BOSTON, UNITED STATES — Thought experiment: what if NATO deposed Assad, installed a democracy in Syria… and the public voted Assad back into office? That’s by no means outside the realm of possibility. Opinion polling in the beleaguered nation is obviously scant, but Assad is consistently at or near 50 per cent approval. Now factor out the nine per cent Kurdish population (who, Inshallah, will be given an independent state) and the hard-core Islamists who flee after the Caliphate falls. Then factor back in the secular, bourgeois refugees who go home once the worst of the fighting ends. Even if Assad himself couldn’t stand in a free, post-war election, that’s an easy win for the Ba’athists.
This is the chronic flaw with our ‘wars of democracy’: we don’t actually want to build democracies. We don’t really want the people of Syria to have their way. If they did, we’d almost certainly say it wasn’t worth spilling our blood and treasure for. Look at Iraq. What happened when we ousted Saddam and purged his supporters? The new government in Baghdad was overrun by inept Tehran lackeys. Its NATO-funded army turned on its heels and ran at the first sight of Isis fighters, abandoning advanced technology, which the jihadists promptly scavenged. That’s the democratic Iraq 3,400 Coalition troops died for.
Granted, the popular will is also dead wrong, which is something anti-intervention ‘realists’ lose track of. It’s the same error of extremes we saw during the war in Vietnam. Those who declare for Assad and Putin are 2017’s answer to the free-lovin’, doped-up hippies who burned American flags and chanted ‘Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh’. We shouldn’t pretend Putin, Assad, Saddam, and Gadhafi are anything but villains. If they’re keeping worse villains in check, fine. But to act as apologists for tyranny is … well, I’d think that’s self-evidently wrong, but one can’t be too sure anymore.
The situation in Syria is even more complicated than Vietnam’s was. A plurality, if not a majority, of the public want to permanently languish under the rule of the Assad family. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve called Assad a secular strongman, which is true – at least compared to Isis. But we should also understand that Ba’athism is treated as a secular religion in Syria. Sure, the cult of Assad might not be engaged in global jihad, as Islam is. But he’s hardly a perfect ally in the war on terror. When pro-regime militias will shoot you for refusing to sing the national anthem (‘Our den of Arabism is a sacred sanctuary’) or recite the loyalist Shahada (‘There is no god but Bashar’), the difference between the government and Isis mightn’t be so pronounced. One will force you to cut off your beard if it’s deemed ‘too pious’; the other will make you grow it out, in order to more perfectly imitate the Prophet Mohammed.
We in the West can sit back and sneer because no one’s shooting up Parliament, demanding we confess Assad’s deity. But for Syrians themselves, it’s a distinction with little difference – or, if you’re even a moderately devout Muslim, it’s a difference that could weigh heavily in the Islamists’ favour.
Tony Abbott is right: Syria’s yet another case of baddies versus baddies. And I’m entirely with those who say that Bashar al-Assad is the least bad. His father Hafez was probably correct to figure Syrians would only subjugate Islam to Ba’athism if he gave the latter a quasi-religious status. That’s the reality when your whole subcontinent is trapped in the seventh century. But foreign policy ‘realists’ should face facts. Forget the humanitarian aspect of intervention: strictly from the standpoint of Western security, we’re not well served by allowing Assad to run rampant through his country – not much more than we’d be by simply knocking him off and allowing Islamists to fill the power vacuum. There will be jihadists in Syria as long as Ba’athism is the state religion. True, there would be more under an Islamist government. But that’s hardly reassuring.
So a path to long-term peace, abjuring both Assadism and jihadism, long seemed impossible.
Donald Trump changed that.
Under Obama, the US’s Syria policy was twofold: (a) talk a big game; (b) dump tons of cash on al-Qaeda. By funding a swath of small-time diet jihadis, America tried to build a pro-Washington opposition from scratch and failed dismally. Trump’s taking the opposite tack. He offered to cooperate with the Russian-led coalition, but used surgical strikes to disable a government airbase when Assad committed a crime against humanity. He minimised casualties, and – taking the diplomatic fallout on the chin – immediately dispatched Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Moscow to renegotiate a peace. He’s using exactly the amount of force needed to keep Assad in check without alienating him completely. Remember, the conservative use of hard power is Putin’s speciality. (Think of Crimea’s ‘little green men’.) It certainly caught his attention.
Again, strategically speaking, it would be great if the US and Russia could negotiate Assad’s replacement, preferably someone with a slightly tamer Messiah complex. It would definitely have to be an Alawite; no one else in the country has proper experience in government. And it almost certainly would need to be a high-ranking member of the Ba’athist Party. They’d have to be known to the public and favoured by the House of Saud (maybe even a member of a cadet branch?) in order to command the loyalists’ respect, but it couldn’t be a member of the Assad family itself. Loyalists would smell a rat, and the rebels would assume the family was simply reshuffling in order to save face without losing power.
Yes, it would be difficult. Perhaps it’s not even worth attempting. Though, if anyone can achieve that balance of the old and new orders, it’s Trump.
The important thing is that the largest military and economic superpower in history is finally being led by someone who neither overestimates nor underestimates his influence in the Middle East. That’s a welcome break from the Bush and Obama administrations. To him, ‘America First’ means acting in America’s interests, period. Not the UN’s, or Saudi Arabia’s, or Israel’s, or Putin’s, or Assad’s: America’s. And the free world is so much safer for it.
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