As Syria veers toward a violent political transition, U.S. officials are hoping to avoid a dangerous vacuum like the one that followed the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq and triggered a sectarian civil war.
President Obama is seeking a “managed transition” in Syria with the twin goals of removing President Bashar al-Assad as soon as possible and doing so without the evaporation of the authority of the Syrian state.
The need to safeguard Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal is one reason why the United States is stressing an orderly transfer in which the opposition works with acceptable elements of the regime and army. The slow-and-steady U.S. approach has angered some militant Sunni opposition leaders, who prefer a decapitation of the regime and a revolutionary transition.
U.S. officials believe that Syria is nearing the tipping point, after a bombing on Wednesday killed Asef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law and one of the regime’s most notorious henchmen, and Dawoud Rajha, the defense minister who was the regime’s most prominent Christian. Fighting had raged Tuesday in the Damascus suburbs, with Syrian tanks and helicopter gunships attacking opposition forces a few miles from downtown.