Robert M. Danin, Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
For nearly two years, Syria has been wracked by civil unrest and brutal violence that has left at least 70,000 Syrians dead. U.S. policy towards Syria if Syrian president Bashar al-Assad should fall will likely remain reactive—not proactive—and will depend on the events precipitating his departure. Should unified rebel forces topple Assad and take Damascus, then the United States will recognize the new government and find ways to help it financially and diplomatically. However, if such a government includes jihadists, then Washington will seek out pro-Western elements to work with and press the new Syrian government to subscribe to democratic and non-violent principles.
President Barack Obama will likely be reluctant to commit U.S. forces to a peacekeeping operation to stabilize the country. Instead, the United States will likely mobilize international support for humanitarian relief and the country's rebuilding, though fiscal constraints will limit American largesse. In the more probable event that a post-Assad Syria descends into greater violence and sectarian retribution, Washington will likely urge regional partners, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to exert influence with those rebel groups to which they had provided arms and ammunition.
The United States is primarily concerned about Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. Only the prospect of these materials becoming accessible to other countries or terrorist organizations could mobilize U.S. military action to ensure that these weapons are secured. Greater bloodshed following Assad's fall will precipitate pressure from allies, humanitarian groups, and international organizations for Obama to take a more prominent role in dealing with Syria. Depending on the level of carnage, Obama may be unable to resist these calls.