U.S. Resolve and Options for Effective Leadership Change in Syria

Understanding the dynamics of Syria’s Alawite government and its foreign external support provides an impetus for a practical solution …


President Trump’s national security adviser on Sunday signaled a shift in the administration’s stance toward Syria, which now includes possible regime change, as Russia and Iran recommitted to supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster said the Trump administration has two goals in Syria: defeating the Islamic State (aka ISIS) and removing President al-Assad from power. I will focus specifically on the meaning of removing, because that is extremely critical, both semantically and when address the Syrian Alawite regime. “It’s very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from the continuation of the al-Assad regime,” General McMaster said on Sunday. Further, he noted that “Now, we are not saying that we are the ones who are going to effect that change.

In addition the General noted that; “What we are saying is, other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions,” saying; “Russia should ask themselves. ‘Why are we supporting this murderous regime that is committing mass murder of its own population?”

Prior to that, America’s leading Diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said Thursday that “steps are underway” on an international coalition to pressure Bashar Assad from power, as President Trump was being briefed on military options for Syria – though what specific steps the U.S. and its allies might take in response to the latest deadly chemical weapons attack remained unclear.

Secretary Tillerson addressed the Syrian crisis a day after President Trump declared in the Rose Garden that the chemical strike would not be tolerated. Secretary Tillerson pointedly said Russia should “consider carefully” its continued support for the Assad regime, while calling for an international effort to defeat ISIS in Syria, stabilize the country of Syria and ultimately work with regional and international coalition through a combine diplomatic, military, and political process that eventually leads to President al-Assad leaving power.

When asked if the U.S. would organize a coalition to remove Assad, Secretary Tillerson stated that that; “Those steps are underway.” Further, Secretary Tillerson noted; “It’s a serious matter, it requires a serious response” further adding that the recent chemical attack “violates all previous U.N. resolutions, violates international norms, and long-held agreements.” Understanding what those steps are and how they are implemented will be critical

Understand that a war or military action to take out Syrian President Bashir al-Assad would be a disastrous folly that would endanger American security, aid the Islamic State and al Qaeda, and may not make the innocents in Syria any safer. Aggressive diplomatic leverage, sanctions, and intense negotiations with key players; Russia and  Syria’s neighbors need to be part of the equation. Syrian President al-Assad and his role as an Iranian proxy need not be part of any negotiations as he and they, because of their heinous acts, have forfeited such a role long ago.

Furthermore, President Trump needs to ignore the voices in Congress and the mainstream media calling for the typical form of ‘regime change’ as we have seen before, and find a way to effectively and strategically manage and execute military action and use of military capability as an option to influence, shape, and target his stated goal of deterring and if necessary halting al-Assad’s chemical attacks, human rights violations when possible, and subsequently and ultimately removing or forcing al-Assad from power. I firmly believe it has reached a point that al-Assad must go. Russia, al-Assad’s second most important ally after Iran, in all seriousness must ask itself, what is it doing

With that, however, there are lessons from the past, while we certainly are not looking to replicate by any means, we need to keep  in mind. Bashir al-Assad is an evil and murderous dictator. That doesn’t mean the world will be better off if we kill him or depose him by force. Recall that Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi were evil and murderous dictators.

George W. Bush’s regime change in Iraq was a failure not because we deposed Hussein, but because we deposed the whole regime to include police and the military. To make it worse, Obama removed all U.S. military forces which in turn destabilized the region, empowered and emboldened Iran, aided al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and created a vacuum and lawless environment where the Islamic State could flourish and grow. While, we took out something bad, we allowed something worse to take its place. To make it worse we got bogged down in years of deadly, costly, ugly nation-building.

In Libya, for totally different and extremely dubious reasons, Barack Obama’s regime change was an even larger horrendous mistake.  First, as in Iraq, decapitating Libya created a vacuum into which a wide array of radical-Islamic of terrorist and militant entities swarmed.  Embracing, placating, and touting the phony and despicable “Arab Spring” movement as a model for democratic change and social justice across the Middle East, we watched as a former stable and or allied government in region toppled to radical Islamists elements in the name of the movement. One has to wonder if  Obama really knew the secret behind the Arab Spring since he wholeheartedly endorsed and supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Second, and perhaps worse, Obama didn’t bother with the lengthy costly nation-building. When the Arab Spring was revealed for what it really was, he just cut and ran from Libya. As a result, the country became a safe haven and a recruiting ground for the Islamic State. The chaos, the weapons and the Islamic State spread from Libya into surrounding countries.

