Why Syria’s Assad Must Not Go — Yet

America’s neocons and liberal war hawks still want a U.S. military intervention in Syria to enforce their “Assad must go” mantra, but President Obama has realized that such a “regime change” could bring the Islamic State to power, a worse predicament, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

The intractable, multidimensional civil war in Syria is as intractable, and immune to clean solutions, as it ever has been. The basic conundrum is that we loathe two players in the conflict, the Assad regime and ISIS, and would like to be rid of them both, but they are the two strongest players and each constitutes the most significant opposition to the other. This multilateral structure of the war, however frustrating and policy-complicating it may be, is for the foreseeable future inescapable.

We are reminded, especially by those in what passes for a secular opposition in Syria, that the regime is genuinely brutal, with its barrel-bombing of civilian areas and similarly inexcusable tactics. But making sound policy, by the United States or any other outside power, is not a simple matter of reading a brutality meter, and that was true even before the most recent act of unspeakable brutality by ISIS.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

The most prudent, and least bad, U.S. policies toward Syria need to be based on the assumption that Bashar al-Assad is not likely to go away any time soon. There are at least three reasons that policy should be based on that assumption.

One reason involves a pragmatic recognition of reality, in that Assad’s departure is simply beyond the ability of the United States or any player inside Syria to bring about any time soon (barring a full-scale U.S. military intervention, which would be folly for a host of other reasons). There are soft and brittle parts in this regime, but it would be useful to recall how many predictions of the regime’s demise since the Syrian war began have proven to be wrong.

A second reason is that in most conflicts it would be a prescription for failure, and/or for embarking on an incredibly costly enterprise, to take on simultaneously two different antagonists who are fighting against each other. Think about what World War II in Europe would be like if the United States had tried to take on Nazi Germany and the Stalinist USSR at the same time.

The repeatedly expressed hopes placed in a Syrian “moderate opposition” as an alternative winning horse to back in this contest have repeatedly been shown to be held in vain. This situation is not something that can be corrected with more voluminous aid or more alacrity in dispensing it.

If the dispensing has been measured and hesitant, that is an appropriate recognition of how with the fluid line-up of protagonists in this civil war, men and materiel easily move from one participant to another and get into what we would consider the wrong hands.

A third reason is that collapse of the current Syria regime under the pressure of war could easily mean the loss of the only structure separating Syria from anarchy that would be even worse than what exists there now. We should have learned some lessons in this regard from what happened in de-Baathicized Iraq and what is still happening today in Libya.

In recent months the Obama administration appears to have accepted an understanding of these realities and talks less than it did earlier about the ouster of Assad as a policy priority. Because of that, it has been criticized by some other governments in the region who have different priorities.

The United States needs to consider its own interests in setting its own priorities rather than bowing to the priorities of others. The Turks, for example, have their own particular issues with Assad and Turkey-specific concerns about any cooperation with the Syrian Kurds. Many Arabs, especially in the Arabian Peninsula, think of Syrian affairs the same way they think of many Middle Eastern affairs, viewing them in terms of sectarian conflicts and asking first of all, “What’s good for the Sunnis?” That is not the sort of question that should guide U.S. policy.

In the longer run, significant political change in Syria will be necessary for that country to have any hope of stability. Bashar Assad will not be atop any Syrian political order that is reasonably just and stable. But the near term is what we face now, and what needs to be navigated successfully before we ever get to the long term.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

9 comments for “Why Syria’s Assad Must Not Go — Yet

  1. Dani
    February 8, 2015 at 07:54

    ISIS is not even in news 10 months ago even their crimes is well documented. The mainstream media at the time focused in “Damascus fall” in “weeks” back in 2013 but its a lie by circulated by Qatar propaganda machine. ISIS knew that they cant rush in the Capital because of heavy losses they took so they go to Iraq and take cities like Mosul and that lit the light focused to them

  2. Olga
    February 8, 2015 at 02:42

    Agree completely with Coleen Rowlen below: saying “USA taking on both Nazis and Soviets in the WWII” demonstrates either an object lack of basic knowledge of the WWII history or an attempt to revise it, assigning the USA a Hollywood invented guts and glory. It would’ve been better to remember in shame that it was the USA that supported Nazis (for quite some time) and it was the USA that turned lots of deported poor European Jews back to Nazi Germany. Read more, be less indoctrinated. It helps if you try to write an objective article.

  3. Zachary Smith
    February 8, 2015 at 00:41

    It seems Jordan now wants to take a crack at ISIS, an outfit which I expect they’ve been helping until now. But there is a problem with their weaponry – it simply isn’t adequate.


    A story I read only two days ago spoke of how some 2008 legislation passed by the US Congress gives Israel an effective veto over our military exports. But that’s from memory – I just can’t lay my hands on a link at the moment. But it could explain why Jordan’s air force is so badly armed.

