The Plot Against Syria?

| Mon Oct. 24, 2005 4:51 PM EDT

To follow up on Melanie's post below, Josh Landis notes that senior Bush administration officials already seem to be preparing for various degrees of regime change in Syria. Among other things, Stephen Hadley has reportedly discussed possible successors to President Assad with Italian sources. By all accounts, this is a bit crazy. As Mark Levine noted at HNN, the Assad clique has been running Syria—and by extension, Lebanon—like the Mafia for years, and no one would cry to see them go. On the other hand, après lui, le deluge and all that; Syrian's liberal democrats are an underdeveloped force, to say the least, and a clumsy ouster of Assad's regime, provided he's not quickly replaced by a somewhat more Western-friendly thug, could throw the country into factional infighting and chaos. The question here isn't whether the world would be better off without Assad's family in charge of Syria—of course it would—but whether getting rid of him would actually be a smart idea, and more importantly, how the Syria hawks actually plan on doing it.

It's also worth noting, though, that with the release of the Mehlis report, there's much, much more to this story than U.S.-Syria relations—the pressure against Syria isn't just a plot hatched by lunatic neoconservatives, and the Bush administration may choose Libya-style multilateral pressure on Syria rather than violent regime change. Indeed, the administration, John Bolton especially, has been surprisingly careful to let the UN take the lead in this whole Lebanon investigation. Now the UN is presumably going to demand a trial over the Hariri killing—as noted below, even France has stuck to its guns here—and presumably Assad isn't about to fork over his brother and brother-in-law, the latter of whom is perhaps the second-most powerful Syrian in the government, to the Hague. It's hard to see the Security Council putting up with that sort of slap in the face. Much of the important pressure, then, will likely come from the international community rather than the White House alone.

In the Washington Post on Saturday, Anthony Shadid outlined one likely Syrian strategy: "[O]ffering enough gestures to fend off international pressure but making no concessions that might imperil a government that already feels besieged." Or, as Shadid reported the following day, Syria "has promised to cooperate, within limits." Indeed, Syria's taken this route to good effect before, but it's not clear that it will work this time, even if Europe is wary of destabilizing Syria. And the latter might well come to pass sooner rather than later. David Ignatius last week suggested one possible outcome to all this: "If Assad's grip weakens and he can't or won't clean house in Damascus, the season of coup and counter-coup will begin for real."