While not a silver bullet, a coup would not only remove Assad from power but would ensure the preservation of state institutions in the course of a transition. The United States should reach out to those close to, but not part of, the inner circle of the Assad clique and his immediate family. If these elements lead to a coup, the United States could then broker a power-sharing arrangement with the moderates in the opposition.
That said, engineering a coup in a tightly control authoritarian regime is extremely difficult. Some Iraqi opposition leaders were counting on a coup to get rid of Saddam Hussein for years. It did not happen. No doubt a significant part of Assad’s intelligence apparatus is focused on preventing a coup. Moreover, many of the officers who would be in a position to carry out a coup are members of Assad’s Alawite sect. In an environment of rising sectarianism, these officers are likely to be reluctant to move against Assad.
To increase the likelihood that such officers will roll the dice, the balance of power on the ground has to start shifting against Assad and the opposition has to embrace a credible program for power-sharing among Syrian different sects and ethnic groups. This program has to provide credible assurances that those who defect will have a place in the new order.
Identifying officers who are potentially acceptable as partners for the opposition and who are sufficiently influential to form a rump regime will not be easy. However, if they can be found, each side will have a powerful incentive to strike a deal.