What If Assad Is Defeated With No Replacement? Syria Stares Down A Post-America Power Vacuum [Opinion]

Following the deadly chemical attacks allegedly issued by the Assad regime on Tuesday, President Donald Trump went back on his anti-intervention campaign stance on Syria (but kept his promise of unpredictability), ordering a massive missile strike on a Syrian air force base as a message of intolerance for the use of chemical weapons.

The attack has created international shockwaves, earning inconsistent support at home but also leaving experts questioning the legality of his lack of consultation with Congress beforehand, with some even wondering whether the move was actually executed in an effort to ease suspicions of collusion between the Trump administration and Syrian-ally Russia amid the FBI’s ongoing investigation of the matter. While the current situation leaves many questions unanswered, the biggest concern on all sides of the political aisle is that of what comes next.

With Syria’s future now more vague than ever, the risk of repeating negative history seems prevalent. In the past, American intervention in the Middle East has been effective in removing war criminals from power but has also left gaps in leadership that allowed extremist groups to take over, thus giving groups like ISIS more dominance over the region and keeping American boots on the ground far longer than intended.

Security forces worked to recover bodies from a house destroyed in an ISIS airstrike
Civil protection rescue teams work to recover the bodies of people killed during fighting between Iraqi security forces and ISIS militants. [Image by Felipe Dana/AP Photo]

The power vacuum is an issue that has plagued the Middle East for decades now. Radical terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda and more recently ISIS, have taken advantage of the need for leadership in countries racked by violent regime changes by supplying funding for water, electricity, public schools, banks, and even many private businesses to citizens that have been neglected and oppressed by their government.

Through this economic power, these groups gain control of all laws and external relations for the communities they integrate themselves into, making targeting terrorists without harming innocent civilians all the more challenging.

History has taught us that this process risks being potentially helped along when American intervention against oppressive regimes goes awry. Our post-9/11 invasion of Iraq based on false intelligence is a frequently-cited example of a power vacuum that ultimately led radicalized groups to the forefront in the absence of other inclusive options.

The intervention resulted in the successful capture and execution of the brutal dictator Saddam Hussein, but opened up massive conflicts between various Iraqi groups with no proposed system for reorganization, ultimately keeping American military forces involved for an unforeseeably drawn-out eight years of war and fueling the growth of terrorist organizations in the region. President Obama, who formally withdrew troops from Iraq in 2011, openly discussed this in an interview with VICE’s Shane Smith.

“ISIL is a direct outgrowth of Al Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion, which is an example of unintended consequences,” the former president admitted, acknowledging the pattern that some are now concerned about repeating in Syria.

U.S. Army soldiers remain in conflict with Islamic State militants long after the United States' initial invasion of Iraq. [Image by Marko Drobnjakovic/AP Photo]

With the United States’ sudden strike on a Syrian air force base, questions of escalation that could potentially lead to this form of power vacuum are now up in the air. President Trump’s sudden reversal of his stance on intervention provides little indication that a plan for helping Syria reorganize should Assad be defeated has been in the works as well. The parallels of the current triangular conflict between the Assad regime, ISIS, and Syrian civilians and the situation in early-2000s Iraq are undeniably plentiful, particularly when it comes to the potential the United States has to influence the outcome.

Protecting Syrian civilians from dictatorial war crimes while simultaneously actively combatting ISIS’ influence in the Middle East is a complex enough set of goals just in the context of this week. The fast-paced escalation of the struggle between Assad’s oppressive regime and ISIS in the Syrian civil war has left the innocent civilians taking the brunt of every hit from both sides, and with more and more countries rejecting refugees, nowhere else to go.

With messy diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia complicating the situation even further, a long-term plan for helping Syria reorganize and ward off the influence of ISIS should the Assad regime fall seems far down the list of the White House’s priorities, though this kind of thorough foresight may be exactly what determines the fate of the war on terror.

[Featured Image by Alaa Alyousef/AP Images]