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The Reckless “Kill Assad” Option

While the Obama administration prepares its foolish military action in Syria, Bret Stephens suggests [1] trying to kill Assad:

As it is, a strike directed straight at the Syrian dictator and his family is the only military option that will not run afoul of the only red line Mr. Obama is adamant about: not getting drawn into a protracted Syrian conflict. And it is the one option that has a chance to pay strategic dividends from what will inevitably be a symbolic action.

It is hardly news that the U.S. has had a poor track record of assassinating foreign leaders, so it seems odd to devote much energy to arguing in favor of trying this again. U.S. and allied forces tried to kill Hussein in the first week of the Iraq war, and they tried the same thing two years ago against Gaddafi without success while pretending that they weren’t attempting to kill him. The earlier strikes on Tripoli in 1986 also missed their intended target. If there was ever a serious attempt at killing Milosevic in 1999, that was also unsuccessful. What makes Stephens thinks that his recommendation is realistic?

Setting aside the problem that it is illegal for the U.S. to do what Stephens wants, would this achieve what he claims? Would it help bring the conflict to an end? The answer to this question is no. The forces fighting for the regime are not just fighting because Assad and his family happen to be in power and tell them to, but because they believe their own survival is at stake. The Wall Street Journal reports [2] today on the development of an Alawite militia over the last year:

The defense force is part of a metamorphosis the Assad regime has undergone in the caldron of war. The regime has mobilized state resources—money, arms, control over key commodities such as wheat, fuel and even international aid—to fortify its core Alawite constituency and allied minority groups for what it believes will be a protracted sectarian battle.

Even if Assad and his immediate circle of allies and advisers disappeared tomorrow, regime forces such as these would still have their own reasons to continue fighting under new leadership. One of the persistent flaws in hawkish thinking about foreign conflicts is that the foreign strongman is treated as the embodiment of everything wrong with the country, and consequently hawks tend to think that by removing the strongman the country’s problems will be remedied very easily. Killing off the leadership of the regime likely wouldn’t hasten the end of the conflict.

Would killing Assad prevent the U.S. from being drawn into the conflict? That seems implausible. If the U.S. killed regime leaders, it would probably invite retaliation that sooner or later would make U.S. involvement in the conflict almost unavoidable. Having taken the dramatic step of striking at the top levels of the Syrian government, would the U.S. then be content to leave Assad’s successor in peace? Not very likely. Stephens’ proposal is a recipe for sucking the U.S. deeper into an intense sectarian conflict.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "The Reckless “Kill Assad” Option"

#1 Comment By James Canning On August 27, 2013 @ 1:33 pm

More dangerous and exceptionally foolish advice from Bret Stephens of the WSJ. What a surprise.

#2 Comment By JP On August 27, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

In light of the events of the last decade, I think our Syrian options are akin to a three dimensional chess board, in which every moving is a losing one.

Doing nothing has happened before. We did nothing in the after math of the Kurds being gassed by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s; we did nothing after Pol Pot murdered a millions of Cambodians; genocide occurred in Africa and we did nothing. No, our actions were not heroic. But, usually a foreign policy based upon heroism ends in useless additional bloodshed.

#3 Comment By Will in Mississippi On August 27, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

I recall Machiavelli distinguishing between conquering a despotically ruled state and a republic. Despotims, the Flonrentine claimed, were harded to defeat, but once vanquished easier to hold and control as opposition came largely from the despot rather than the people. The argument makes sense, but then Syria points to a different focus on the stakes for groups within the population. If defeat brings catastrophic consequences, then people will fight on regardless of the despot or whether he remains standing. Taking out Assad won’t change the regime, but merely its leader. Other Syrians, including Alawites, have too much at stake to let the rebels control them.

#4 Comment By WorkingClass On August 27, 2013 @ 1:57 pm

The Wall Street Journal wants to murder Assad AND HIS FAMILY. On trumped up charges no less. Well it IS a Murdock Rag isn’t it.

#5 Comment By Gordon Hanson On August 27, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

I know, James. Who would have expected it?

#6 Comment By Neildsmith On August 27, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

They can’t argue that they want to replay the Iraq war in hopes of finally getting it right in the middle east, so they have to go with this incremental approach. Arm the rebels, punish Assad for using chemical weapons, kill Assad, wipe out the Islamists, then promote the Syrian George Washington (TBD) to President and it will piss off Iran!

Ha! See, it’s easy to think like a hawk.

#7 Comment By simon94022 On August 27, 2013 @ 4:57 pm

Let’s be blunt and honest:

Hawks like Stephens, who are dragging us into another war where no US interests are at stake, are traitors.