Third, and history and international strategic studies and analysis repeatedly tell us, that without addressing the second, third, and fourth order effects of such actions, most are doomed for failure.  Again and again, taking out complete regimes always creates the condition(s) for something worse, particularly in the Middle East.

It’s not guesswork or pessimism to say a similar thing would happen in Syria, so we must be cognizant in our objective, our goal, and certainly the approach that is taken to ensure all possible options are addressed. With regard to any consequences, we know who would rush in to fill the void if we eliminated the entire Alawite regime, because these entities are already perched on the doorstep of Damascus: they of course include the Islamic State, al-Qaeda’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and perhaps the most dangerous in addition to ISIS, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (aka the ‘Islamic Movement of the Free People of the Levant’), commonly referred to as Ahrar al-Sham.

There are a lot of concerns about what next steps will need to be taken in Syria, as well as by whom, and how they will need to be implemented. Further, one of the many questions that has been asked is whether an effort for regime change​ is possible. By regime change, most assume it means the removal of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad constitutes regime change. That by any and all means is a misnomer and a misstatement of fact. In fact, there are actually two facets at play here; ‘leadership change versus regime change’;

  • The removal of President Bashir al-Assad, the Syrian President is limited to removing just a leadership position in Syria — again just the president and perhaps several hundred of his closest advisors, cronies, and in his case henchmen.
  • Removal of the regime of the entire Alawite regime, which is the Alawite Shia-dominated and controlled government itself the larger and to be avoided at all cost. Attempting to remove it encompasses the Syrian military, police, rank and file government staffs, civil servants and workers. That is akin to what we did in both Iraq, removing the Iraqi Baath party, and to some degree Libya — again was it a major error we made in Iraq because we essentially removed virtually the entire government in Baghdad and through the country.

Strategically, realistically, and logically, the basic answer is and must be that the latter is not going to happen. We must not conduct the typical standard of regime removal. Further, it is extremely important to understand and realize that removing al-Assad does not constitute regime change, nor does it equate to toppling the government of Syria in Damascus.

In fact, removing only al-Assad is the most effective, most viable, and most practical option and solution — in that it constitutes removing only the ‘leadership’ position of the Syrian regime, but not the bureaucracy and operational portion(s) of the government, which is the true regime — the Alawite regime. Bottom line, regime change is the removal of most of the Alawite regime, in addition to President al-Assad.  Again, we need to be careful not to replicate what we did in Iraq. That specific policy and plan of action is critical in achieving the desired outcome. That is what the Trump administration must focus on and ensure our allies and eventually any coalition formed is on board.

So how do we proceed and why?

One of the major factors we must understand and accept and certainly one we must contend with is that we have got to come to grips with the fact that regime change, as we know it, is not going to occur. The primary reason is because both the Russians and Iran have invested heavily, for years, and have propped-up and bolstered the Syrian government under Bashir al-Assad – which again is the Shite Alawite regime made up predominately by the Alawite religious sect. That too is another reason why total regime change is not an option. The dynamics behind that bureaucracy is a major factor, so unfortunately there is not going to be “regime change” anytime soon in Syria.

In fact, there is no amount of U.S. and international community coercion and collusion together, to ever make that happen, or to bring about and table such a course of action … just not going to happen.  In the coming weeks and or perhaps months, there may be an opportunity for some form of agreement between President Trump and his administration and Putin. The objective and key effort will be the possibility of the working-out of a deal to remove al-Assad or have him stepdown by making a “leadership change” with identifying and vetting a more moderate and acceptable Alawite leader to fill the void, certainly someone who is not a brutal dictator type who is heavily influenced by Iran, but acceptable to supporting regional stability. It will be a complex and monumental task.

Certainly, this will be one of the most critical efforts for Secretary Tillerson, in his first few months in office, and certainly in his first visit Russia this week as Secretary of State will discuss with his Russian counterpart Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.  It will be critical to introduce such ideas and to invoke and encourage the need for follow-up discussions on a framework and strategy moving forward. The past week’s actions in both Syria and the current situation in the Pacific with North Korea. Again this will help to foster the U.S. strategic message that the we are serious and resolute which gives Secretary Tillerson the necessary diplomatic leverage and morale high-ground to deal from a position of strength.

