Last week, the Trump administration replaced Barack Obama’s spineless and counterproductive Syria policy with an even more spineless and counterproductive policy of its own.
For five years, the Obama administration impotently called for the removal of Syria’s blood-soaked tyrant Bashar al-Assad, but UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said Washington wouldn’t even go that far. “Our priority,” she said, “is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson basically said the same thing at the same time in Ankara, and did so while repeating almost verbatim the talking points of Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies. “The longer-term status of President Assad,” he said, “will be decided by the Syrian people.”
Then the Trump administration did an abrupt about-face this week after the regime’s chemical weapons attack in Idlib province and suggested that regime-change may in fact be Washington’s policy going forward. “Assad’s role in the future,” Tillerson said, “is uncertain clearly and with the acts that he has taken, it will seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.”
After blowing up hospitals and schools and butchering hundreds of thousands with chemical weapons and barrel bombs, there is no chance Assad could win a free and fair election in Syria, but his allies in Tehran and Moscow need never fear a free and fair election as long as he is in power. Assad is the kind of ruler who “wins” elections with 97.6 percent of the “vote.”
His regime has killed almost 500,000 people and displaced millions, triggering the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, but at least he doesn’t massacre cartoonists in Paris or nightclub-goers in Florida. He’s a monster, but he’s not ISIS. In that sense, at least from the standpoint of faraway Washington, he’s the lesser of two evils.
But we need to get a couple of things straight here. Bashar al-Assad is not fighting ISIS in Syria. Not really. Nor are the Russians. Assad and the Russians are fighting every rebel army in the country except ISIS. Look at a map of the country. ISIS’s territory is centered on its “capital” in Raqqa in the northeast, but Assad and Russia’s theater of operations is in the west and along the coast. Only the United States has bombed ISIS in Syria, and only Kurdish militias have seriously resisted ISIS on the ground.
Assad did, however, facilitate ISIS’s rise in Syria and Iraq. Thousands of Americans and Iraqis are dead thanks to his sponsorship of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq—the precursor to ISIS—during the Iraqi insurgency.
This is hardly a secret. “We in Syria intelligence opened all the doors for [the jihadists] to go to Iraq,” Mahmud al-Naser, an intelligence officer who defected to the United States, told the Daily Beast.
Before writing off Syrian malfeasance during the Iraq war as irrelevant history, understand something else: ISIS in its current form is also a creature of the Assad regime. Assad wanted ISIS to rise. He needed ISIS to rise. He made damn sure that ISIS did rise and that it did so inside Syria.
In 2011, Assad’s regime shot, tortured, raped, and mutilated peaceful protesters while calling them terrorists. Everyone in the world knew he was lying, including his Iranian and Hezbollah allies. He had to say it, though, because after American-led regime-changes in Iraq and Libya, he had every reason in the world to fear that he might be next.
You can’t fight a war against terrorism if there are no terrorists, though. He needed to create a terrorist threat inside Syria. So he released the most extreme Islamists, including battle-hardened al-Qaeda fighters, from Sednaya prison north of Damascus. Some of them dutifully went out into the desert and established the Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. Others joined the remnants of the then-largely defunct al-Qaeda in Iraq and renamed it the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
Then Assad effectively told the world, “either I rule or they rule,” and the world bought it.
Chatham House scholar Nadim Shehadi once gave me some sarcastic advice about how to become a dictator if I ever got tired of journalism. “What you should do,” he said, “is establish the idea that you’re indispensable, that you’re irreplaceable, that beyond you is the abyss of sectarian civil war, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and the breakup of the state. Create problems that only you can resolve.” He acquired this bit of wisdom after observing the Assad family’s modus operandi for four decades.
Newcomers to foreign policy like Donald Trump, Rex Tillerson, and Nikki Haley correctly single out Iran as the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world, but they have seemed strangely unaware that Syria has been the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the Arab world since the 1970s.
ISIS is the most deranged terrorist army on earth, but Hezbollah, the joint Syrian and Iranian proxy militia in Lebanon, remains the most powerful. It is more powerful, in fact, than many of the Middle East’s national armies, including Lebanon’s. Its missile arsenal is now robust enough to strike targets anywhere and everywhere in Israel, including as far south as the Red Sea city of Eilat and the Dimona nuclear power plant.
After years of a slow-motion war led by the United States and its regional partners, ISIS is on the ropes, but the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis is stronger than ever, especially now that the Russians are fighting alongside it. Russia’s alliance with Syria and Iran is not new, and it’s perfectly natural. Syria has been the Kremlin’s chief client state in the Middle East since the 1970s, while Iran has received almost all its nuclear weapons technology from Moscow.
We are all tired of war, but we’re likely to get more of it if the United States effectively gives the world’s largest terrorist axis a pass. And we should not be the least bit surprised that the Assad regime resumed its use of chemical weapons just a few days after the White House indicated as much.
Removing Assad from power need not be America’s first priority in the Middle East, but outsourcing American counterterrorism to him, of all people, makes about as much sense as Churchill and Roosevelt leaving it to Mussolini and Franco to save Europe from Hitler. A course correction from Washington—if one is actually coming—will be as welcome as it is overdue.