Assad Still Must Go

Michael J. Totten

Michael J. Totten

Contributing Editor, The Tower

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~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Michael J. Totten ~

From the Blog

From its outset, the Syrian conflict was sparked and stoked by President Assad. Today, the bloodshed can only end along with his brutal reign.

Like it or not, the United States is getting more involved in the Syrian war despite President Donald Trump’s promise to stay out of it.

First, on April 6, after Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad again massacred civilians with chemical weapons, Trump ordered two American battleships in the Eastern Mediterranean to strike Syria’s al-Shayrat airbase with Tomahawk missiles. According to Defense Secretary James Mattis, the U.S. damaged or destroyed 20 percent of Syria’s air force in ten minutes.

Then, on May 18, American warplanes bombed a vehicle convoy belonging to a pro-government militia that encroached upon a restricted area where American and British soldiers are training local fighters to battle ISIS.

America’s Syria policy is just as incoherent now, though, as it was when Barack Obama was president. In August of 2013, the former president refused to enforce his own “red line” when Assad murdered over 1,400 people and wounded thousands more in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta with chemical weapons. He meekly called for Assad’s removal but did virtually nothing to bring it about, choosing instead to lift sanctions against Assad’s staunchest ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran, in exchange for a temporary halt to its nuclear program.

The Trump administration hasn’t figured out what to do either. “Our priority,” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said in April, “is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said more or less the same thing at the same time. “The longer-term status of President Assad,” he said, “will be decided by the Syrian people.”

Both reversed themselves within a week. “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” Tillerson later said, followed by Haley who said, “It’s hard to see a government that’s peaceful and stable with Assad.”

Since then, though, little has happened and less has changed. Like the Obama administration, the Trump foreign policy team recognizes that Assad is bad news but is unwilling to do much more than talk about it. At some point, though, we’re all going to have to come to grips with an unpleasant truth: If the invasion of Iraq proved to the American public how dangerous intervention can be, the Syrian apocalypse should have proven by now to the American public that non-intervention can be equally perilous.

Eventually, one way or another, Assad has to go.

One could make the case on humanitarian grounds. Assad, after all, is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. One could also make the case on geopolitical grounds. The Syrian war, after all, triggered the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. The strongest case, though, is on national security grounds. Whether or not most Americans realize it, replacing the Assad regime with just about anything but a radical Islamist terrorist state will make the U.S., Europe, the greater Middle East, and even most of the world safer places than they are now.

Syrian children from Kobane in a refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey. [Photo: radekprocyk / 123RF]

Syrian children from Kobane in a refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey. [Photo: radekprocyk / 123RF]

Destroying ISIS in both Iraq and Syria is our first priority. That’s not going to change. ISIS has conducted or inspired more than 140 terrorist attacks on every inhabited continent except South America, and that’s without factoring its brutal conquest of Syrian and Iraqi cities; its medieval punishments such as amputation, crucifixion and stoning; its cultural and historic erasure of ancient sites like the Roman-era city of Palmyra; and its genocidal extermination campaign against Iraq’s Yezidi minority.

The last thing the U.S. should do, though, is partner with the Assad regime. Never mind the fact that Assad is allied with Iran, America’s principal foe in the Middle East, and with Russia, America’s principal geopolitical foe. ISIS itself is a creature of Bashar al-Assad.

ISIS didn’t exist in its current form until 2013, two years into the Syrian war, but Assad’s culpability goes back more than a decade.

After the U.S. demolished Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, both the Syrian and Iranian governments had excellent reasons to fear that they might be next. For decades now, Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party regime has been the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the Arab world while the Islamic Republic of Iran has been the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the entire world. If moderate governments were to arise in Tehran and Damascus as well as in Baghdad, the number of worldwide terrorist attacks would likely plummet substantially.

So Syria and Iran needed to ensure that regime-change followed by nation-building in Iraq failed spectacularly. The Iranians did so by funding and arming Shia militias like Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the Iraqi branch of Hezbollah, while Assad facilitated the rise of Sunni terrorist organizations, especially Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq.

In their book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan quote former Syrian diplomat Bassam Barabandi, who freely admits that “[Assad] started to work with the mujahideen” after the fall of Saddam. Assad dispatched Syria’s resident jihadists to fight American soldiers and Iraqi Shias, and most of them signed on with al-Qaeda. With one diabolically brilliant move, Assad managed to purge Syria of his own potential enemies while teaching the entire world a terrible lesson. Regime-change and democracy in an Arab land can be as dangerous as Ebola.

