Commentary Magazine


Backing Assad Is Not an Option

In the early days of the revolt against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, it was a little easier to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. The regime’s massacres of demonstrators and dissidents calling for an end to tyranny made it clear the world’s sympathy should be with the government’s opponents. But the assumption on the part of President Obama and his European allies that the ruthless Assad clan and its Alawite followers would meekly fold up its tents and leave the same way authoritarians in Egypt and Tunisia did was wildly over-optimistic. Since the U.S. rightly knew that Syria was a much tougher nut to crack than the Gaddafi regime in Libya, which they decided to take out as a humanitarian mission, the hope was that Assad would fall in due time, allowing a transition to a less murderous ruler in Damascus.

Unfortunately, Obama’s decision to wait and see was a colossal mistake. Assad and his backers had nowhere to go and showed they were prepared to kill as many people as possible to hang on. Tens of thousands of dead civilians later, something just as troubling has happened as the armed opposition to the regime is now dominated by jihadist forces, some of which are linked to al-Qaeda. Which means the debate about intervention in Syria has become a rather murky subject. But that hasn’t stopped the discussion that was enlivened this week by a couple of suggestions that pretty much covered the spectrum from a stance of dogged do-gooding altruism to dark cynicism.

Senators Marco Rubio and Bob Casey put the former position forward in a Politico op-ed. They want the U.S. to selectively back the least unattractive parts of the Syrian opposition while doing its best to oust the dictator. The latter was the work of scholar Daniel Pipes who wrote in the Washington Times to suggest that it was time to for the United States to think strategically and, astonishingly, back Assad’s bid to stay in power. Which of them is right? I’m not entirely comfortable with either position but if I really had to choose, Rubio and Casey’s proposal seems like the better option.

The bipartisan pair of Rubio and Casey has the advantage of sounding reasonable while also attempting to put the United States on the side of the angels:

We recently introduced legislation that would help bring about such a change in U.S. policy. The bill would authorize additional humanitarian aid for the Syrian people, support for the political opposition, and non-lethal assistance for vetted elements of the armed opposition. It would seek to further isolate Assad by recommending additional sanctions against entities that still do business with his regime. The bill would also require a plan for addressing Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, so they cannot be used against civilians or Syria’s neighbors.

That sounds good, but as even the two admit in their piece, the difficulties facing any effort to deal Assad a knockout blow while also ensuring that he isn’t succeeded by an even worse regime are great. Vetting an opposition that is thoroughly infiltrated by Islamists is easier said than done. While there are people in Syria who want democracy, does anyone seriously believe they can prevail over jihadists even with the help of the West? Even more to the point, any ties between them and the West may turn out to be more of a liability than an advantage. Moreover, as our Abe Greenwald pointed out in his post on Syria this afternoon, there is no chance that the United States will have any real interest in nation-building in Syria after what is universally thought to be a disaster in Iraq, even if it was a noble and misunderstood endeavor.

Pipes takes on the issue from a completely different angle. He completely discounts the chance that the Syrian opposition can be cleaned up or even house-trained and views the prospect of an Islamist Syria, which would be heavily dependant on an Islamist Turkey, as a recipe for disaster for the United States. Rather than seeing the goal of American policy as ending the slaughter and pushing for democracy, the head of the Middle East Forum think tank urges us to view this conflict as being analogous to the conflict in the 1980s between Iran and Iraq. Pipes says in that war between two hateful, vicious governments, the smart play was to back whichever side was the weakest in order to keep the fighting going so as to weaken both.

Applying this same logic to Syria today finds notable parallels. Mr. Assad fills the role of Saddam Hussein, the brutal Baathist dictator who began the violence. The rebel forces resemble Iran — the initial victim getting stronger over time and posing an increasing Islamist danger. Continued fighting endangers the neighborhood. Both sides engage in war crimes and pose a danger to Western interests.

Yes, Mr. Assad’s survival benefits Tehran, the region’s most dangerous regime. However, a rebel victory would hugely boost the increasingly rogue Turkish government while empowering jihadis, and replace the Assad government with triumphant, inflamed Islamists. Continued fighting does less damage to Western interests than their taking power. There are worse prospects than Sunni and Shiite Islamists mixing it up, than Hamas jihadis killing Hezbollah jihadis, and vice versa. Better that neither side wins. 

That’s why he thinks the West should back Assad even though it’s the sort of advice that makes most observers gag. Pipes concedes that the West can’t stand by and let Assad continue slaughtering civilians so he suggests putting pressure on the two sides to behave according to the rules of law while threatening military strikes to punish those who fail to do so. But this idea is every bit as problematic as the formulas put forward by the do-gooders. That will only lead both sides to blame the West and leave it as vulnerable to being held responsible for the slaughter as a policy that backs the rebels.

Pipes is right that those who want to back the rebels are hopelessly naïve about the problems inherent in such a strategy. He’s also correct to point out that the only really good outcome in Syria would be one in which the friends of Iran and the friends of Turkey are both left exhausted and without complete control of the country.

But his call for Americans to think strategically ignores the fact that it is impossible for the United States to have an unabashedly cynical approach to any foreign policy problem. An America that disdains the cause of democracy, even in a country where democracy is not a viable option, is an America that has lost its moral compass and will soon lose whatever influence it has left. A policy that even tacitly countenanced the continuation of Assad in power would be a deathblow to our credibility as a nation. It would also be wrong. Pipes, who has a long record of astute analysis of the Middle East, understands just how evil the Assad regime has been. It is possible to argue that leaving Assad in power prior to the Arab Spring was the least bad option in Syria. But after his murderous role in the civil war of the past three years, it is simply not possible for the United States to even think about associating itself with him.

The fact is there are no good choices left to President Obama in Syria and haven’t been since he first passed on intervention when it might have done some good. Taking a chance on picking winners among the Syrian opposition is a long shot that will probably fail. But betting on Assad is a guaranteed disaster. As much as I think Rubio and Casey’s recommendations are based more on hope than serious analysis, Pipes’s proposal is simply a non-starter.

Like it or not, America’s only choices in Syria consist of the following: continuing to stand on the sidelines or a more robust effort on behalf of the rebels. Neither strikes me as smart, but at least the Rubio-Casey idea has the advantage of being rooted in American values. For all of its logic and historical perspective, Pipes’s realpolitik tilt to Assad is incompatible with those values and therefore must be rejected out of hand.

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