The Price of Failure.
On Thursday August 18 2011, then US President Obama declared “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside”. But almost six years, and hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths later, the dictator Bashar al-Assad remains in power and now the Trump administration appears to be somewhat comfortable with that as an end result to the Syrian Conflict. Make no mistake, the Wests failure to stop Assad is a massive defeat, and we should consider what that failure will look like.
Over the past six years the US has spent its time in Syria fighting ISIS and other Salifist rebels, some of which the US armed and trained only a few years earlier, as it is left unable to fight the Russian protected Regime. The only direct US strike against the Assad Regime occurred in September of 2016, when US airpower accidentally killed 62 Regime loyalists, that incident sparking an instant rise in hostilities between Russia and the United States.
Russia and Assad have deliberately allowed ISIS to grow, focusing their military efforts on the Syrian Opposition. The US estimates that as of October 2015, over 90% of Russian airstrikes have “not been against Isil or al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists” but instead at “opposition groups that want a better future for Syria and don’t want to see the Assad regime stay in power”. The Russian/Regime strategy is simple, allow Jihadist rebels to grow in Opposition territory, tar the all rebels as terrorists, and use airpower to decimate any democratic opposition to Assad’s Junta. In this way ISIS and Assad’s Regime feed of each other, Murhaf Jouejati of the Middle East Institute explains the symbiotic relationship between both ISIS and Assad:
“Assad’s interest in the continued existence of ISIS is twofold: to instill fear into Syria’s non-Sunni minorities so as to rally them around his minority regime; and to promote his narrative according to which the Syrian crisis is in large part a confrontation between his government and Islamist extremists. In either case, ISIS helps Assad divert domestic and international attention from the true nature of that crisis: a popular uprising against nearly half a century of the Assad family’s dictatorship. In these circumstances, although the airpower of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS might eventually degrade that terrorist group, it will not defeat it, at least not so long as Assad remains in power.” Assad has cleverly used the fear of Jihadism to morph his democratic enemies into a terrorist threat which has successfully killed any chance of Western support.
ISIS and other radicals have also substantially benefited from the Assad Regime. Firstly, Assad released hundreds of Jihadists from jail, many of which are now the leaders of extremist rebel groups. Secondly Assad has almost entirely eliminated the secular rebels, allowing extremists to become the dominant anti-Assad force, and thirdly, Assad’s reliance on Hezbollah and other sectarian forces has provided the extremists with the perfect Sunni vs Shia narrative to help recruit Sunni rebels to the Jihadi cause.
This isn’t the first time the “secular” Alawite leader Assad has used Sunni extremism. During the 2003 Iraq War, Assad and his security apparatus were actively involved in supporting and facilitating al-Qaeda extremists in an effort to destabilize the American effort in neighboring Iraq. There is already a great body of evidence to show that Assad’s Mukhabarat armed, funded and trained militants, and then helped to bus them to across the border to Iraq during the Insurgency. Upon return to Syria, Assad had many extremists arrested only to have them released into the uprising in 2011.
Let’s not forget how the Syrian Civil War began either. During the Arab Springs, Assad sent his Mukhabarat into Sunni towns to terrorise protestors, resulting in the abduction and torture of fifteen young protestors. This led to demonstrators on the street demanding an end to authoritarian rule, which Assad’s forces attacked with snipers and nail bombs. Eventually Sunni conscripts in the Syrian Arab Army refused to attack civilian protestors and defected, forming the Free Syrian Army and thus beginning the civil war.
The Assad Regime is one of the most violent and corrupt forces the 21st century has seen. The Regime regularly uses chemical weapons and barrel bombs against civilians. It operates gulags where tens of thousands have been exterminated since 2011, many raped to death. The Ba’athist government run Syria as if it is the personal property of the Assad family, using the oil rich state to enrich Assad’s inner circle whilst millions live in poverty. Despite the insistences of government cronies like Eva Barlett, there is no democracy in Syria, it is simply a Mafia state built to serve the Junta.
Since 2011 the US and its allies have failed to protect the Syrian people from the Assad Regime and its supporters. Obama’s infamous Red Line has been crossed time and time again. With almost all of the moderate Syrian Opposition destroyed, the US’s last hope on the ground is the Kurdish forces, but even they appear to be unwilling to continue to fight Assad. The West’s failure to step in at the start of the war allowed Russia and Iran to fill the void. Unless something drastically changes, soon only Assad and ISIS will be left, cementing victory for the Regime and its survival.
Assad’s victory will be a win for ISIS. By failing to confront Assad, the West confirms the Jihadist narrative, leaving millions of poor and desperate Sunnis unrepresented and persecuted, venerable to the appeals of extremism. ISIS and al-Nusa will be able to say truthfully say that the West abandoned the Sunnis to Hezbollah, Russian jets and poisonous gas.
There are no easy options in Syria, and it may well be too late to effectively intervene, but we should consider what our failure will look like.