President Trump’s strategy should be to propose to Russia the option that a ‘leadership change’ be implemented as a serious option.  It would behoove the administration to encourage Putin to give-up on President Bashir al-Assad — mainly because he is as a ‘liability to Russia’ — and its status, relations, and relationships in the region are damning for Russia. Similarly, Russia must be reminded that to continue to support Syria’s hostile activities in the region are a detriment to Putin’s regional and internationally.

As part of this effort in a strategic influence and public diplomacy effort, Secretary Tillerson should publicly make the case that Russia’s complicit role, and any cooperation and corroboration in Syria systematic atrocities and major human rights violations, will be seen as collusion and an indication of Russia’s direct involvement in war crimes acts. That in and of itself is the best option and it is critical to ending both the civil war and to initiating stability in the war torn country which has had detrimental effects on regional instability.

Of course, in order to present, influence, and transfer that idea and concept from paper to execution, there are a series of much larger, more extensive, and critical responsibilities that must be integrated into this equation. These baseline stipulations essentially involve three strategic requirements, which are the major heavy-lifting efforts of a number of forthcoming engagements, summits, and eventual agreement(s). These will require a determined and aggressive diplomatic effort on the part of the U.S. and the Trump administration to engage, leverage, and to convince a number critical nations to agree to a framework that offers the widest possible encouragement and participation of regional leadership and international support. Already, a wide number of nations have voiced and acknowledged their support for President Trump efforts and U.S. action last week. All are looking at a strategic plan to ensure nations come together on that framework, three critical strategic components must be addressed;

  • First, all sides and participants must define their roles and missions going forward in establishing a coalition to resolve the crisis situation in Syria.
  • Second, it is extremely critical that there be a verifiable and enforced cease-fire in-place and implemented, which will include;
    • Need for a managed and guarded no-fly zone.
    • Need for a moratorium and sealing of the borders to prevent the infiltration of weapons and combat related logistics to the numerous, armed rebel factions.
    • The necessary compliment of peacekeeping, peace-enforcement and stability operation forces. This is an opportunity for the UN to reengage at the operational level, an area they have been AWOL from for over the last eight-years.
    • Safe zones for refugees to be provided protection security, and humanitarian release.
    • Further, with regard to the any effort of removal of al-Assad, will require careful situation awareness of multiple power plays, by multiple factions that are already opposed to al-Assada. There are well over three dozen armed Syrian rebel opposition factions that are involved in the multi-tiered, multi-dimensional Syria civil war. They will be prepared to take advantage of any opportunity to fill or challenge a leadership void with al-Assad’s removal. This will be the biggest threat, because without a clear and agreed upon succession and transition established to the presidency of Syria, they will make an effort to capitalize regime.
    • Rebel action, certainly, the most formidable is that of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya aka the ‘Islamic Movement of the Free People of the Levant’, commonly referred to as Ahrar al-Sham, which is a coalition of multiple Islamist and Salafist units that coalesced into a single brigade in order to fight against the Syrian Government and al-Assad. Again, this will be the biggest threat, primarily because without a succession established to the presidency of Syria, Ahrar al-Sham on its own will make any attempt at a leadership change (or regime change) its own priority, on its own terms.
    • Both regionally and inside Syria we must also consider Hezbollah and heavy involvement of Iran, which is why direct engagement with Russia is necessary.
  • Third, and in all actuality, both first and simultaneously — we must continue to conduct military regional operations to counter and destroy the most radical-Islamist armed opposition groups in Syria and the region who opposed to both the al-Assad government and would be a obstacle and danger to those forces involved in peacekeeping, peace-enforcement, and stability operation forces.Along with that effort internally to Syria of course is the need to continue our ongoing military effort to destroy ISIS. This is first and foremost.

As a critical side note, I must express my concern about several political entities that, because of their partisan politics and disdain for President Trump,  have chosen political bickering and criticism to serve their partisan cause first, rather than the cause of America  and reestablishing America prominence, respect and leadership in the world over forces of evil, destruction and brutality. Their personal political security and viability is more important to keeping their personal incompetence intact, rather than our national security, freedom, and the resurgence of America’s leadership on the world stage. They and most know who they are so I will deter from mentioning their names and identities.