The rationale was so obviously cynical that even those Assad used knew what he was up to and why. “Syria wanted to prolong the Iraq war and the attacks on U.S. forces,” former Syrian Islamist fighter Anas al-Rajab told Roy Gutman at The Daily Beast, “so that the Americans couldn’t come into Syria.”

Everyone knows what happened next. Iraq was consumed by blood and fire. Arabs from one end of the Middle East to the other looked at the poisoned fruit of regime-change and shuddered. The American public entirely lost its appetite for democracy promotion abroad, and not until Tunisia’s dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in a relatively peaceful revolution in early 2011 did Middle Easterners themselves believe that an internally-driven regime-change was either possible or desirable.

The Iraqis partnered with American forces under the leadership of General David Petraeus and destroyed al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. Hardly any members of Zarqawi’s organization even survived. The few who did hid in the shadows for years.

When the non-violent protest movement against Assad began in 2011, inspired by the overthrow of Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, his security forces opened fire with live ammunition and ludicrously claimed they were waging a war against terrorism. The entire world knew they were lying, but Assad had to say something. The West was still busy bombing Moammar Qaddafi in Libya and, once again, Assad had plenty of reasons to fear he might be next. The only thing he could do that might save him, he wagered, was convince the West that he really was fighting a war against terrorism, that beyond him was the abyss. The only problem was that he was not fighting terrorism.

So he created a terrorist menace to fight.

The only thing Assad could do that might save him, he wagered, was convince the West that he really was fighting a war against terrorism, that beyond him was the abyss.

For years Assad had been keeping radical Islamists quarantined in his jails, many of whom had fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq and came home, and in the most cynical “criminal justice reform” in history, he let them out of their cages. They did exactly what he knew they would do — coalesced into terrorist armies out in the desert.

One of them was the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front and the other was ISIS, forged from the shattered remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq whom the world hadn’t heard from in years.

After conquering some new piece of territory, ISIS fighters filmed themselves acting out in the most bloodthirsty and psychopathic ways possible. “Letting black-clad terrorists run around a provincial capital,” Weiss and Hassan write in their book, “crucifying and beheading people, made for great propaganda.”

That propaganda now matched Assad’s earlier ludicrous claims that he was fighting a war against terrorism at a time when he plainly wasn’t. He finally had the war that he needed. He made himself indispensable by creating problems that only he could supposedly solve and removed himself from the West’s to-do list.

And here we are. If it weren’t for Bashar al-Assad, ISIS wouldn’t even exist.

Assad is nothing if not a brilliant manipulator. Against all evidence, he managed to convince secretaries of state John Kerry and Hillary Clinton that he was a “reformer” at a time when he was precisely the opposite, and he managed to convince President Donald Trump that he’s fighting ISIS even though he and the Russians have spent more than 99 percent of their time, energy, and ammunition on every rebel army in the country except ISIS.

He still has plenty of supporters in the West, though, because he’s “secular” and therefore preferable to Islamists. As an individual, yes, Assad is secular. He isn’t even a Muslim. He belongs to the Alawite sect, a syncretic religious minority that makes up roughly 12 percent of the country and has been considered “heretical” by Muslims for more than a thousand years. The problem is, his chief political and military backers — Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — are radical Islamists. His own army has been reduced to a shattered husk of its former self and will likely never again be able to impose secular rule on the entire country.

Propaganda poster of President Bashar al-Assad, his father Hafez al-Assad, and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah. Photo: angelaostafichuk / 123RF

“After five years of war,” Tobias Schneider writes at War on the Rocks, “the government’s fighting force today consists of a dizzying array of hyper-local militias aligned with various factions, domestic and foreign sponsors, and local warlords.” The country is awash with Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, and Islamist militias consisting mostly of Iraqis and Afghans trained by Iran.

Matthew DeMaio put it this way in Muftah magazine: “the Syrian regime is neither secular, sovereign nor independent.” His piece includes a telling photo of four banners that show who rules the city of Aleppo right now: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iranian “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

Look. It’s virtually impossible now for the 12 percent Alawite minority to subjugate the 74 percent Sunni majority without outside assistance, and until the Russians showed up in September of 2015, that assistance came entirely from the Iranian Islamists and their regional allies. Assad’s secularism barely warrants an asterisk at this point.

