The defeat of Assad remains the best thing that could happen in a Middle East in crisis. A signal defeat for Iran in the heart of the region would help restore a balance of power between the Sunni and Shi’a that just might be the basis of a new regional order. When Saddam Hussein, a nominally secular dictator who ensured the dominance of Iraq’s Sunni minority, fell, Iraq flipped to the Shi’a camp. That could have worked out if the United States had been willing to stick around in Iraq and help it find a path that was non-aligned with Iran. But when the Obama administration’s premature withdrawal left the country with no realistic alternative to falling into orbit around Iran, the regional balance was thrown into disarray. The perception that the United States was tilting toward Iran further destabilized the Sunni world, leading both to the weakening of longstanding U.S. alliances and to rising sympathy for radical Sunni groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda as Sunnis circle the wagons and prepare for sectarian war.
This is where regime change in Syria could help. Assad’s regime is the mirror image of Saddam’s—nominally secular but in fact ensuring the dominance of a small Shi’a-aligned Alawite community over a majority Sunni population—so its fall, and its knock-on effects in Lebanon, where the pro-Iran Shi’a political movement would be gravely weakened by the collapse of its longtime protector and ally in Damascus, would go a long way towards redressing the sectarian imbalance across the region. If the Shi’a and Iranians control both Iraq and Syria, they will also dominate Lebanon and, many Sunnis worry, the region. But if Syria flips to the Sunnis, the books balance, more or less.