President Obama’s Syria Problem

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

After regime thugs attacked the U.S. embassy in Syria, the Obama administration ramped up its language. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched the first broadside, saying that “President Assad is not indispensable and we have absolutely nothing invested in him … remaining in power.” Then, President Obama informed the Syrians that “nobody can be messing with our embassy.” This is the most frustrated and angry the administration has sounded since the unrest in Syria began four months ago. What more than 1500 Syrians killed and reports of mass rape and torture couldn’t do, a not entirely surprising attack on the U.S. embassy could.

As angry as Clinton and Obama seem to be, they still haven’t been able to utter the magic words — “Bashar must go.” Of course, they’re not magic at all and are unlikely to do anything on their own. What matters is whether or not the U.S. is willing to commit to Assad’s ouster. Call it if you will a policy of “non-military regime change.” On this matter, the administration seems a bit schizophrenic. They know Assad is bad, but they’re not quite sure they want him to go. Others have already noted how ludicrous it is to suggest someone like Assad could ever “lead a democratic transition.”

There are some, including in the administration, who say the U.S. has little to no leverage with Syria. Saying that the U.S. has no leverage and acting like it is a pretty good way to make other people think that you, in fact, have no leverage. In any case, it’s simply not true. There are a few things that the U.S. can do (now). A good place to start is this article by David Schenker and Andrew Tabler, which lays out a number of policy options, including instituting more sweeping sanctions and targeting Syria’s oil industry. The goal here is not to change Assad’s mind but rather to encourage the country’s Sunnis, particularly the business elite, to distance themselves, and possibly defect, from the regime.

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