Even if none of the above were true, if Assad hadn’t nurtured first al-Qaeda in Iraq and then ISIS for his own nefarious purposes, if “government-held” territory weren’t under the control of foreign theocratic militias, Assad still could not be the solution to ISIS for one simple reasons — ISIS is the yin to Assad’s yang.

Support for ISIS among the general public in the Arab world is in the low single digits, from 6 percent in the Palestinian Territories and 3 percent in Jordan to zero percent in Lebanon. The only reason terrorist armies like ISIS and the Nusra Front are tolerated by civilians right now in Syria is because so many perceive Assad as the greater of evils. Never mind his ideology; Assad is responsible for the overwhelming number of casualties and refugees. Hardly anyone in Syria would even temporarily support ISIS’s and the Nusra Front’s deranged revolution if there were no one in Damascus to revolt against. If these people weren’t under daily siege by Assad’s machinery of death, his barrel bombs and chemical weapons, they’d violently overthrow the Islamists just like the Iraqis did.

The real problem is larger than ISIS, though, and it’s larger than Bashar al-Assad.

Syria, like Lebanon and Iraq, is fractured along sectarian lines. All three countries have suffered devastating and protracted civil wars, fomented in part by foreign governments, during the last quarter-century. The only reason Syria managed to hold itself together until relatively recently is because the Assad family effectively exported Syria’s own instability to its neighbors — which just so happen to be Lebanon and Iraq.

“Syria before Assad was a playground of foreign intervention,” Martin Kramer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told me after the crack-up of the country was well underway. “Hafez al-Assad turned Syria into a regional player in its own right—occupying Lebanon, running his own Palestinian factions, and enabling Hezbollah. But now Syria has reverted to what it was before: a jumble of clashing interest groups and resentful sects pitted against one another, all seeking foreign backers who might tip the balance in their favor. In the long view, fragmented weakness may be Syria’s default condition, and the Syria of Assad père an aberration.”

Assad relieved pressure from Sunni Islamists by dispatching them to Iraq to impale themselves on American forces and Shia militias. He relieved pressure from would-be Kurdish separatists by sponsoring the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (or PKK) against Turkey. And he justified his regime’s own inherent illegitimacy as a minority Alawite act ruling a Sunni majority by championing the Sunnis’ great cause and exporting terrorism in the form of Hamas and Hezbollah to Israel.

Now that the jig is finally up, Syria is a net importer of terrorism rather than a net exporter. Yet the terrorists Syria does still export are striking targets as far away as San Bernardino and Paris rather than Tel Aviv, Beirut, and Baghdad.

The case for keeping Assad in power requires one to believe that he can keep a lid on things if he wins the war. An iron-fisted regime can only keep a lid on things until it can’t, but the truth is that Assad never actually tried. Indeed, he and his father Hafez have been doing the opposite since the 1970s, and after more than 40 years there is no reason whatsoever to believe that government will ever change. Assad isn’t a force for stability — he’s a chaos engine.

In stable Middle Eastern countries with legitimate and civilized governments like Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Oman, and Tunisia, the likes of ISIS can’t get any traction. Citizens in any country can be the victims of terrorism, but full-blown terrorist armies can only arise in failed or collapsed states where the central authority is fatally wounded, wholly illegitimate, or both.

Syria needs a strong and politically moderate government — democratic or otherwise — where Sunni Arabs make up the majority and serve alongside non-token representatives from the Alawite, Christian, Druze, and Kurdish minorities. Under no other system can Syria be at peace with itself and with its neighbors.

NATO should have decapitated the regime right at the beginning in 2011 when the choice was between Assad and the reformers, back when ISIS and the Nusra Front didn’t exist. Now that the choice is between Assad and the terrorists, it’s too late.

For now, destroying ISIS must remain our top priority, and a muddled policy vis-à-vis Assad is perhaps appropriate. We couldn’t oust him today anyway if we weren’t willing to risk a military confrontation with Russia, and even if the Russians were not in the way, virtually no one — myself included — is interested in another Iraq-style invasion.

Eventually, however, one way or another, Assad has to go.

Banner Photo: adwo123 / 123RF Stock Photo