small loyal group with chemical weapons can do a lot of damage.

    We had to be there with the R2P months ago, to prevent a massacre via gas, they would not even be on the streets had we not sent them there.

    August 29, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Reply
  4. Onesmallvoice

    Here's more right-wing propaganda from that cursed Elliott Abrams again. As long as this bozo's alive, Josef Goebbels will never be dead!!! In fact, he is America's equivalent to Josef Goebbels! Let's just hope that Bashar al Assad does not fall from power!!!

    August 29, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Reply
  5. miketez

    Let us say that some asoldiers defect. Who are they going to join? The groups of Western backed terrorists who are killing soldiers? FYI, the Syrian People and the Army overwhelmingly support Assad.

    August 29, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Reply
  6. khaled

    assad will not falls in easy way because assad clan fight as a religius duty they will not care for the Sanctions . and iran support him with billions of dollars . he has 120000 of alawit soliders just under his brother maher . Except for the security forces which are alawite 95% . so he will not fall if there are no Military strikes . also the Military strikes will Encourage the other soliders to Defecting the army .

    August 30, 2011 at 2:15 am | Reply
  7. khaled


    August 30, 2011 at 3:35 am | Reply
  8. khaled


    August 30, 2011 at 3:53 am | Reply
  9. Hasselhoff

    take this a hole out he's no different than Gadaffi or Saddam Hussein seriously, if the U.S. doesn't do it then Israel or Turkey should or both of them that's all it would take. This guy is a murderer and he's killing people for no reason.

    August 30, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Reply
  10. Hasselhoff

    The more time goes on this will mount to genocide.

    August 30, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Reply
  11. khaled

    There IS an important point about iran . If NATO decided to go in military strikes for the Syrian regime IRAN will not get involve because IRAN can not expose there Nuclear reactors for the military stikes . specialy that IRAN in its way to make a nuclear bomb.

    August 31, 2011 at 6:38 am | Reply
  12. J.

    Can anyone say "SEAL TEAM" ?

    May 27, 2013 at 4:51 pm | Reply

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