What if Syrian President Bashar al Assad really goes? There is an assumption in the West that the way to win a strategic victory over Iran and improve the human rights situation inside Syria is to remove the Syrian leader. It is true that Iran's prospects of keeping Syria as its own Mediterranean outpost are probably linked with the survivability of al Assad's regime. But his removal might well hasten the slide into chaos within Syria and in adjacent Lebanon, rather than slow it. Al Assad's departure could even ignite a disintegration of the Syrian power structure into various gangs and militias.
After all, we are talking less of the removal of one man than of the end of a 42-year dynasty. The president's father, Hafez al Assad, came to power in 1970 after 21 changes of government -- mostly through coups -- in Syria's first 24 years of independence. Moreover, the new Syrian state held free and fair elections in 1947, 1949 and 1954 that all broke down according to tribal, regional and sectarian interests. Hafez finally ended the chaos by becoming the Leonid Brezhnev of the Arab world: He staved off the future by institutionalizing fear, even as he did nothing to nurture a civil society out of the country's inherent divisions. Alas, the collapse of such a state is messy business. Sectarian awareness may be less deeply etched in Syria than in Iraq, but once the killing starts people have a tendency to revert to these default identities.
Chaos in Syria benefits nobody. The Turks do not want a long-running refugee problem on their border. The Lebanese are afraid of their own state becoming a battlefront in an intensifying Syrian civil war. The Jordanian regime, already unpopular at home, is also afraid of regional upheaval. The Saudis, even more so than the Jordanians, are terrified of the specter of a major Arab state crumbling -- something they know is not out of the question for their dynasty of octogenarians now in its own tired, Brezhnevite phase. Simply because Riyadh wants to topple the pro-Iranian al Assad does not mean it would be pleased with an extended situation in which nobody is in charge in Damascus. The Israeli viewpoint is similar. The Shiite government in Iraq fears Sunni terrorists being given free reign in the Syrian border area. As for the Iranians, they will do all they can to keep the current Syrian regime in place even as they may privately abhor al Assad's inefficient brutality. (The Iranians effectively crushed the Green movement in 2009 by killing hundreds, not thousands.) The Russians require stability in Damascus only partly for the sake of naval rights in the port of Tartus. Syria and Iran are the two remaining levers the Kremlin has in the Middle East. Moreover, the collapse of a pro-Moscow dictatorship in the Middle East carries the potential to send shivers throughout Central Asian authoritarian states. As for the Americans, they don't want a Yugoslavia-style situation where they are under pressure to militarily intervene.
One can also argue that from a human rights perspective, chaos can be worse than authoritarianism. To wit, the record of decapitation as it refers to fierce authoritarian regimes in the Islamic world is grim. Libya has slid into low-level chaotic violence in which the writ of the central government is nonexistent throughout broad reaches of the country. Nearby Mali has erupted into anarchy -- a situation ignited by regime change in Libya. The administration of George W. Bush decapitated the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, an act that cost perhaps 200,000 Iraqi lives over a few short years, even as Saddam had directly killed perhaps four times that many over the previous third of a century.
Then there are the examples of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. When the Soviet state collapsed, it led to a rash of ethnic and regional wars across the Caucasus and Central Asia -- tens of thousands of people were killed in Tajikistan alone -- while in Yugoslavia, ethnic war resulted in 140,000 lost lives. Remember that the dynastic regime of the al Assads in Syria was built on an east bloc model during the height of the Cold War.
It is true, in Romania in 1989, the tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed, and ethnic war (between Romanians and ethnic Hungarians) and chaos did not result. But that was because rather than a real democracy, the Ceausescu regime was informally replaced by another branch of the Communist party, which ushered in a half-decade transition before non-Communists finally took real power through elections. Romania, therefore, may now be somewhat relevant to the Syrian situation.
Regional stability and moral considerations both require a transitional phase in Syria, not cold turkey democracy. Cold turkey democracy coupled with regime collapse in Syria, given the historical record, risks bloody anarchy. And a transitional phase may require an implicit deal between the United States and Iran. Iran and the United States have a record of dealing with each other behind the scenes; the Bush administration and the ayatollahs did likewise in Iraq even as they fought each other there.
The Iranians, like the Americans, are already looking beyond al Assad. They are identifying generals and leading businessmen who could rule in his place and maintain the overall regime structure. There may come a point where American and Iranian interests in Syria overlap at least to the extent of agreeing on al Assad's replacement. Though, to repeat, the situation in Syria will probably have to further deteriorate before reaching that stage. Iran has to be made to feel that al Assad is no longer an option. We are not there yet. The fact that Syrian air defenses were able to shoot down a Turkish plane without incurring a military response means al Assad is still formidable.
The real horse-trading, if and when it comes, may involve Turkey and Iran. Turkey wants to replace the entire regime structure; Iran wants the opposite. That's why both Ankara and Tehran will need to compromise, identifying high-ranking Syrians, probably military, who will protect each country's interests and upon whom a new regime can be based. If Turkey and Iran can reach some sort of agreement, it can then be blessed by both the United States and Russia. The Obama administration can play a role in this process, but to do so effectively will require more diplomatic realpolitik than it has demonstrated thus far in any crisis. This is all a long shot, but there may be no other way out that averts a worsening civil war.
There is a stark realization in all of this: If the United States reduces its strategy toward Iran to only stopping its nuclear enrichment program, it increases the probability of ascending bloodshed in Syria. Easing al Assad out becomes easier when some deference is paid to Iran's and Russia's strategic interests. Washington now wants two things that may not go together: handing Iran (and maybe Russia) a total strategic defeat in Syria, even as bloodshed is reduced there.
This may sound like appeasement, but keep in mind that al Assad's Syria, so dependent as it is on Iran, already represents an Iranian satellite. Therefore, any deal between Ankara and Tehran on a new transitional regime holds out the distinct likelihood of a less pro-Iran regime in the future, especially as elections in Syria would eventually be held under any arrangement. For Iran to try to undermine a post-al Assad Syria -- with no land border between the two countries -- to the same extent that it has undermined Iraq will, in addition to being opposed by Turkey, constitute a case of imperial overstretch with self-defeating consequences.
Syria's situation is dire. From both a moral and geopolitical point of view, fighting a proxy war with Iran and Russia there is less desirable for the United States than reaching out to them.