    Then there was a strong hint that the US has been dogging it with OUR attacks on ISIS.

    At this point in the game how are there any targets on that list at all? The answer may be much more damning for the U.S., which leads the anti-ISIS coalition operating over Iraq and Syria, than for Jordan, as any sustained air campaign that is many months old should have wiped out all of ISIS’s fixed targets early on, with new and time sensitive ones being dealt with on a very consistent basis. This is especially true considering that ISIS does not possess an integrated air defense system or any aerial defenses at all beyond shoulder-fired missiles. If the U.S. is in fact dragging its feet when it comes to striking ISIS targets deep inside Syria then the whole operation needs to be questioned.

    I lean towards this notion because I can recall how the US delayed in assisting the Kurds at Kobane. The official spokespersons were rubbing their hands in anticipation of the upcoming slaughter which would facilitate a big US attack on Syria.

    All indications I can see tell me that the US still wants Assad gone, and the fight against ISIS is a sham. Hope I’m wrong, but that’s how I see it now.

  4. rick sterling
    February 6, 2015 at 20:28

    Poor article, more suited to a mainstream publication. Seems to say: hold on the time’s not right to escalate against Assad. The former CIA author evidently does not believe in international law nor accept “US interests” do not justify illegal actions. He does not give an credence to the Syrian election last June despite much video and other evidence that it had high participation with broad support for Assad. Nor does he critically question the morality and/or legality of US,Saudi, Turkish. Israeli attacks on Syria, arming and supplying of terrorists, paying the SALARIES of terrorists, etc etc etc..

    • JC
      February 7, 2015 at 16:32

      Dude, you said it a better than me right above you. Arrogant American triumphalism. “Well we made a mistake but we’ll get him later any way. It is our duty to maintain our own exceptionalism.”

  5. Coleen Rowley
    February 6, 2015 at 13:05

    “Think about what World War II in Europe would be like if the United States had tried to take on Nazi Germany and the Stalinist USSR at the same time.” Yes, indeed foolhardy. Especially since it was the USSR that was most instrumental in defeating Nazi Germany, not the U.S. (And even Soviet citizens who hated Stalin at other times, praised him during the WWII period.)

    • JC
      February 6, 2015 at 17:41

      Not a great article. The side we were supporting missed when they blew up Assad’s Brother in law and blew off his brother’s leg in a bomb attack on the inner circle the early days of the attempted Regime Change. Assad was the target ? Well he has proved resilient and has the full support of the Alewite pople and others against the Islamists. Our side didn’t think about genocide or terrorism or carnage. Our media went all in and Obama quickly announced that Assad had lost legitimacy. Now we have to deal with the Frankenstein monster we created to oust him IS. Who are we to say, why shouldn’t the Syrian people say when it’s time to go? We blew it stupid neo Conservatism. There should be more news about the humanitarian crisis we helped to create and less of this.

  6. Zachary Smith
    February 5, 2015 at 16:42

    In recent months the Obama administration appears to have accepted an understanding of these realities and talks less than it did earlier about the ouster of Assad as a policy priority. Because of that, it has been criticized by some other governments in the region who have different priorities.

    The United States needs to consider its own interests in setting its own priorities rather than bowing to the priorities of others

    Why the continuing defense of Obama? The man may talk less about dumping Assad, but I see no evidence he’s DOING any less. He nominated the Israel-friendly Carter to be Secretary of Defense. He still plans to send US troops to train “moderate” rebels to fight Assad. When those new rebels are driven to join the “non-moderate” rebels, naturally Syria will need even more US bombing of the beheading/burning terrorists it trained and sent to Syria.

    Couldn’t help but notice the word “Israel” didn’t get mentioned in this essay. Like they’re not in it up to their hip boots in wagging the big US dog.

    By showing the full torture-murder of the Jordanian pilot, FOX news has emerged as the official ISIS news channel. That in-your-face horror just goes to show how very evil Islam is! Never mind that the story of the Jewish settlers burning the Palestinian kid alive is now a completely forgotten one.

    The Jordanian pilot’s murder was a very well publicized (thanks, FOX) one. But was it any worse than the still-hidden deaths by the US Torturer Corps? I doubt it very much. But you can bet that public opposition to US torture of evildoers went down a few notches.

    One final gripe is about this:

    …with its barrel-bombing of civilian areas and similarly inexcusable tactics…

    Killing civilians is a very bad thing – but especially so when Assad is doing it. Perhaps Mr. Pillar could give the Syrian leader some tips about how to fight swarms of foreign fanatics who burrow into civilian neighborhoods. But the suggested tactics need to be “excusable” and of course very humane!

    • February 6, 2015 at 12:18

      Assad Must not go — yet ? Damn it! – none of their damn business. When will they stop interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign nations?

      Ex-CIA Paul Pillar, should know better, they have failed in all their attempts to bring peace to the region, because that is in fact NOT their intention.

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