Should the U.S. Support Regime Change in Syria?

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Hillary Clinton has said Bashar al-Assad no longer has "legitimacy"

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Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (R) meets Arab League Chief Nabil Elaraby in Damascus July 13, 2011

On July 11, when asked about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton answered: "From our perspective, he has lost legitimacy, he has failed to deliver on the promises he's made," adding that "we would like to see even more countries speaking out as forcefully as we have."

Proponents of a low-cost regime change in Damascus seized upon Clinton's use of the phrase "lost legitimacy" to press the case for the Obama administration to see through Assad's removal. The Washington Post editorial board, in a piece titled "The U.S. has Gotten Tough with Syria; Now it Needs to Get Tougher," noted that it was "good that the Obama administration has finally spoken that truth" but that "now it must act on its words."

Soon after Secretary Clinton's judgment about who should be the rightful political leader of Syria, the administration has wisely de-escalated its demonization of Assad.  During her trip to Turkey over the weekend, Clinton expressed hope that the Syrian opposition "can provide a pathway, hopefully in peaceful cooperation with the government, to a better future."

In a piece in this morning's Los Angeles Times, "U.S. Softens its Criticism of Syria," an unnamed State Department official acknowledged that the administration was still undecided about whether to ramp up its rhetorical attacks on the Syrian leader: "Whether we take it farther will depend on events on the ground. We need to think through carefully what we say."

That final sentence should be printed on large banners that hang prominently in briefing rooms at the White House, State Department, Pentagon, and every other U.S. government agency. While the ability of the United States to compel changes in the behavior of other states is diminishing, what the United States says still matters to dictators hanging onto power, civilians protesting against those dictators, neutral third-parties, regional actors, and close allies.

Proponents of regime change demand clarity and specificity from U.S. government officials about whether a dictator has lost legitimacy and, therefore, should voluntarily step down from power. More important than what the United States says, however, is what it is willing to do to achieve the objectives it expresses. It is one thing to make aspirational statements that shape administration thinking, test allied support, and gauge public opinion. This is what President Obama did on March 3, when he stated  flatly, "Muammar Qaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead and he must leave."

However, neither President Obama nor any members of the western-led intervention into Libya ever presented what military strategists call a "theory of victory" for how this could be achieved. This glaring disconnect between maximalist objectives (regime change) and minimalist tactics (selectively-enforced no-fly zones and arms embargoes, and close air support) should have been a clear indicator that the intervention would not proceed as quickly or easily as was believed.

Those now demanding that the U.S. government clearly articulate its support for regime change in Damascus should also seek a plausible explanation for how this happens. Then, we can decide if that plan is believable, what the likely costs and consequences are, and whether regime change in Syria is in the US's national interest.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org

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Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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