Almost two years after the Syrian uprising began, President Bashar Assad's reign appears shakier than ever. Rebels are closing in on Damascus. This month, the United States and 100 other countries recognized the opposition as Syria's legitimate government. For humanitarian and national security reasons, America will be better off with Assad gone.
Assad was no bulwark against Islamic radicalism. Though he opposed extremist elements at home, he supported them abroad, helping Al Qaeda terrorists infiltrate Iraq. He also enabled a lifeline to Hezbollah, a group whose targeting of Americans and global reach rivals that of Al Qaeda.
While American officials worry that Assad will use chemical weapons, many forget that had the Israelis not destroyed his nuclear facility in 2007, he might now be brandishing a deadlier arsenal.
That regime change will likely come without any U.S. military commitment should not be a source of White House pride, however. As an eyewitness and Pentagon participant in both Iraq pre-war planning and postwar reconstructing, I see the Obama team replicating Bush administration mistakes one by one.
Start with intelligence. When the Syrian uprising began, the State Department had little insight into who the free Syrians were.
The revolt caught both the State Department and the CIA by surprise. Overnight, determining who the Syrian rebels were became the foremost priority.
Patching together an opposition is no mean feat. The Bush administration's attempt to organize the Iraqi opposition was as effective as herding cats. Most of the Arabs who wound up rising to the top had never appeared on American radar screens.
The same dynamic is at play in Syria. Syrians have come out of the woodwork to claim connections beyond the State Department's wildest dreams. They have hashed out declarations at U.S.-sponsored meetings in Istanbul and Doha, none of which have relevance to ordinary Syrians.
President Obama also seems slow to understand that, just as in Iraq, regional states play a subversive role. The Free Syrian Army has arrested dozens of Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen pretending to be pilgrims. Damascus has its shrines, but to be a religious pilgrim in war-torn Syria is like heading to Newark for its skiing.
Turkey, too, is playing a double game: Syrians accuse Ankara of supporting hardline Islamists to undercut secular Kurds. Qatar is today a financier for most radical religious factions. Rosy descriptions of the Syrian opposition repeat the Bush-era triumph of wishful thinking over reality.
The formation of the Syrian Opposition Council, praised by Obama for its inclusiveness, replicates another Iraq mistake: Confusing democracy of process with democracy of result. The instinct that inclusion promotes democracy is often wrong. Some groups will ride the democratic wave only so far as it suits them, and then return to their guns.
As the Iraqis quickly learned, too disparate a group brings deadlock. Sometimes, the best path to democracy is marginalization, not inclusion. Obama would never appoint Mitt Romney to be his vice president; he should not expect the Syrians to be more magnanimous.
Obama's team must also recognize that, just as war ravaged Iraq, it has forever changed Syria. Government forces and the irregular militiamen engaged in sectarian cleansing as deliberate as that perpetrated in Bosnia and Iraq.
Today, Syria is a country of ethnic and sectarian cantons, some Alawite, some Sunni and some Kurdish. There is no turning back the clock. Yet, despite the new reality, there has been no apparent long-term planning for Syria's future.
One thing should be clear: What happens in Syria won't stay in Syria. Should Christians head to Lebanon to flee the rise of Islamist militants, they will upend that country's delicate sectarian balance. Iraqis fear an Al Qaeda presence in Syria could reignite sectarian violence in their country. Turks fear both Alawi separatism in Turkey's Hatay province and Kurdish nationalism across the board.
Obama must plan for the worst. There will be a Syrian insurgency. Contesting power is one thing; accepting defeat is another. The region's powers will pick their proxies, fueling a lengthy conflict.
Al Qaeda, not known for compromise, will join the mix. On Dec. 11, a new Jihadist council led by the Nusra Front, recently designated by the United States as a terrorist group, declared that they seek "nothing other than victory or martyrdom."
Assad's demise will be the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end. As our last President learned only too well in Iraq, the real challenges begin only after the dictator's fall.