You have reached your limit of free articles this month.

Enjoy unlimited access to myStatesman.com

Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks.

GREAT REASONS TO SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

  • IN-DEPTH REPORTING
  • INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING
  • NEW TOPICS & COVERAGE
  • ePAPER
X

You have read of premium articles.

Get unlimited access to all of our breaking news, in-depth coverage and bonus content- exclusively for subscribers. Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks

X

Welcome to myStatesman.com

This subscriber-only site gives you exclusive access to breaking news, in-depth coverage, exclusive interactives and bonus content.

You can read free articles of your choice a month that are only available on myStatesman.com.

Commentary: Syrian regime change would not save lives


To our lasting chagrin, Americans have learned Middle East dictatorships are less like pottery store merchandise (“you break it, you own it”) and more like Jenga towers: remove one piece and the whole structure collapses.

In Iraq and Libya the pieces have not been wooden toys but neighborhoods and families. Ill-conceived attempts at humanitarian relief tore social fissures the US military could not mend. Countries that no one thought could get any worse, got dramatically worse. State violence ebbed briefly but communal violence expanded indefinitely. Murderous rulers disappeared while murder proliferated.

In these situations, ordinary Iraqis and Libyans faced wrenching choices. Surrounded by killing, they could protect themselves and their children by either acquiescing to local militias or fleeing the conflict zone. Thus Libyan fathers and mothers who loathed Qaddafi’s tyranny watched their country become a mosaic of warlord fiefdoms. For over a decade their counterparts in Iraq have weighed the threat of sectarian killing squads against the risks of leaving altogether.

These are calculations no parent would wish on another—and the lessons of Iraq and Libya ought to weigh heavily in formulation of U.S. policy on Syria, a country already reeling from a six-year-long civil war, the onslaught of Islamic State, and multiple foreign air campaigns.

After ordering the U.S. military strike a Syrian airfield, President Trump called for changing [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad’s behavior and asked for “God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world.” Given the track record of U.S. interventions in the Middle East, Trump ought not imagine he can shift Assad’s ways through brute force. Trying to impose a new government in Damascus would be not only unwise, but also quite perilous for the Syrians Trump professes to care for.

Until very recently, “regime change” in Syria looked inconceivable: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley had explicitly stated that the United States stopped seeking an end to Assad’s rule. Then came the Syrian military’s reported April 3 chemical attack in the rebel-controlled town of Khan Sheikhoun. Upwards of 90 people, including 26 children and infants, were asphyxiated by what journalists suspect to have been sarin gas.

Within days the administration had spun around 180 degrees. “[M]y attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” Trump stated. Tillerson followed, “it would seem that there would be no role for [Assad] to govern the Syrian people,” and also said, “the process by which Assad would leave” would entail “an international community effort.” Amplifying that point the morning after the airstrike, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) applauded Trump’s action and spoke of working with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Syrian rebels to replace Assad with a new (presumably Sunni-dominant) government.

The call for removing Assad rests on a powerful emotional premise: Anyone who ordered an attack that left infants choking to death in their parents’ arms should face a swift reckoning. But even if the case for ousting Assad reflected the best of intentions, it rests on the dubious assumptions that Assad’s departure would make Syria a safer place for Syrians and for the world—an assumption disproved by the current landscapes of Iraq and Libya.

A punitive policy driven by gut reactions to the Khan Sheikhoun massacre will not end Syria’s tragedy and could make it much worse. Destabilizing Damascus would expose families who currently live safely in areas of government control to retribution from portions of Syria’s long-persecuted Sunni Arab majority.

If saving lives is the priority, then regime change needs to be kept off the table. Instead of toppling another Arab tyrant, the United States and its partners ought to broker an inclusive political settlement that ends the war without razing the Syrian state and tossing countless more innocents into armed conflict.

Brownlee is a professor of Government and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Austin.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Opinion

Letters to the editor: April 27, 2017
Letters to the editor: April 27, 2017

U.S. Rep. Roger Williams launched an attack on consumer financial protection by attempting to block an important rule for prepaid debit cards. The rule, issued in October by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, provides safeguards for those who use prepaid cards to make purchases and manage their money. In addition to protections against loss...
Nowrasteh: SB4 aimed at ‘sanctuary jurisdictions’ is wrong for Texas
Nowrasteh: SB4 aimed at ‘sanctuary jurisdictions’ is wrong for Texas

President Trump’s focus on immigration enforcement has filtered down to the state-level in Texas. The State Senate passed Sen. Charles Perry’s (R-Lubbock) controversial bill, Senate Bill 4, in February. SB4 would penalize every so-called “sanctuary jurisdiction,” which includes cities, counties and universities who do not honor...
Misguided faith in government is unlearned lesson of LA riots

This weekend marks 100 days of the Trump administration. This milestone also coincides with a very important anniversary. Twenty-five years ago, riots exploded in Los Angeles after four policemen were acquitted in the violent beating of Rodney King. Sixty-three lives were lost in the riots, with the estimated total economic cost pegged at $1 billion...
U.S. Rep. Williams: CHOICE Act would have toughest penalties for fraud
U.S. Rep. Williams: CHOICE Act would have toughest penalties for fraud

Economists at a prominent think tank based in Washington, D.C. last week reported that a full repeal of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act would boost the economy by 1 percent and generate $340 billion in federal revenue over a 10-year period. Dodd-Frank, as it is called for short, was passed by the Democrat controlled Congress...
Letters to the editor: April 26, 2017
Letters to the editor: April 26, 2017

I get it. We like blowing stuff up. It’s a primal attraction. Explosives are powerful — but indiscriminate. Fourteen states are using cyanide bombs to kill wildlife — and Texas leads the country in animal deaths by sodium cyanide M-44s. Thousands of coyotes, foxes, possums, raccoons and skunks meet their end this way in our state...
More Stories