Syria air strikes: Bashar al-Assad is not the ‘lesser evil’, but a major part of the problem

A Western alliance with Assad would be based on two colossal misunderstandings of the situation in Syria.

A Western alliance with Assad would be based on two colossal misunderstandings of the situation in Syria

Just over a year ago David Cameron was considering air strikes on Syria after the dictatorship of President Bashar al Assad dropped chemical weapons on civilians in a suburb of Damascus.

Today, in a quicker about-face than an MP dragged in front of the courts for fiddling his expenses, there are calls from senior politicians for the West to adopt Assad as an ally in the fight against the fanatics of the so-called Islamic State (IS).

Indeed, just this week Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British Ambassador to the United States, was on BBC News talking about working with Assad to defeat IS because the Syrian President is, in the well-known formulation, the “lesser evil”.

It isn’t difficult to see the logic here: the much talked about lesser evil does after all mean…well, less evil. Assad may be a bad guy et cetera, but at least he’s a “rational actor”, as the academics like to say.

Yet the idea of the Syrian Ba’ath party as a kind of rough-around-the-edges friend in the fight against IS is based on two colossal misunderstandings of the Syrian civil war and its spread into Iraq.

The first is the assumption that Assad actually wants to defeat IS, when in truth the disappearance of the jihadists from Syria would leave his regime dangerously exposed. With IS out of the way, Assad goes back to being the man who drops chemical weapons on children. Damascus has every reason to want to persuade the West that the uprising against his government is dominated by extremists, and therefore he has every reason to want IS to stick around.

Don’t believe me? Then take look at what we already know.

In Iraq al-Qaeda lived “pretty openly on the Syrian side” and without objection from the Syrian authorities, according to a top US commander in Anbar Province. Assad has also saved the most savage aerial bombardments for Free Syrian Army (FSA) positions while only very recently going after IS (no doubt with Western onlookers in mind). And then there are the purported oil deals that have taken place between IS, Jabhat al-Nusra and the regime in Damascus, raising millions for the jihadists.

If you’re still not convinced, listen to Nawaf al-Fares, the defected former Syrian ambassador to Iraq, who claims the Syrian government “would like to use Al-Qaeda as a bargaining chip with the West…to say: ‘it is either them or us.’”

And it’s working. The Free Syrian Army, the more moderate grouping that at one time dominated the various rebel factions, has been written out of history, with those fighting Assad crudely lumped together with the lunatics of IS.

The other misunderstanding  is that support for tyranny and dictatorship won’t cost us in the future. We in the West should know different by now.

One of the biggest mistakes during the Cold War was to follow the advice of US neo-Conservative and Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick. The Kirkpatrick doctrine had it that the West should support dictatorships in the “third world” so long as they were sufficiently anti-communist.

Death squads and summary executions were fine – so long as they were our death squads and summary executions. President Ronald Reagan, a devotee of Kirkpatrick, famously backed the racist Apartheid South African regime because it was, he said, “a country that has stood by us in every war we’ve ever fought”. A similar rational was evoked when the US propped up tyrants in Chile and Guatemala.

These gruesome alliances between strange bedfellows came with a cost attached. Not only in terms of the mountain of corpses left behind by the West’s allies and the purveyors of a so-called “lesser evil”, but in relation to how we came to be viewed in many parts of the world.

We were cynical, unprincipled and willing to sell out our supposed values for short-term expediency. This helped to swell the ranks of communist and anti-western movements for obvious reasons: to many the West became everything the communists said they were One needn’t be an all-seeing visionary to hazard a guess at how a western alliance with Assad – a man who has spent the past three years slaughtering Sunni Muslims (among others) – would go down in the Middle East.

Assad needs the West (or he at least needs the West to put up with him), but he also needs IS. The view from Damascus is probably that allowing the jihadists to rampage through a fairly insignificant part of northern Syrian is a price worth paying if it helps the regime to go, in just 12 short months, from an international pariah to the bulwark against fanaticism. Assad is not in any sense a “lesser evil”. He is part of the problem. What a shame to see so many falling for his game.

This piece was first published in the Independent

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