Moral Deficit: Why Would London’s Mayor Support Syria’s Assad?

The defence of tyranny is becoming almost fashionable. Once unimaginable, at least outside certain circles, it has become almost the mark of self-described ‘realists’ to advocate tactical co-operation with individuals and regimes that have perpetrated atrocities. The threat of other forces – perhaps religiously inspired terrorists, or additional dictators with more expansionist tendencies – is deemed to merit these instances of dealing with the devil.

In the West at the moment we are witnessing a new iteration of another variant of this idea.

In Syria, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has been busily engaged in the repression of the population and destruction of the country for five years; the United Nations, normally a timid body, has gone so far as to use the word ‘extermination’ when categorising the regime’s crimes.

Though this may at first seem hyperbolic, when one has seen the scale and scope of the regime’s outrages it soon emerges as the only apt description. Anything else would simply shrink into meaninglessness when considering the mass murder undertaken by the regime, often along sectarian lines; the indiscriminate barrel bombing, much of which targets civilian areas in gruesome ‘double tap’ attacks designed to kill innocents and those humanitarian organisations that try to assist them; the vast campaign of regime repression, which has seen the effective ‘disappearances’ of many thousands; and the widespread torture perpetrated in regime prisons, which has been chronicled in excruciating photographic detail by the defector codenamed Caesar.

In spite of this record of barbarity, and despite it being well known internationally, an increasing number of apparently serious people have been coming forward to say that, though Assad is a ‘bad guy’, we in the international community should endeavour to work with him, even if that means tolerating the more egregious excesses of his ossified regime’s existential struggle for survival.

The reason many claim to support such an initially unconscionable position is one which may strike some observers as decidedly convenient. Assad claims to be the greatest defence, the most trustworthy bulwark, against the Islamic State (IS) militant group, and this is a sufficient reason, many say, to give him largely unquestioning support.

The scourge of the Islamic State is, in this media age, the perfect villain. It has committed terrible atrocities, and it remains a tremendous threat in many ways, not least in its capacity to inspire and organise acts of terrorist violence in the Middle East and elsewhere. It continues to rule territory containing millions of people, and operations designed to ‘degrade and destroy’ the extent of its dominion have proven broadly unsuccessful in the past year.

With the news that forces claiming allegiance to Assad have retaken the historic city of Palmyra, the rallying cry has once again gone up, urging support for Syria’s dictator. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, has written something in that vein in Monday’s Daily Telegraph.

Johnson begins his piece with an attempt at balance: ‘Yes, I know’, he writes, ‘Assad is a monster, a dictator. He barrel-bombs his own people. His jails are full of tortured opponents. He and his father ruled for generations by the application of terror and violence.’ Johnson then elucidates what he describes as ‘reasons why any sane person should feel a sense of satisfaction at what Assad’s troops have accomplished’.

The first concerns the idea that, to Johnson’s mind, ‘no matter how repulsive the Assad regime may be – and it is – their opponents in Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) are far, far worse’. This is categorically wrong. Not only has the Assad regime been responsible for vastly more civilian deaths than IS, it is also just as vicious when considering the types of evils contained within this conflict.

Like IS, forces loyal Assad have committed massacres, stirred up and acted upon sectarian tensions, engaged in the crushing of dissent and political protest, encouraged the propagation of jihad (the Shia jihad) in defence of an apparently ‘secular’ regime, and used the same sort of ultra-violent repression which so characterises IS in the international imagination. The only difference between the two is a matter of style, not substance: unlike IS, the forces of the regime do not document its crimes in slick propaganda offerings, maintaining the pretence of Assad being a rational actor devoid of the same psychopathic bloodlust.

Johnson declares that ‘the victory of Assad is a victory for archaeology, a victory for all those who care about the ancient monuments of one of the most amazing cultural sites on Earth’. This seems rather weak, frankly.

He even goes so far as to praise the ‘ruthless clarity’ of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose bombs have been responsible for many hundreds of civilian deaths – and attacking the Syrian revolution to the benefit of IS – during the intense air campaign waged since September last year. Such things, in the calculation of a possible future prime minister of the United Kingdom, have ‘made the West look ineffective’ in a positive way.

Though Johnson resists the urge to call for outright co-operation with the regime (indeed, his piece ends on the rather odd note of praising British architectural expertise), all of this creates the sort of mood music intended to render working with Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers more palatable.

If forces under his control can be painted as the saviours of a cradle of civilisation, the man himself can be made up to be a more reasonable, more conciliatory figure. In the light of continuing acts of IS-inspired terrorism in Europe, seen in this month’s dual bombings in Brussels, this particularly treacherous siren call will grow stronger.

Johnson is not by any means the most assiduous voice calling for Assad to be welcomed back into the community of nations by means of the fight against IS. But pieces like his provide moral support for a campaign of very little moral substance.

Those who propagate Assad’s claim of defending an ancient civilisation are in effect helping the ruthless dictator further mock today’s civilisation.

This piece was originally published at Middle East Eye.

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