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Fri. October 23, 2020
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Removing Assad
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By Shannon Sutherland

Among the most horrific in recent history, the Syrian conflict has claimed millions of lives, has spanned over a decade, and remains a puzzle for international leaders. The Assad regime, at the heart of the conflict, was being challenged with political unrest and Arab Spring protests leading up to the onset of the conflict. Additionally, the regime used chemical weapons against civilians on several occasions. It is difficult to imagine a scenario of lasting peace in Syria while the Assad regime is still in power.

However, the regime is not going to relinquish power willingly. To some, the counts against the regime held by Syrians and the international community warrant removal by more powerful international actors. However, what may appear to be the obvious answer is in fact among the worst of options. The replacement of the Assad regime by any external parties is not only politically unethical, but also may deepen the conflict.

The forceful removal of the Assad regime by foreign actors will create a power vacuum. The opposition, made up mainly of rebel groups backed by foreign actors, is not unified. There is a range of political affiliations and desires for the future of Syria within the opposition. Some groups champion democracy, some champion a religious state. There is no obvious, agreed upon successor or plan for reconstruction amongst rebel forces. Without a clear, Syrian-driven plan for replacement of the Assad regime after its removal, a power vacuum will form. In the event of a power vacuum, the conflict will likely worsen. The fighting will no longer be between Assad’s forces and rebel forces, but amongst rebel forces over succession. The way to avoid a power vacuum is often to replace the dethroned leader.

However, the replacement of the Assad regime by foreign power is a violation against the people of Syria, who have the right to input in the direction of their nation.

The forceful removal of the Assad regime by foreign actors could potentially constitute a violation against the autonomy of the Syrian people. Removal of the Assad regime in conjunction with Syrians may be acceptable, however, collecting adequate input from Syrians both abroad and at home would require specific infrastructure that does not exist. Additionally, gathering a consensus from the Syrian people on their desires for the fate of the Assad regime would not be likely because many Syrians continue to support Assad despite the conflict.

Often, removal of a problem is conflated with the existence of a solution. The Syrian people are the only group with a right to power over the direction of their government, and any attempt to remove or replace Assad without the consent of the Syrian people will create fractured peace at best. Although removal of the Assad regime by foreign actors may be quicker and easier in the short term, in the long term it will likely cause a dangerous power vacuum and deepen political unrest and conflict in Syria.

Shannon Sutherland is a rising sophomore in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. She is particularly interested in conflict resolution in the Middle East.

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