As the situation in Syria drags on, the international community remains opposed to intervention against the Assad regime. In the meantime, some in the US continue to pin hope on the emergence of a deus ex machina solution that would at once magically resolve the Syrian crisis and also absolve the Obama administration of getting directly involved. Perhaps the most popular scenario involves a Russian-supported military coup against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. This idea, however, is based on dubious assumptions and is unlikely to materialize.
The idea of encouraging a coup to oust Assad is not new. When Assad suddenly replaced his Defense Minister, Ali Habib, in August of last year, there was speculation that the Alawite general was potentially someone whom the international community, especially the Turks, might reach out to. The pro-Assad Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar boasted at the time that Habib’s replacement was a “message” signaling the cohesion of the military establishment and the “strong relationship” between Assad and the military. Whatever the case may have been, the news of a supposed split in Assad’s top security entourage quickly fizzled after that.
However, hope in the coup scenario endured in Washington. As recently as late February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised that prospect in comments to reporters, saying that the administration knew “from many sources that there are people around Assad who are beginning to hedge their bets.” Citing the Egyptian precedent, Clinton sounded a confident note about the likelihood of a coup: “We saw this happen in other settings last year; I think it is going to happen in Syria.”
Yet no one in the administration or elsewhere fleshed out how this coup scenario might come to pass. This absence of detail seems to be a reflection of the rather limited understanding of, and available intelligence on, the opaque inner workings of the Assad regime’s power structure.
However, a solution seemed to present itself to the Obama administration. The Russians could pull it off. If Washington lacked the necessary intelligence, then Moscow, which has had a close military-to-military relationship with Syria for many years, would certainly be in a position to engineer such a coup. Put differently, the administration assumed that Russia’s influence with the Syrian military brass mirrored that of the US with Egypt’s senior officer corps.
According to an unnamed senior Gulf Arab official with knowledge of high-level meetings held with US officials, Washington was concerned only with removing the top leadership and its hardcore loyalists in the senior command. The Gulf official, speaking to a veteran columnist for the Saudi al-Sharq al-Awsat, added that the dialogue with Russia might settle on a strong military general who would lead the transition.
For the White House, the challenge was to convince Moscow that its interests were best served with this course of action. Why tie Russian interests to Assad when there could be ways to guarantee them without him? As one unnamed diplomat put it last month, Russia “would rather keep the current government roughly in place, with or without Assad.”
If the US could convince Russia, then it would kill two birds with one stone. First, the Obama administration would win what it’s described as a “soft landing” for Syria, an end to the violence, preventing a full-scale civil war and preserving Syria’s so-called “state institutions.” Second, because Moscow let on that it felt double-crossed with the Libya intervention, in this instance the Obama White House could ensure that Russian interests are respected and preserved by a measure of regime continuity.
These assumptions, however, are deeply flawed. First, it is unclear if Russia even has the ability to set in motion such a complex endeavor as manufacturing a coup in the Damascus regime. As Russian expert Georgy Mirsky explained in comments to the Associated Press, Moscow, like Washington, lacks the intelligence about Assad’s inner circle and the means to engineer such a transfer of power. “I don’t think that Russia has the capability to do that,” Mirsky said.
Second, Russia understands full well that once Assad is ousted, all bets are off. In such a volatile situation, guarantees are virtually meaningless, especially since the revolutionaries are likely to reject any form of regime continuation, let alone Alawite primacy—especially in the military. Like Misrky said, “Russia wouldn’t engage in the kind of intrigues that would be far too risky.”
Indeed, far from being a quick and smooth affair, a coup may merely open yet another subset in the Syrian conflict. Such a dangerous move would require a senior Alawite figure with strong standing, commanding unwavering loyalty of key segments of the military, which Assad, like his father before him, has infested with layers upon layers of informants. Assuming such a figure exists—and it’s telling that no name has been suggested by experts—his stature would not negate the powerful support the Assad family would still be able to count on. This is especially so since power is highly centralized in the hands of the Assads and their Makhlouf cousins.
As a result, it would be reasonable to predict that the Assad family and its loyalists would resist the move, leading to an intramural war among the Alawites. This likely prospect would not have escaped the Russians. It would also be very much on the mind of the would-be Alawite coup plotter. Any Alawite general even entertaining a move against Assad would need to rely on Alawite solidarity in the face of a resurgent Sunni majority. But an Alawite coup against an Alawite regime is the very definition of fragmentation and would weaken the core sectarian community.
The reality is that Russia and the Alawite security barons probably understand something that the Obama administration appears not to. The notion of a coup that would neatly remove Assad, end the conflict and also preserve “state institutions” reflects a poor understanding of the nature of the Syrian system and power structure, as well as sectarian dynamics in Syria. At its core, this is an idea not solidly grounded in reality. Rather, it springs from the administration’s hope that it can somehow skirt the issue altogether.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.