Will Assad follow Maliki out the door?

Will the Butcher of Damascus follow the Thief of Baghdad into the dustbin of history?

As far as I can tell, ISIS rose by taking advantage of the fact that both Iraq and Syria had intolerably anti-Sunni governments. Kevin Drum argues that the Obama Administration played its hand well in Iraq, using the threat of ISIS and the promise of U.S. help against it to force Nuri al-Maliki out of power. Whether Maliki’s replacement turns out to be better, in terms of dealing decently with the Sunni minority, remains to be seen; but he could hardly be worse.

Of course, we don’t have that kind of leverage in Syria (where the Sunni are an oppressed majority rather than an oppressed minority). But it seems to me that the option of backing Bashar al-Assad as the “enemy of my enemy” doesn’t pass the giggle test. Assad is a mass murderer, by character and by heredity. Maybe if the rest of the Syrian security forces and political players were scared enough, they’d take a polite hint from the U.S. and kick Assad out in order to qualify for assistance; providing a little bit of intelligence in the meantime is one way of giving that hint. But I wouldn’t count on it.

No, if Assad is going to go, he probably has to be kicked out the same way Maliki was, by losing the support of his key foreign sponsor. That would be our old friend Volodya. Does Russia really want to see an actual Islamist state willing and able to help support the Chechen rebels? Maybe not.

Whether, suitably supported, the new Iraqi and Syrian governments could actually get their act together and squash ISIS remains to be seen. But getting rid of the Thief of Baghdad and and the Butcher of Damascus in one summer wouldn’t be a bad score all by itself.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

5 thoughts on “Will Assad follow Maliki out the door?”

  1. What would be the mechanism for kicking Assad out? Iraq is a flawed democracy: it has parliament, elections, and parties representing key constituencies. Maliki left through more or less conventional constitutional pressures. Syria is run by the Baath party on Leninist principles, in fact representing an Alawite group of secret policemen and army officers. If this group decides to ditch Assad, it will be by a palace coup: exceedingly, worse than lethally, dangerous if you fail. I doubt if even Putin could arrange this.

  2. So, I am completely sold on the idea that ISIS are total zeros and I’d be glad to see them gone. I am not yet convinced that the US needs to get directly involved. Seems to me we should do the duck thing — paddle a lot below, but not seem to pay them much attention/respect. They don’t deserve it. And it makes them seem and feel bigger, imo.

    But maybe somebody around here can explain something I don’t get — what is Iran’s deal vis-a-vis Israel? Why is the Iranian gov so obsessed with it? They aren’t even Arabs. They’re miles away. What is the deal? Was it mostly just the Cold War? I know this probably seems dumb, but no MSM ever mentions or explains it. Plus, I had thought it was Iran propping up Assad (though I had heard that many Russians live in Syria, historical ties etc).

  3. Mark, while I understand your moral impulses, I'm not sure I understand the logic from Putin's perspective. Assad is a reliable client. You say that Putin doesn't want ISIS to found a durable Islamist state, which is probably true (though how a power in the MIddle East without an air force could meaningfully support Chechen rebels is beyond me). But why would this lead him to withdraw support for Assad in favor of someone more favored by the U.S.? If Putin's going to apply pressure to Assad, wouldn't the obvious policy be to *support Assad* and send him more weapons, (perhaps along with a strong suggestion that he spend more time attacking ISIS instead of letting it build up so as to convince people the choice is Assad-or-terrorists)? Putin may, mildly, want someone to defeat ISIS. But why on earth would he want someone pluralistic and democratic–stipulating such a person can now lead Syria, which I strongly doubt–to be the person doing so?

  4. I am puzzled by this post. Yes, Assad is a mass murderer. But what would change if he was replaced by another mass murderer from his inner circle? As James Wimberly pointed out, Iraq is a (very) flawed democracy, but at least it is not governed by one tight inner circle. In Syria, it seems to be a choice between someone from the inner circle, or regime collapse. Or is the main purpose of replacing Assad to make it more acceptable for us to provide support, by removing the Assad label?

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