As the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis metastasize, we need a new approach for these unfolding human tragedies. To date, the Obama administration has mostly sat on the sidelines, in part because of war fatigue, but mostly because in the crowded mix of factions fighting in Syria, there are no good actors to support.
After the Pentagon’s embarrassing admission that $500 million put only “four or five” Syrian opposition fighters on the ground, it is clear that it’s fantasy to think we can find reliable Syrian allies who are both anti-ISIS and anti-Assad — which is the official policy of the administration and most leading presidential candidates. It would require threading a needle that is impossibly thin, with the assumption that we could vet and then arm rebels who might claim loyalty to the U.S. one day, but who resort to sectarian and tribal vendettas the next. And even in the event that we did find such a group and it assumed control, we’d still have a long way to go before consolidating power and making the transition to relative peace.
But the gravity of the Syria crisis is such that we no longer have the luxury of holding out for a solution that is ideologically appealing. Realpolitik is the only option. Throwing U.S. support behind President Bashar al-Assad is simply the best, or least bad, option left.
Supporting Assad means confronting three uncomfortable truths, all of which simmer just beneath the policy debates on the airwaves and at Capitol Hill.
First is the admission that the Middle East was a safer and more stable place with Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi in power. To be clear, both had murdered their own people en masse and were megalomaniacs of the first order. However, they were also secular despots who kept jihadism and sectarian violence in check. Power vacuums stemming from the demise of both tyrants have incubated some of the worst chaos, hatred, and human misery that the world has ever seen. If ISIS represents the worst-case scenario, then Assad is preferable.
The second uncomfortable truth is that realist foreign policy has triumphed over an idealistic one, at least when the Middle East is concerned. The idealist policy reached its high-water mark at the end of the Cold War, when the spreading of American-style democracy and capitalism won hearts, minds, and substantive geopolitical gains throughout Eastern Europe. On 9/11, the tide turned toward a realist policy, particularly when the world learned that many of the hijackers had been middle-class university graduates residing in Germany. Later, realism’s supremacy became apparent as efforts to build a representative democracy in Iraq faltered under the harsh realities of sectarianism and corruption, despite America’s best efforts. Not only did Iraqi democracy become a conduit for sects and ethnic groups to promote their own interests at the expense of others, but it also fomented civil war and strengthened Iran’s strategic position, working directly against American interests. To support Assad, therefore, is to accept that our idealistic goals are unachievable and that only hard-nosed realism can support our strategic interests, at least in the Middle East.
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One should note that there is a long-term sustainable, idealist solution to Middle East sectarianism, but it involves erasing and redrawing the ill-conceived borders of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon that the Sykes-Picot agreement by Britain and France cemented in 1916, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Sykes-Picot ignored tribal and religious affinities, while imposing the foreign concept of the nation-state on groups of people with little in common. Many, even most, Middle East observers long for an idealist final solution that rewrites current boundaries. (I count myself among this group; I have previously written on the desirability and feasibility of Kurdish independence, which the Sykes-Picot negotiators considered and then rejected.) Unfortunately, it will never happen. Today there are simply too many stakeholders, too many vested interests, too many displaced persons, and above all too much oil, which makes redrawing boundaries a winner-take-all prospect. Pushing idealistic solutions might make for interesting debate fodder at the U.N. and on op-ed pages, but it will not end the current violence.
Assad is a viable source of stability also because of his unconditional support from Iran, which fears and detests ISIS for the threat it poses to Shiite dominance of the region. To reiterate, strengthening Iran’s strategic position is no one’s leading choice, and Tehran’s sponsorship of Hezbollah destabilizes Lebanon and threatens Israel. But since the 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah has mostly kept its ambitions in check and has made efforts to gain political legitimacy. More broadly, since the fall of Saddam, the specter of a Shiite hegemony that spreads across the Levant has paled in comparison with the horrors wracked by Sunni extremist terrorism. We face two undesirable choices, and one is clearly better than the other.
Supporting Assad requires us to face a third uncomfortable truth: Vladimir Putin, for all of his faults, is pursuing the right strategy.
Despite the benefits of supporting Assad, the idea is a non-starter within Washington’s foreign-policy establishment and among nearly all the presidential candidates. I recently posed the question to a Middle East expert at the center-left Atlantic Council, and to a prominent writer at Commentary magazine. Both reacted incredulously, dismissing it out of hand. “Impossible. Assad has to go — he just has to,” remains the bipartisan refrain. When I pressed, both started down the well-worn path, arguing that we must find the “moderate Syrian opposition.” The think-tank expert at the Atlantic Council went on to claim that the moderate opposition would not actually need to conquer and govern the country, only to rebel enough to entice a coalition of stakeholders, including the U.S., Russia, and Iran, to come to the table for a grand agreement that would have Assad step down, with a transition to a consensus successor. This is unrealistic, wide-eyed idealism. Meanwhile, the Commentary writer asserted that Assad had lost all moral authority and that the other ethnic groups would never accept him again as their president. This line of thinking offers no constructive alternative to calming the current chaos, and it ignores the fact that Syria was never a democracy of the governed, and that the Assad family never held moral authority in their four decades in power.
Finally, supporting Assad requires us to face a third uncomfortable truth: Vladimir Putin, for all of his faults, is pursuing the right strategy. It is understandably difficult for the administration to publicly align with Russia and Iran, but the least we can do is offer tacit support. This means we should stop offering nonstop criticism of Russia’s activities in Syria, and halt obstructive moves such as persuading Greece and Bulgaria to close their airspace to Russian planes flying in arms.In the year I spent in post-war Iraq, I met many Iraqis who told me that as terrible as Saddam was, they preferred him over the anarchy, sectarian militias, and death squads that followed. Saddam was predictable: Everyone knew what they could and could not do to stay in the regime’s good graces and avoid becoming a political prisoner (or worse). In the current environment, the lack of predictability and the never-before-seen sectarian violence are deeply disturbing to Iraqis and Syrians alike. They contribute significantly to the fracturing of the region. Supporting Assad’s diminishing grasp on power gives us one more chance to act on the lessons learned from the recent past.
All of this raises a core question: Do the administration and foreign-policy community genuinely think it is “impossible” to support Assad? Or have the grim realities detailed above simply made the prospect too unpalatable? No doubt a reversal of course would make for uncomfortable speeches and mockery from pundits. None of that will compare, though, to the death and misery resulting from the status quo.
— Jay Hallen has advised financial institutions in Iraq and Egypt. He is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations and part of the Leadership Network of the Foreign Policy Initiative.