After nearly four years of almost unimaginable horror in Syria, the prime mover of all the repression, all the brutality, and all the sheer suffering of this cruellest of civil wars is getting what he wanted all along. A myopic and half-hearted aerial campaign is targeting his supposed rivals, and he is being left alone by the international community.
Even Bashar al-Assad’s most gleeful propagandists could not have dared to hope that things would work out this far in his favour. Not only are his crimes being forgotten. Not only is his role in creating the humanitarian quagmire which besets Syria and the surrounding nations being minimised or removed entirely, as if swept from the history books.
More than that, he is even being spoken of as a potential ally in the fight against the Islamic State. It is enough to make even the most dull-eyed dictator – or the most maniacal mass murderer – pinch himself with glee. Not only have they fallen for it, he must think, they even want me on their side!
But this is exactly what some western analysts – such as Leslie H. Gelb, writing in the Daily Beast – think we should do.
Gelb admits, somewhat to the detriment of his argument, though not to the detriment of the truth, that: ‘[Assad] remains zeroed in on the rebels, while brokering his own stolen oil internationally on behalf of the ISIS jihadis who took it.’
After years of civil war, Syrian rebels are not in the best shape. This is a statement of fact. It would be intellectually dishonest, however, to omit the causes of this state of affairs. Caught between the twin perils of IS and Assad, and denied all but the most vacillatory international support, rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army have suffered. Of course they have; and so have the Syrian people.
Assad’s forces have committed atrocities, both with and without the aid of weapons of mass destruction. More than 11,000 people have been tortured to death in regime prisons, according to the Senate testimony of a Syrian defector. And the state is poised, it seems, to inflict the same grisly fate on many more. This particular fact becomes tired in reiteration – but not less true.
It is also true that international inaction – be it in failing to intervene in the aftermath of chemical war crimes, insufficiently equipping moderate rebel groups to fight against trained soldiers from Assad’s army and that of Iran, and not providing the sort of diplomatic recognition that could have put pressure on an embattled tyrant – has helped to create the current terrible situation.
But being complicit in the creation of a scenario in which the theocrat and the fascist can thrive should not mean embracing that most terrible of eventualities. On the contrary, it only doubles the moral obligation of those who – for whatever reason – allowed Assad and IS to ascend to their duel positions of power; rather than shrinking away from confronting this evil, we must fight it – and in any form it may take.
Cosy accommodation with dictators is never something any truly moral nation or coalition of nations should be prepared to countenance – and especially not in this instance: a humanitarian disaster which the UN has been calling ‘the worst in its history’ since December last year. Things have only got worse in the intervening months.
And the worst of it is yet to come: Assad and the Islamic State are hardly enemies. The regime has co-operated with jihadis of all stripes in the harvesting of oil revenues; it has released suspected Islamists from prison – this as early as 2012 – with the full knowledge that they would join IS and its affiliates; and has continued, as Gelb concedes, to target rebel positions, despite the fact that IS supposedly represents an existential threat to all and sundry. Why? Because it was all part of the plan from the beginning.
If it is true, as Gelb asserts, that ‘recently, Assad has been signalling that he sees things differently’, this about face is unlikely to come from the goodness of his heart. Monsters rarely change their course of action without a reason, after all. It is more likely to do with the fact that Islamic State has served its purpose. The remarkable variety of those states which make up the anti-IS coalition should indicate the regime’s objective. If the United States is willing to tolerate the head-chopping Saudis and dissent-crushing Bahraini monarchy as allies, goes this line of thought, why not Syria?
Why not Syria indeed.
With this sort of slippery diplomatic game afoot, it is absurd to suggest, as Gelb seems to do, that the coalition can find a stable and useful ally in the Assad regime. Furthermore, it is an insult to the collective intelligence of his readers for Gelb to state that ‘[c]ooperating with Assad is also the only feasible way, at present, to lessen the humanitarian nightmare in Syria’. Assad is not interested in lessening the humanitarian crisis which has befallen Syria since the first flickers of protest against his authoritarian government broke out in 2011. Of course he isn’t; he caused that very disaster in the first place.
Allying with Assad would be worse than poor strategy; it would be morally unacceptable to anyone with an ounce of decency, and to anyone with the slightest stake in identifying and punishing his crimes. Ethical triangulation on this scale – even were it not based on a propagandistic smokescreen, the sort which allows terrorists and tyrants to co-operate in butchery – must be resisted.
Until we are able to peer past the obfuscation and the disinformation, and to see this squalid proposal for what it is, we will forever remain to tools of tyrants; dancing to their tunes, abetting their crimes, and excusing the excesses of their governments – all with little thought for the horrors contained within.
This article, originally published elsewhere, has been reproduced in light both of the continuing trend among some to call for alliance with Syrian regime and of Gelb’s latest effusion, in which he cheerily advocates for rapprochement with Russia and thus the Putin tyranny.