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.