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Opinion How can the United States remove Assad? There’s no good way.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with Syrian army soldiers in Eastern Ghouta.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with Syrian army soldiers in Eastern Ghouta. (Sana/Reuters)
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Last week, the Syrian civil war entered its eighth year . At least 465,000 people have been killed, 1 million injured and 12 million displaced out of a prewar population of around 21 million. It is a humanitarian and strategic nightmare, and the primary culprits are the Bashar al-Assad regime and its enablers in Moscow and Tehran. It is right to be furious at Assad and his backers, but expressions of disapproval, no matter how vehement, will not change this horrific reality.

That is a lesson that critics of my recent column , "To save Syrians, let Assad win," don't seem to get. The Twitterati claimed that "Max Boot is how genocide is created" and accused me of becoming an "advocate for Assad." Clifford D. May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies , accused me of concluding "that America need not and should not stand up to the enemies of freedom." Syrian exile Mouaz Moustafa argued that "saying that Assad can stay brings him comfort [and] greenlight." My contention that "tyranny is preferable to useless and endless war" brought derision from Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, who compared it to saying in 1940 "To Save Brits, Let Hitler Win," in 1953 "To Save Korea, Let Kim Il Sung Win," or in 2018 "To Save Afghanistan, Let the Taliban Win."

The analogy is inapt because Britain in 1940, South Korea in 1953 and Afghanistan today all had a much better chance to prevail than the Syrian opposition does — and especially the nonextremist opposition. The Free Syrian Army has been decimated since 2011, largely because the United States failed to provide it with sufficient backing, as I and others suggested at the beginning of the war. The most powerful non-Kurdish opposition groups today are Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham , a U.S.-designated terrorist organization that used to be affiliated with al-Qaeda, and another militant organization, Ahrar al-Sham . They continue to hold out in Idlib province, but these are not groups the United States should back.

Overall, according to the U.S. intelligence community, non-Kurdish rebels hold just 14.2 percent of Syria's inhabited territory (a third of the country is sparsely populated). The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-Arab militia in the east, hold 32.8 percent, including the country's oil reserves, while the Islamic State has 10 percent and falling. The regime controls 42.8 percent and climbing. In most of the country, the rebellion is a lost cause.

It is easy to say, as my friends at the Institute for the Study of War and the American Enterprise Institute do, that "the removal of the Assad regime remains a necessary condition to achieve a desirable outcome in Syria," but we have lost the leverage to achieve that objective. Even if Assad could be overthrown, it is not clear his successors would be any better.

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My March 9 column was an attempt to come to terms with this grim reality. I didn't suggest legitimating or supporting Assad. I simply said there is nothing we can do to save the embattled city of Eastern Ghouta or to roll back the Assad offensive more generally. I did write, however, that President Trump should launch airstrikes to punish Assad's forces for their use of chemical weapons. I also argued for using American military might to defend the Kurdish enclave in the east, thereby denying Assad control of a third of the country and preventing Iran from establishing a land bridge from Tehran to Damascus.

In an email exchange, Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, offered a few other ideas that I'm happy to endorse: Adopt "Israeli redlines on construction of [Iranian] military bases, missile production facilities, transfers of game-changing weaponry"; implement "U.S. financial warfare campaign against Iran, Assad and Russia" to "make them bleed financially"; win a "commitment from U.S., Europe, Gulf and Asian allies that no reconstruction money will go to areas controlled by Iran, Assad, Hezbollah or Russia"; and indict "Iran, Hezbollah, elements of the LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces] and Assad regime for using civilians as human shields under laws of armed conflict and for war crimes."

All reasonable suggestions. But none of them is a game-changer.

Dubowitz, however, went further than I would when he suggested asking Congress for an Authorization for the Use of Military Force to turn the "counter-ISIS mission into a counter-Iran mission." I don't think the American people are ready to risk war with Iran, and I don't think the current facts warrant it. After all, Iran's nuclear program is held in check by an international agreement — at least until Trump torpedoes it. But short of a massive U.S. military intervention, there isn't much the United States can do to dramatically affect the outcome in Syria.

I am not abandoning my commitment to freedom. I'm suggesting only the implementation of our principles needs to be tempered by considerations of prudence and practicality. In today's political environment, that appears to be a radical thought.

Read more on this issue:

Colbert I. King: We’re not bystanders in Syria’s devastation. Some of the rubble is ours.

Josh Rogin: Will Trump let Assad get away with using chemical weapons in Syria?

David Ignatius: Syria has become a gruesome cockpit once again

The Post’s View: Russia has fooled the U.S. again in Syria