This analysis and assessment is just a baseline precursor to address the wave tops of an extremely complex effort that will require aggressive diplomacy and steadfast negotiations involving numerous complex situations on multiple levels for the Trump administration.

While the U.S. took action to respond to President al-Assad’s despicable attack on innocent civilians and children and avenge and warn against further actions by the al-Assad regime, it was not the only reason.

President Trump used the crisis in Syria as the lead off opportunity to implement what I am calling Strategic “Re-positioning” which is reasserting America’s role both regionally and worldwide. Further, it is an effort to implement a series of national security policy positions, one for which I am also coining the term; “Aggressive Diplomacy.” We have already heard President Trump borrow and reengage Reagan’s famous “Peace Through Strength.” In all, this was and will continue to be a necessary pendulum swing to bring America back from Obama’s 8-year long “apologizing for America” tour to remind the world that all of the world’s problems started with America, along with his failed policies of  “entrenchment” and the most recent his “patient pause”.

For Russia, it continues to be and has been part of the problem over the past several years for supporting the al-Assad regime.  In the weeks and months ahead, Russia could become part of the solution or continue to be complicit.  Secretary Tillerson will demand that Russia yank its support from al-Assad’s bloody dictatorship over Syria, where hundreds of thousands have died in the savage 6-year-old civil war.  Further, Tillerson will confront Russia with evidence that it knew about — and tried to conceal — Assad’s sarin strike and will also charge Russia with breaking its 2013 agreement to oversee the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, saying Moscow has “clearly failed in its responsibility” to eliminate the deadly arsenal.  In a response during a phone call with Tillerson, this weekend Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov denied that the Syrian military had used chemical weapons in the attack.

Internationally, the U.S. and Britain strongly signaled Putin that Assad’s actions can no longer be tolerated, with NATO composing a plan to demand that Russia halt military support for al-Assad and to let Syria transition to a new government. It is now up to the Russians to reevaluate its commitment to the murderous regime of Bashir al-Assad.

In the grand scheme of things, certainly, defeating ISIS is a multi-tiered priority both internally to Syria and across multiple regions.  At the same time, removing al-Assad from power is the other of the priorities for the U.S. Again, as I noted, getting al-Assad out is not the only priority, nor should it be termed as “regime change” but “leadership change” – we need to address it as a leadership issue and in and of itself is a critical priority. Second, as the situation now stands, I do not see a peaceful Syria with al-Assad in there – he must go!  Third, we must get the Iranian influence out. And then finally move towards a diplomatic-political solution — this is a complicated situation, there are no easy answers and a diplomatic-political solution is going to have to happen within the next 12- 18 months.



Jim Waurishuk is a retired USAF Colonel, serving nearly 30-years as a career senior intelligence and political-military affairs officer and special mission intelligence officer with expertise in strategic intelligence, international strategic studies and policy, and asymmetric warfare. He served combat and combat-support tours in Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as on numerous special operations and special mission intelligence contingencies in Central America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. He served as a special mission intelligence officer assigned to multiple Joint Special Operations units, and with the CIA’s Asymmetric Warfare Task Force, as well as in international and foreign advisory positions. He served as Deputy Director for Intelligence for U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) during the peak years of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Global War on Terrorism. He is a former White House National Security Council staffer and a former Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C. He currently provides advisory and consulting services on national security, international strategic policy and strategy matters for the private sector, media groups and outlets, and to political entities, forums, and political candidates. He provides regular commentary and opinion to national and local TV, radio networks, and both print and online publications, as well as speaking engagements to business, political, civic and private community groups in the areas of national security -- focusing international strategic policy, strategic engagement, strategic intelligence, special mission intelligence and operations, counter-terrorism, and asymmetric conflict. He has served as a senior advisor to the Commander U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), and is Vice President of the Special Ops-OPSEC, which provides strategic and operational security analysis and assessments, and strategic planning to governmental and private entities, as well as media organizations on national security issues, policy, and processes.
Col. Waurishuk currently serves as State Committeeman for the Hillsborough County FL Republican Party.  These opinions are his own and not necessarily those of the HCRP.