Why the US should join forces with the Baathist regime in Syria

The Baathist regime is indeed guilty of great war crimes, but the human cost of a failed state would be a greater catastrophe. Washington should have learnt this lesson from Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq.

The Syrian conflict is already the human tragedy of our time. Tens of thousands of lives have already been lost and the sectarian nature of the conflict is a powerful landslide, which is dramatically shaking the political landscape of the Middle East. Already the US position in Syria has proved to be unsuccessful.

Syria is no longer a ticking time bomb; the explosion has occurred. Before it is too late, the world superpower must redefine its position. The Baathist regime is ruthless yet the alternative is much more horrifying. The situation leaves hardly any room for a dilemma. In one of the most geopolitically sensitive areas of the world, if there is a choice between a failed state and a despotic state, Washington should take every measure to prevent the former. 

The total collapse of the state would change the parameters of the current proxy war in Syria. The downfall of the regime would pave the way for a much more dangerous regional booty war in Syria which would continue the bloodshed for many years to come.  

We have to compare the ongoing conflict in Syria to the Afghan war after the Soviet invasion in 1979.  The conflict in Afghanistan had an explicit international dimension too. The country was used as a proxy battleground between various international powers. It was divided into two major camps and the parties involved were prepared to take any measures to destroy their rivals.

That conflict also entailed a religious characteristic, which created sharp binaries of ‘infidels’ versus ‘jihadists’ who were prepared to embrace martyrdom to ‘liberate’ that Muslim land. Patrons such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia funded and supported transnational jihadi networks, facilitating the recruitment of thousands of radical Muslims from all over the world to join the ‘holy war’. 

American short-termism not only tolerated the formation of these jihadi networks but also, at times, supported them. After the Soviet withdrawal the genie was already out of the bottle. Although America’s rivals were defeated, Afghanistan became a failed state. The collapse of the state paved the way for the excessive influence of Pakistan in the country: this influence still overshadows Afghan politics in every sense of the term. Today Islamabad remains a major impediment to stability in Afghanistan and Washington knows it.

The war in Afghanistan also turned the country into a hub for international jihadi activities, posing a major security challenge for the region and indeed for the world at large. Decades on, the legacies of these misguided policies are still haunting the United States, even after the costly ‘War on Terror’, the country remains as a key challenge for the US. The situation is so desperate that Washington and its allies are now prepared to negotiate with the Taliban, however there is no simple exit out of this Afghan nightmare. 

While the Afghan wound is still fresh and continues to be infectious, Washington is making the same mistakes with Syria.  Syria is becoming the latest global workshop for radicalization and extremism. Radical Muslim youth from across the globe are joining forces with some of the most extreme factions of the conflict to bring down what is left of a modern state.   

In the same way as in the Afghan conflict there is already a great deal of factionalism and antagonism among the rebels. Lately they are busier fighting amongst themselves than fighting against the Baathist regime. As soon as the state collapses, this infighting will gain momentum and the country will be divided between different  ‘istans’ ruled by warlords and their regional patrons.

Given the international dimensions of the conflict, the collapse of the state and the emerging power vacuum will pave the way for a much more explicit booty war among regional patrons in Syria. Countries that have invested heavily in bringing down the state have conflicting visions for a post-Baathist Syria. Hence, the total collapse of the state must change the nature of this proxy war. 

In the absence of the Baathist regime, today’s seeming allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar will be tomorrow’s rivals in Syria. (There is already some friction between the two in Syria). Every regional actor which has supported the downfall of the Syrian state will demand its share of political booty, thus perpetuating the conflict. This will lead to the further Balkanization of the country.    

So what is the role of the United States? Although Washington has not been directly involved in the conflict, it has turned a blind eye as its Persian Gulf allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar provided funding and support to some of the most extremist factions in the conflict. Lately, various groups that have called for an Islamic state have rejected the increasingly fragmented western-backed Syrian coalition. In recent months al-Qa’ida-linked extremists such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham ( ISIS) and the al Nusra Front have committed various atrocities and their power and influence are rising fast. 

The situation is becoming so desperate that General Salim Idris, the commander of the Free Syrian Army has considered joining forces with the Baathist regime to confront these extremist transnational networks. Indeed, even the archenemies of the regime cannot afford the total collapse of the state. It seems that some factions of the Free Syrian Army now realize that a total collapse of the regime would pave the way for the total collapse of the state. In the absence of a functioning state there never will be an easy transition from one regime to another. The ensuing chaos will certainly not benefit those native rebels who have been fighting for more democracy. 

General Idris now states that he is prepared to drop the precondition that Bashar al-Assad must give up power before the next Geneva meeting.  Given the dire situation, he would be content if Assad would leave just after the negotiation process. At this point General Idris would join forces with the remainder of the Baathist regime to confront the Islamists who are now flooding into the country in their thousands.

Over the last two years the situation in Syria has rapidly changed. Recent changes have forced the likes of General Idris to wake up to the horrific new realities of Syria. Perhaps it is time for the world superpower to re-examine the situation, based on long-term expedience rather than short-term regional gain. The world cannot afford a failed state like Afghanistan in the heart of the Middle East. 

Washington should immediately enforce punitive measures against the regional powers which sponsor international extremist forces such as ISIS in Syria. The stakes are just too high: Washington should avoid making the same mistakes it made in Afghanistan and Iraq. The collapse of the Syrian state should be prevented even if this in the short-term benefits a ruthless Baathist regime and its pariah Iranian backer. 

The Baathist regime is indeed guilty of great war crimes, but the human cost of a failed state would be a greater catastrophe. Washington should have learnt this lesson from Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq. Yes supporting the Baathist regime is not ideal, but preserving what resembles a modern state and preventing a new booty war in the country is the least costly option for Syria, the Middle East and indeed the world at large.

About the author

Afshin Shahi is a lecturer in Middle East Politics and International Relations at the University of Bradford. He tweets @AfshinShahi