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Gabriel Kohan Headshot

What If Assad Survives?

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Last year in August, President Obama for the first time called for Bashar Assad to step down and allow for an inclusive and democratic political transition in Syria. "For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside," the President proclaimed. This past Saturday, almost a full year after the President's declaration and during the first meeting of Kofi Annan's "Action Group" in Geneva, the Obama Administration agreed to a framework for a political transition in Syria that does not explicitly require Assad's exit. Rather, the plan appears to call for a national unity government in Syria that will require "mutual agreement" of opposition and current government officials. However, language to exclude those "whose participation would jeopardize stability and reconciliation" -- a clear reference to Assad -- was ultimately excluded due to Russia's objections.

Despite these developments, America must now be prepared to only accept an implementation of the plan that ensures Assad's ultimate removal. Assad's survival would pose a severe strategic threat to U.S. interests, mainly by having deleterious consequences for American credibility abroad, potentially destabilizing the region beyond Syria's borders and directly threatening the security of critical American allies. It is precisely for these reasons that the U.S. must recognize -- as I am sure the Obama Administration already does -- that anything less than the ousting of Assad could foment a multitude of even more difficult challenges for American foreign policy.

Firstly, Assad's survival would be a devastating blow to American credibility abroad. Since August, the Obama Administration has repeatedly reiterated its call for Assad to step down, including at the latest Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul. Any political transition that does not facilitate such an outcome would paint American rhetoric as hollow and, even worse, would make the U.S. appear that it had compromised on a redline. Such a setback would raise an array of difficult questions, all of which could have negative consequences for the U.S.: Will other hostile states, both present day and in the future, take American demands seriously? Will critical Middle Eastern allies still believe that Washington can be as effective of a partner in the region? How will the leadership in Iran interpret a U.S. retreat from redlines on Syria as it continues to enrich uranium towards a nuclear weapon capability? Clearly, Assad's survival will make it even more challenging for the U.S. to say what it means and mean what it says in a region where a country's credibility is its currency.

Furthermore, Assad's endurance would lend itself to bolstering a narrative of Russian reliability towards its allies at the expense of the United States. In the wake of the Arab Spring, America has struggled to balance maintaining its traditional alliances while remaining true to its core moral values. Conversely, Russia has been much less restrained by values and, regardless of the immense international pressure to do otherwise, has loyally stood by Assad both militarily and at the U.N., despite his bloody crackdown.

However, this alliance-first strategy has succeeded in preserving Moscow's regional influence by keeping Assad's regime afloat, while America's inconsistent approach has neither preserved its alliances in their entirety (see Egypt) nor allowed the U.S. to immaculately speak from a source of moral strength (see Bahrain). Thus, if Assad does survive, Russia would be able to contrast such an outcome with that of how the U.S. helped to facilitate the exit of its long-time ally Hosni Mubarak only a few weeks after protests broke out against him. Despite the fact that the U.S. correctly fell on the right side of history and the Arab Spring by pushing for Mubarak's resignation, Moscow could still exploit this contrast to develop a regional reputation for reliability in the long run.

Perhaps even more problematic for American interests than Russian gains is the fact that Assad's survival would clearly be a boon for Iran and Hezbollah, each of which would be sure to claim victory against the West. With Assad's longevity secured, Hezbollah would emerge politically stronger in Lebanon which could, in turn, pave the way for even greater Syrian usurpation of Lebanon's sovereignty. Whatever impending civil war that Assad would have to overcome to survive would likely spill into Lebanon, and given Hezbollah's overpowering weapons stockpiles, would not bode well for either the U.S.-backed Lebanese Armed Forces or America's allies in the March 14 Coalition.

The leaders of the March 14 Coalition, which are Hezbollah's key political rivals, would thus find themselves in an even more difficult operating environment and with even less leverage to force a National Dialogue that genuinely discusses Hezbollah's illegitimate weapons arsenals. With Lebanese elections scheduled for June 2013, such developments could hinder the ousting of the current Hezbollah-dominated government and close whatever opportunities the U.S. has left to regain it's strategic footing in the fragile country.

For Iran, an enduring Assad would mean that Tehran would have salvaged its most dependable ally in the Middle East. Most importantly, Iran would be able to continue to leverage Syria as a conduit to arm and abet its proxy Hezbollah and threaten the security of Israel. Although experts can only speculate on how the relationships between Syria, Iran and Hezbollah would be altered in a post-Assad Syria, one can only imagine that if Assad survives, weapons in the forms of rockets, missiles and various munitions would continue to flow unabated through Damascus.

Lastly, Assad's survival would pose copious challenges to various American allies, most notably to Israel and Turkey. For Israel, the single most worrisome prospect is that Assad could transfer Syria's chemical stockpiles, which are the largest in the world, to Hezbollah, a pseudo-state actor. For Turkey, its falling out with its former ally could cause Assad to more aggressively revive the relationship between Syria and the Kurdistan Workers Party, otherwise known as the PKK, which for decades has perpetuated a wide range of terrorist attacks against Turkish citizens. Furthermore, given Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's leadership in supporting the rebels' Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, as well as his own repeated calls for Assad to step down, Ankara faces suffering perhaps an even greater blow to its credibility and image than Washington does if such an outcome is not realized.

It is clear that the Obama Administration can only settle for a political transition in Syria that removes Assad from power. A transition that fails to do so risks empowering the likes of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah while weakening the strategic position of the U.S. and its allies. As diplomatic solutions alone are unlikely to resolve the Syrian impasse, the Obama Administration must also be prepared to enforce its position through other means as necessary and in collaboration with the Arab League, the European Union and NATO. The U.S. can more assertively ratchet up the pressure to compel Assad to step aside by pushing for additional multilateral sanctions on the Central Bank of Syria and encouraging the Syrian opposition to unify around a common leadership and pluralistic post-Assad platform.

Either the U.S. will deliver on its position and help achieve Assad's ultimate ouster, or Assad will prove that the U.S. cannot match results to its rhetoric. As dark and murky as the quagmire in Syria has become, it is incumbent on the U.S. to do what it can to actualize the one shred of clarity that has arisen from the chaos: Assad must go, and that is not open to compromise.

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