Syria: is Assad the right devil to choose?

Normal 0 21 MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 Support for Assad today is no longer backed by Realpolitik or moral considerations, and it boils down to helping a notorious oppressor. Even if we are facing a choice between devils, he is not the right one to back.

Michael Neumann
1 June 2012

"The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was indeed a compromise with the imperialists, but it was a compromise which, under the circumstances, had to be made. ... To reject compromises 'on principle', to reject the permissibility of compromises in general, no matter of what kind, is childishness, which it is difficult even to consider seriously ... One must be able to analyze the situation and the concrete conditions of each compromise, or of each variety of compromise."  - Lenin, "Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder"

Despite widespread comments that 'the international community' or 'the UN' are 'failing'  to help Syria,  very few commentators or nations, whatever they may say, simply want a 'solution' in Syria or an end to the violence. They wish one side or the other to succeed. Some want Assad to win because they actually like him, consider him an innocent victim of Western or imperialist or neo-colonialist or neo-liberal plots. These fanboys have deliberately lost touch with reality and aren't worth serious consideration.  Others worry about Islamists running wild, as if this very uncertain possibility should weigh more heavily than the very certain and gory reality of Assad's rule. But what of the rest, who realize that Assad is a monster but back him anyway?  Sometimes political agents must ally themselves with the devil. But which devil, and when?

Among non-aligned nations and across much of the political spectrum, support for Assad is considered the smart choice. They support him because they have picked sides in some other conflict.  Either they support the Palestinians against the Israelis or they oppose western hegemony.

In making these choices, however much they deny it, they are engaging in Realpolitik, and have been doing so for a long time. Reports from human rights organizations and other sources, going back decades, have provided authoritative descriptions of horrendous torture in Syria. Then there was the great massacre at Hama in 1982. I and many others chose to ignore this, and perhaps some of Assad's supporters continue to ignore or minimize Syria's horrors because they don't want to admit their callousness. That said, Realpolitik isn't necessarily immoral, if a greater good derives from the choice of a lesser. Supporting Assad, though, is Realpolitik gone badly wrong. Perhaps, once, the Palestinian cause or anti-western strategies could excuse support for Assad. They cannot do so today.

Opposing the West?

Outside the West and within, many oppose its domination or its idiotic military adventures.  Assad benefits from this; he is thought by some a bulwark against imperialism, colonialism, neo-liberalism or any other pretext for expanding western power.  Of course no one thinks he will put an end to these things, but he is supported, despite his brutalities, for 'being on the right side'. But is he really such an asset to it? He suffers from comparison with other anti-Western heroes, even those who might also be classed devils. As opposed to Ataturk, Nasser, and Milosevic, all of whom were guilty of torture or other atrocities over a number of years, but could also be considered nationalist heroes, Assad achieved nothing of the sort either internationally or domestically. So he is not in the same league as these 'devils', let alone the likes of Fidel Castro or Ho Chi Minh. 

If there is no positive case for Assad as model for resistance to the West, one may argue that a western intervention – that is chiefly an American one - may risk bringing misery to Syria as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan. This argument is faulty as the Syrian case is hardly comparable to these two: the horrors of Afghanistan and Iraq were obvious and widely understood to be failures of US policy. If Berlin in 1947 has looked like Baghdad under US occupation, the whole US General staff would have been fired. In Afghanistan, there isn't even a pretense of having attained any objectives. Moreover these adventures were undertaken with an international carte blanche that would never be offered today. No nation overtly backed the Taliban. Saddam Hussein, by invading Kuwait, had manoeuvred himself into the unique position of being hated by both the Iranians and the Gulf States. Assad has powerful friends who make UN sanctioned occupation impossible.   What's more, the US has lost its appetite for big military actions. It has, in the last decade, demonstrated military weakness and political incompetence which leads to anticipating a modest Western military effort in Syria, if any.

As for longer-term scenarios, one may of course fear that major idiots might gain control of the American government, and who knows what they might get up to.  But positive outcomes may also be expected, with a change in US policy orientations, a further decline of US hegemonic ambitions, or the rise of other nations strong and assertive enough to contain them. The remote future offers no ground for preferring the certainty of stopping Assad's atrocities to the very uncertain benefits of leaving him alone. Anti-US sentiment, however justified, cannot justify leaving Assad in power.

Helping the Palestinians?

Although this is contested, there is certainly good reason to hold that Assad has supported the Palestinian cause and would have continued doing so. Syria is an important, possibly essential support for Hizbollah, which arguably now represents the strongest source of outside pressure in favor of Palestine likely to convince Israel that the occupied territories are more trouble than they are worth, as a the possibility of a negotiated settlement withers. It does not matter if, as some have said, Assad is no real friend to the Palestinians as he would only use them. Quite possibly, the fall of Assad will be a disaster for the Palestinians.  But so will his survival. Assad, even if he gains the upper hand, is a spent force bearing the consequences of his past actions.  Most of Syria's population would hate him passionately well past the foreseeable future.  He would certainly remain under heavy sanctions from the US and, more importantly, from Europe. He is detested by the Gulf States. Relations with Turkey, once reasonably good, are hostile, and those with the Arab world will probably degrade as well. Assad is already very unpopular in Lebanon. China and Russia would be muted in their support because he would remain a regional pariah except for Iran, also isolated, under sanctions, and with no easy transportation routes to its ally. These diplomatic and economic difficulties would not bode well for Syria’s political stability.  
Of course there is no guarantee that, if Assad falls, the next Syrian state will be an effective support for the Palestinians, particularly since that state is likely to distance itself from Iran.  On the other hand, support to the Palestinians and hostility to Israel is so widespread in the Middle East that it is very unlikely that the new regime would change its stance vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

Support for Assad today is therefore no longer backed by Realpolitik or moral considerations, and it boils down to helping a notorious oppressor. Even if we are facing a choice between devils, he is not the right one to back.

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