#8 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 27, 2013 @ 5:08 pm

The idea that the objective is democracy is ludicrous. What is sought is a dictator who will serve western interests before those of his own people’s. Assassination, regime change, how thuggishly Soviet it all is.

#9 Comment By cka2nd On August 27, 2013 @ 5:18 pm

JP says: “we did nothing after Pol Pot murdered a millions of Cambodians”

Well, except punish the Vietnamese for ousting Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and support the latter as the true government of Cambodia at the UN, and funding them in their gurilla war with Vietnam and the Cambodian government they had installed in place of PP and the KR.

You know, all the good stuff. An example of American foreign policy at its most principled AND realistic.

#10 Comment By spite On August 27, 2013 @ 5:21 pm

People complain about pop stars doing indecent dances, yet calling for the murder of the family of your rivals, not outrage there, this is disgraceful thinking. Its as if these people have been watching Game of Thrones and think its an instruction manual.

#11 Comment By icarusr On August 27, 2013 @ 5:41 pm

“What makes Stephens thinks that his recommendation is realistic?”

Because he is insane. Repeating the same action expecting a different result.

#12 Comment By lynn1212 On August 28, 2013 @ 12:00 am

Hmm, Spite. “The Obamas send their regards”?

#13 Comment By Bill Cooper On August 28, 2013 @ 11:53 am

Arab conflicts are too diverse&complicated at the same time Dubai & U.A.E build to the sky all the while Iraq & Afghanistan build nothing rather blow everything sky high. Syria is just another example of the deep seated & historical problems that have little help in resolution. In 1972 I traveled thru Turkey, Iraq, Iran & Afghanistan via train & bus. Dangerous then suicidal now. Back then the governments of the day had all the guns & power, Today everyone has the guns & no one has the power. Worse yet if you break it, you own it, USA & it’s allies are definitely in the famous catch-22 position.

#14 Comment By James Canning On August 28, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

Thanks, Gordon. Yes, who would have expected more bad advice from Bret Stephens of the WSJ?

#15 Comment By Greg Pandatshang On August 28, 2013 @ 8:41 pm

I agree that Washington should stay out of Syria (I hope they will stay out of it but they’re probably about to wade right in). I agree that assassinating Bashar al-Assad would be much easier said than done. I do not agree that it would be ineffective if it succeeded. Government and Awalite forces have an incentive to keep fighting, but the goal is to create a succession crisis that would demoralise them and make it more difficult for them to fight. Bashar al-Assad does not have an obvious successor: the vice-president of Syria is an 80-year-old woman; the prime minister has been on the job little more than a year — since the last prime minister defected to the opposition — and seems to be a minor figure. As for the Assad family, Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law was killed in the civil war and his younger brother apparently was severely wounded; his other brothers died years ago in unrelated situations; his cousins have long been marginalized from politics; and the next generation is too young to take power.

I think a lot of the continuing support within from Syrians for their government comes from the perception that only Bashar al-Assad personally can provide some kind of security in a chaotic country. This does not strike me as unreasonable. Taking that off the table, making “Bashar al-Assad = security” no longer an option, would not necessarily be a humane thing to do, but it might well be effective at weakening the regime.

If the U.S. does intervene in Syria, and if it could be accomplished, assassinating Bashar al-Assad is the least bad strategy that I can think of.

#16 Comment By lynn1212 On August 28, 2013 @ 11:18 pm

Check out the ethnoreligious map of Syria in the “Of Note” section of TAC. This is worse, far worse than Yugoslavia. Syria will fall apart like Yugoslavia did when the strong man dies or is no longer strong. Then the fun REALLY begins. Apres’ Assad, les deluge.

#17 Comment By Uncle Vanya On August 29, 2013 @ 10:14 pm

So now we’re going to be Al-Qai’da’s airforce. Wow. Just wow.

What more can I say? The idea of us allying ourselves with Christian-slaughtering Islamists just boggles my mind.

Time to break up the United States. Seriously. A handful of smaller countries made up of what was once the US will be less dangerous to the world and more responsive to their citizens than the US now is.

Our “leaders” are destroying us more thoroughly than the Soviets could ever have imagined in their wildest fantasies.

#18 Comment By Escher On August 31, 2013 @ 12:34 am

I wonder how Bret Stephens would feel if his family was targeted by his professional enemies

#19 Comment By Dat On August 31, 2013 @ 8:05 am

Bret Stephens and Greg Pandatshang (in the comments section here):

Two war-mongering psycho cowards who think such talk makes them seem to “tough” and “cool”.