Following the U.S. military response to a chemical weapons attack in Syria earlier this month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sat for an interview with ABC News and was asked about the prospect of forcefully removing Syrian President Bashar Assad from office.
On that occasion, his response was right on-target.
“Anytime you go on and have a violent change at the top,” he said, “it is very difficult to create the conditions for stability longer-term.”
Tillerson cited the overthrow of former Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi in 2011 as proof. And he could have pointed to Iraq as another country where regime change went wrong.
President George W. Bush removed the government of Saddam Hussein with shock and awe in 2003. American troops are still there today, and the Islamic State has torn the country to pieces.
The question now is whether regime change in Syria can yield a good outcome. And unfortunately, Tillerson has been anything but consistent on the matter, at times indicating steps were underway to remove Assad and at others suggesting the opposite.
President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has called Assad, among other things, an “animal.” That’s the kind of term you reserve for someone you want to go after.
The Assad-must-go argument, touted by former Secretary of State John Kerry, is that with so many opposed to Assad in Syria, stability can only come once he is gone.
And though Assad is on no one’s short list for sainthood, the problem with Kerry’s line of thinking is that there is no democratic-minded, America-loving, Iran-hating group waiting to take the reins of power in Syria.
The Trump-Tillerson aspiration seems to be to install a government in the Kurdish portion of northern Syria that includes the Sunni opposition element.
But the Kurds seem mostly interested in totally separating from any central government in Syria. And the Sunni opposition is in tactical alliance with al-Qaida-related groups that are doing the bulk of the anti-Assad fighting.
Despite the misery engulfing Syria, there is a modicum of normalcy in some parts of the country.
Syria has a government based in the country’s Shia minority but into which substantial sectors of the country’s Sunni majority have been drawn. That is what has held Syria together the last half-century.
If that government is destroyed, any semblance of stability will vanish. Regime change will spread chaos to every corner.
The government of Syria is the strongest force opposing the Islamic State in that country. It has the most to lose to the Islamic State threat.
Tillerson was on-target when he said that it should be left to the people of Syria to decide what government they will have — even if they have to fight over it. Hopefully the Trump administration, once it decides what its policy is, will leave them the choice.
We have already destabilized much of the Middle East. We plowed fertile ground for terrorists in both Iraq and Libya. We should not go for a trifecta.
John B. Quigley is a distinguished professor of law at the Ohio State University. He is the author of 11 books on various aspects of international law. Readers may write to him at Moritz College of Law, 55 West 12th St., Columbus, Ohio, 43210.