President Trump, Remove Assad From Power, or You’re Just Like Obama

by Emile Nakhleh

In response to the “barbaric” chemical attack by the “animal” Assad on Douma, a suburb of Damascus, over the weekend, President Donald Trump has promised that Assad and his patrons Russia and Iran would pay a “big price.”

Short of regime change, an American strike will be viewed as a pinprick. Similar to what happened in the recent past, a strike aiming only at punishing Assad for yet another gas attack would not force him to change his bloody behavior toward the Syrian people. Symbolic military strikes by the United States merely to send a message to the “Butcher of Damascus” have not alleviated the misery of the Syrian people or the barbarism of the regime.

If the Trump administration does decide to pursue regime change, Washington should inform Moscow without equivocation that ending Bashar Assad’s regime is now America’s policy objective of any American military retaliation.

To that end, Washington must realize that limited military strikes on selective targets will not bring about the desired results. Only well-coordinated attacks on major military facilities, including airfields, storage depots and heavily guarded bunkers will do the job.

Previous military strikes have only emboldened Assad and deepened the Russian and Iranian support for him. Assad has maintained his bloody dictatorship by destroying the country, killing hundreds of thousands of his people, and forcing almost half of the original population of 22 million people into displacement. He has shored up his regime by terror, fear and willingness to accept subservience to Russia and Iran.

Decapitating the regime will also put Russia and Iran on notice that the United States is back in the game in the Middle East—diplomatically and otherwise. Regime change in Syria will also undercut Hezbollah’s regional overreach and will help bring to an end the 40-year old tripartite alliance between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. Russia’s massive involvement in Syria in the past half-decade has empowered the Iran-Hezbollah-Syria axis.

Despite Trump’s recent statement that he would pull the American military out of Syria “very soon,” he has now committed himself to respond to Assad’s chemical attack on Douma. To maintain America’s credibility in the region, Assad’s removal from power seems the only option. The recent history of the Syrian civil war has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that Assad is not willing to negotiate himself out of power or to include his people in the governing process. Destroying the country has been a palatable price for him if it guarantees his staying in power. Russia and Iran have helped him do just that.

I have written previously criticizing the Bush administration’s hasty plans to bring about regime change in Iraq. However, the two situations differ significantly.

Iraq under Saddam’s dictatorship was a functioning state in which the Sunni-Shia divide was maintained by the power of the Baathist security state. The Iraqi society was relatively stable, and relations among the three major factions in Iraq—Sunnis, Shia and Kurds—were managed relatively peacefully although anger against the Saddam dictatorship was seething.

By contrast, Syria is being totally destroyed and pillaged by a regime that has shown no interest in a peaceful settlement of the conflict or in charting a future for Syria without the Alawite Assad dynasty. Furthermore, Syria for all intents and purposes has become a vassal state for Russia and to some degree Iran. Assad has regained much of the territory that was previously under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS), but has surrendered Syria’s sovereignty to Russia and Iran.

Unlike the horrendous tragedy that followed the demise of Saddam’s regime following the American invasion in March 2003, chaos and human misery already define Syria today. Removing Assad is not expected to create more chaos and instability, but it will end the on-going mayhem and destruction.

Even if a U.S. strike results in regime change, Washington would still need to get involved diplomatically in helping chart a future for a post-Assad and post-ISIS Syria. The absence of American diplomacy from the Syrian arena has led to the spectacle of so-called peace conferences being attended only by Russia, Turkey, and Iran. It’s as if Washington has relinquished its diplomatic responsibilities and leadership to Russia. Before Trump strikes Syria, he must be prepared for a post-strike diplomatic offensive. Otherwise, his military effort, no matter how successful, will be for naught.

Former President Barack Obama lost much credibility and influence in the region because he failed to follow through on his threat that Assad should not cross Obama’s “red line” about the use of chemical and biological attacks on his people – especially as Assad’s promise at the time to give up his chemical weapons has been proven false.

Now that Trump has promised to retaliate in a “big way,” he must deliver. Otherwise, his lofty rhetoric will not be dissimilar to Obama’s.

Republished, with permission, from The Cipher Brief.

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. I have no confidence whatever, that overthrowing Assad would be a good thing for Syria. Consider the chaos in Libya, created by the US and which in turn helped to foster the current catastrophe in Syria.

  2. Absolute nonsense, and extremely dangerous nonsense at that.

  3. I do not want these lies and war propaganda in my mailbox. Does the author think we are simpletons.

  4. Beyond question, Asad is a murderous thug. As was Saddam;Gadafi, and a dreary litany of others arguably including many dear US allies such as Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan, the Shah of Iran, and quite possibly several currently in power, both Princely and other.

    Still. The notion that there is no such thing as international law and subsequent constraint on a nation’s behavior, is as dangerous as Trump’s equal disdain for domestic US legal structures – an entire leg of the triad of Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government.

    Funny, really, how the Sheriff really is the good guy. We know because he tells us so in such earnest tones, and so drearily often..

    If you cannot see that all other considerations apart,,US and ‘Partners’ have made far worse the lives of millions – of those who survived – in continuous wars from Afghanistan on,(Vietnam we don’t even talk about. Who, vets and their families aside, remembers?)

    US intervention is to the growth of terror as horse manure was to garden roses. A magnificently effective fertilizer.

    It’s worth pointing out too that the few thousand US troops currently in Syria are by no means there at Asad’s invitation. They therefore constitute an invasion force. As I’m sure you’d point out should an equal number 0f N Korean troops be found lurking in the mountains and forests of the pacific Northwest. O the horror! How dare they rape the Virgin Motherland!

    The only thing that would happen should Trump and camp-followers in England (advised usage; the Scots etc would have none o’ it) and France, is that a lot more Syrians would die even than would have been killed by ‘their guy’ anyhow. Knock Asad over and you have an instant post-invasion Iraq. Paul Bremer is probably sitting out a lonely retirement somewhere; I;m sure he’d welcome a rematch in Syria.

    It would surely be indelicate to mention the Russians in Syria, at Asad’s invitation. War gets awfully foggy on occasions.

    So: no benefit to the Syrians of an attack; possibly great damage elsewhere. The evidence against the effectiveness to US interests, of this kind of action is overwhelming.

    Want to induce the Russians to put pressure on Asad? Cut them off from the SWIFT interbank communications system. That’d grab their attention without a single scratch on man, woman or child. Not even a Band-Aid needed

    Your proposal, Sir, is a stunning lunacy and denial of the last four decades of pain and bitter experience – for all concerned, US and other..

  5. An official request was made to you via email to remove this writer from any email addressed to me. And if that is not possible I will unsubscribe. There are security numbers to be filled out WHICH I have done about 15 times. They request I do them again and again. I am a grandmother for pete’s sakes, not 5 years old.. So that did not work. I hereby notify you that I do not wish to EVER see anything written by this author in my mailbox.

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