The Obama administration has yet to outline a strategy for responding to the potential downfall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, even as his hold on power grows tenuous in the fourth year of a civil war.
President Obama has so far avoided intervening in the Syrian war, which he says is a fulfillment of his pledge to not become ensnared in another land conflict in the Middle East. He sided against his top advisers in 2012 when he declined to arm the nationalist rebels battling Assad, and he reversed a decision in 2013 to strike the Syrian regime after it was accused of launching a chemical weapons attack that killed almost 1,500 people. The administration later reached a deal with Russia to remove much of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.
Yet recent developments in Syria might force Obama’s hand. Rebel groups in both the north and south of the country have achieved significant victories in the past few days against the beleaguered Syrian army. The Army of Conquest, a new rebel coalition backed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, has seized the northern province of Idlib and is advancing toward Assad’s strongholds to the south.
The aftermath of the Assad regime’s demise would pose a challenge to U.S. security and American interests in the region. Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate, is part of the Army of Conquest—raising the possibility of another haven for al Qaeda in the Middle East.
The brutal Islamic State terrorist group also still controls parts of northern and eastern Syria and would seek to capitalize on Assad’s fall.
Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon adviser on the Middle East during the George W. Bush administration, said in an email that if Assad is deposed, "the most radical, most violent, and most determined forces are going to fill the void." He cited the example of the Afghanistan civil war in the 1990s after the withdrawal of Soviet forces, when the Taliban eventually prevailed against more moderate factions.
A State Department official did not indicate in a statement whether the administration has a specific response planned should Assad be ousted. The official said the United States is still working with the Saudis and other Arab states in the region to train and equip vetted members of the Syrian opposition to fight against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL). The U.S.-trained force will also "protect the United States, its friends and allies, and the Syrian people from the threats posed by terrorists in Syria; and promote the conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria," the official said.
U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria will continue as the train-and-equip program progresses, the official added.
U.S. military officials have raised concerns about the viability of the training program for the Syrian rebels. Obama has not determined whether he will order the U.S. forces training and advising the rebels to support them militarily, which defense officials say is vital to the success of the program. Those rebels would be the only U.S.-backed forces in the country to counter terrorist groups if Assad is toppled.
Rubin said any U.S. strategy in Syria would be more difficult to implement now after four years of a war that has attracted thousands of foreign fighters and spawned new jihadist groups.
"The strategies that Obama now embraces might have worked fine when the malignancy in Syria was at Stage 1, but it has now metastasized to Stage IV," he said. "You can’t treat that sort of ailment with an aspirin."
Assad forces have been stretched thin outside of the government’s stronghold around Damascus. The strength of the Syrian army has been cut in half to 125,000 soldiers since the war began, and some Syrian officers are now grumbling that Hezbollah—the Iranian-backed terrorist group from Lebanon—has displaced its forces in importance.
Assad also recently removed two of the leaders of his four main intelligence agencies, suggesting internal dissension within the regime.
At a State Department press briefing on Monday, spokesman Jeff Rathke declined to discuss the status of Assad.
"I don’t have an analysis of the internal dynamics of the Syrian Government to offer," he said. "Clearly, Assad has lost his legitimacy. We’ve said that a number of times. But I don’t have an analysis of their—of the regime’s longevity."
Frederic Hof, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former adviser on Syria for the Obama administration, wrote in a blog post on Monday that with Assad on the ropes, the administration must prepare for a robust response. Obama has so far "subcontracted" assistance to the Syrian rebels, he said, resulting in a train and equip program that is "too small and too slow to have much of an effect on anything."
"The near-term requirements for putting Syria on a path to stability and legitimacy center on regional ground forces (in conjunction with coalition air forces) sweeping ISIL from central and eastern Syria; permitting a real government for all Syrians to emerge in free Syria; putting ‘train and equip’ on steroids by building a Syrian National Stabilization Force; and stopping the Assad regime from visiting mass terror on civilian populations," he said. "None of it requires U.S. boots on the ground. All of it—every bit of it—requires sustained U.S. diplomatic effort and leadership."