Bashar Assad's inevitable presidential victory is another sign of the limits on the US's power

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Bashar Assad's inevitable presidential victory is another sign of the limits on the US's power
Syrian President Bashar Assad votes in the country's presidential election, in Douma, May 26, 2021.SANA/Handout via REUTERS
  • Syrian President Bashar Assad's victory in last week's election was never really in doubt.
  • Assad's ability to cling to power, like other Middle East misadventures, shows the limits of the US's power to remake the world.
  • Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

Syria's presidential election last week was "neither free nor fair," as a joint statement from the United States, the UK, France, Germany, and Italy said the day of the vote.

Though he technically had two opponents in the race and rules a country in a decade-long civil war, the victory of Syrian President Bashar Assad was never really in doubt. For most Syrians, in the words of a banner displayed at the headquarters of one of the regime's intelligence agencies, there was "no other choice."

For the United States, Assad's re-election should be a reiteration of the great foreign-policy lesson of the post-9/11 era: Our government cannot remake the world in its image.

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We cannot play global police and social worker rolled into one, launching one military intervention after another to solve every problem and topple every dictator. Washington's regime change projects over the past 20 years have failed.

They failed even when they "succeeded," as in Iraq and Libya. They failed when they were merely threatened, as in North Korea. And they failed when they failed, as in Syria, where Assad continues to hold on to power.

Bashar Assad's inevitable presidential victory is another sign of the limits on the US's power
A man holds a girl who survived what activists said was heavy shelling by forces loyal to Assad in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus, June 16, 2015.Bassam Khabieh/Reuters

Washington's failure in Iraq and Libya hardly needs rehearsing, 18 years after one war began and 10 after the other.

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Both nations, much like Syria, were ruled by cruel autocrats who should never have had power. But both also suffered enormously in the aftermath of regime change. Iraq swapped dictatorship for terrorism, first al Qaeda, then the marauding "caliphate" of the Islamic State. Libya remains chaotic and bloody, riven by civil war, a textbook case of how not to intervene.

Neither has become an exemplar of democracy or a source of regional stability. In neither is there evidence that further US military involvement will make progress toward anything that may be called "victory."

Our government's regime change failure with North Korea is less visible, but we have come far too close for comfort to just such a war. The chief regime change advocate was former national security advisor John Bolton, who in his capacities in the George W. Bush and Trump administrations was a consistent advocate of preventive strikes.

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In his 2007 memoir, Bolton expressed "dismay" over the advent of US-North Korean diplomacy - until, he wrote, he realized the North Koreans "were what they were," so negotiations might break down and then war could break out.

More recently, while working for former President Donald Trump, Bolton repeatedly pointed to Libya - with its dictator deposed and dead - as his ideal for North Korea and its despot, Kim Jong Un. With rhetoric like this (and, even in its absence, the US record in Iraq and Libya on full display), is it so surprising the Kim regime won't surrender its nuclear arsenal?

Bashar Assad's inevitable presidential victory is another sign of the limits on the US's power
A US soldier next to an M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle in northeastern Syria, December 16, 2020.US Army Reserve/Spc. Tarako Braswell

Then there's Syria, where the last three US presidents have launched strikes - all without congressional authorization, as the Constitution requires. A small contingent of US forces remains on the ground in opposition alike to Assad's forces and any last remnants of ISIS, which Assad also fights.

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They're there, apparently indefinitely, though it has long since been clear that the US will not oust Assad. Syria's election demonstrates that anew, said Robert Ford, who was US ambassador to Syria when the civil war began in 2011.

"Great powers like the United States cannot remove this guy," Ford told The Washington Post ahead of the vote.

Absent large-scale war, which would have no connection to US security and little support among the war-weary American public, he's right. For the sake of the Syrian people, Assad should go, but this regime change isn't going to happen at our behest.

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Keeping US soldiers on Syrian soil increases our risk while doing nothing to change the reality of Assad's office. Washington should withdraw all American troops from Syria (and Iraq) immediately and adopt the foreign-policy restraint these failures advise.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.

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