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Q&A: Why unseating Assad risks unleashing even more chaos in Syria

  • Published at 06:53 pm April 12th, 2017
Q&A: Why unseating Assad risks unleashing even more chaos in Syria

The statement by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the reign of President Bashar Assad's family "is coming to an end" suggests the US is taking a much more aggressive approach about the Syrian leader.

The remark Tuesday came after a US airstrike in Syria and threats of more punitive action.

Any attempt to unseat Assad faces huge hurdles and risks unleashing chaos. It could also relieve the suffering of nearly 1 million Syrians living under constant siege and bombardment.

Despite six years of civil war, Assad is firmly entrenched in his seat of power, Damascus, largely thanks to powerful allies Russia and Iran who continue to prop up his government politically and militarily.

Taking him out of the equation without a clear transition plan would be a major gamble with consequences that would likely resonate far beyond the Syrian borders and raises the following questions:

What is the US Position on Assad?

The Trump administration continues to offer mixed messages about its ultimate goal in Syria and whether Assad must surrender power, and when.

"It is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end," Tillerson said. "But the question of how that ends and the transition itself could be very important in our view to the durability, the stability inside of a unified Syria."

What is the Assad family's power base?

The Assad family has ruled Syria for nearly five decades. So entrenched is the dynasty that die-hard supporters label the country as "Assad's Syria." In battle zones, loyal fighters have sprayed "Assad, or we burn the country."

Among his supporters are members of his Alawite sect, as well as other minority sects such as the Christians and Druze who fear reprisals by extremists in case they take over the country. Many in the powerful business community also support Assad and see him as a source of stability compared to other, opposition-held parts of Syria that are run by scores of rebel factions and warlords. Syria's powerful security agencies, notorious for human rights abuses, also will back Assad until the end.

What are the alternatives to Assad?

There is no obvious replacement. Assad's term has been an extension of the rule by his father and his father's predecessor, both of which stifled any form of dissent for decades. Some analysts say the only replacement could be an Alawite army general, since the presence of such a leader would serve as a guarantee to Syria's minorities.

Could Assad be removed by force?

The US can take any number of measures against Assad to degrade and ultimately remove him from power. That includes bombing command and control centres, grounding his warplanes and significantly increasing weapons support for rebels fighting to topple him. Any such action risks an igniting a confrontation with Russia and Iran.

What would happen if he was ousted?

Europeans and the previous US administration have been very clear that they don't want a collapse of the regime similar to what happened elsewhere, including neighbouring Iraq. The concern is that a sudden unseating of Assad would lead to a collapse of state institutions, unleashing sectarian massacres and facilitating the spread of militant groups, such as the IS, al-Qaida and the Shia militias who have fuelled violence in Iraq.

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