It is conventional wisdom to call for the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar Assad. There are two main reasons for this. The humanitarian crisis in Syria is a direct result of Assad’s choice to directly combat his political enemies instead of abdicating like many others during the Arab Spring. There is also the moral dilemma in that Bashar Al-Assad is a murderous dictator whose police state regularly imprisons and tortures political prisoners and flagrantly violates international norms.
Bashar Assad is a despot but in the Middle East this is the norm rather than the exception. Assad’s behavior would have been replicated by other tyrants during the Arab Spring had their security forces not turned on them and forced them to abdicate. Middle Eastern political power comes from the barrel of a gun literally, not metaphorically.
The killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the displacement of millions is a human disaster on an epic scale. However, had the rebel forces taken control of Damascus the result most likely would have led to chaos and violence for years. The rebel forces were a motley crew of many different groups. These groups included army defectors, secular nationalists and many Islamists who had been harshly repressed under Assad’s regime.
At best Assad’s abdication would have led to a Sunni Islamic democracy which would have discriminated against Shias causing mass migrations to Iraq or Iran. A worst result would have led to the Lebanonization of Syria (encouraged by Iran) with mass sectarian reconfiguration and displacements within the country with rival sectarian militias battling for control like in Iraq in 2006. The humanitarian situation would still be dismal although not as cataclysmic as it is today.
Bashar Assad is a rational actor and his savage behavior in the civil war is calculated. His ultimate goal is keep the Assad clan in control of Syria (or what remains of Syria) and to carry out this goal he is unfettered and has crossed multiple “red lines” because to Assad the ends justify the means. He has become fully dependent on Iran in exchange for men and material. He has allied with the Russians (even though he personally wants to tilt to the West). He has used chemical weapons and paramilitary death squads to carry out atrocities and he has covertly strengthened radical elements within the moderate rebels and tiptoed around the Islamic State to seem like the only alternative to its barbarism. All notions of his resignation or being forced out by his inner circle are naïve as all the top players in his regime are marked for death by the opposition.
The choice for the Syrian people will be easy to make as the “moderate” rebels will eventually give up, be eliminated (by either Assad or the Islamic State), or become increasingly radicalized and absorbed into local Islamist militias. In a year’s time the only major players will be the Islamic State and the Assad regime fighting a never-ending stalemate. The choice will be between a murderous secular dictator and his corrupt clan or genocidal ultra-extreme Islamic terrorists.
Given this bleak prospect most rational people will pick the Assad regime since some level of normalcy is expected. The Islamic State would offer only Sharia law for locals and ethnic cleansing for minorities. The Western powers have arrived in Syria too little and too late. Assad should not be endorsed but the same position the West took during the Iran-Iraq War should be adopted. Let both Assad and the Islamic State battle it out. This way both Iran and its Shiite militias and jihadists inside the Islamic State will bleed out achieving a win-win situation for the West.