Related Articles/Videos

Philipp Requat on Fighting Middle Eastern Memory Loss Is taking action against Bashar Al-Assad a viable option?

17th September 2013

picture by James Gordon (Flickr)

Philipp Requat is European Ideas Ambassador at the University of Edinburgh. 

As leaders in Washington, Paris and London tried to drum up support for yet another military strike in the Near East, the belligerent beat seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The Western public has grown wary of world-policing misadventures, much to the grime of Nobel Peace laureate Obama. Even a massive media campaign failed to sway the overwhelming majority in opposition to his plans, denying the President permission to wage war. Debate that accompanies the matter has witnessed a startling shift of arguments on the side of those who were eager to strike and still threaten armed intervention. Before Russia offered the compromise of chemical disarmament, Washington’s rallying call began to neglect the supposed benefits of Assad’s disposal for his people. Instead, hawkish U.S. policymakers went on to stress the need to avoid losing face after flexing their muscles. A non-UN sanctioned attack is not off and must remain on the table they insist, to ensure that future threats by the world’s most powerful military retain their desired effect. Whether to retaliate against the Syrian government’s unproven crimes or to prevent diplomatic embarrassment, however, action against Assad would be a tragic mistake.  The adverse consequences of such a move would not only be felt by Syrian citizens and their regional neighbours, but also by the West itself.

An observer can’t help but think that presidents Obama and Hollande are failing to heed lessons which their populace has better understood. The Anti-Assad bandwagon’s new line of argumentation is exemplary in this context and reveals disturbing truths about the unrevised position that Washington and Paris occupy. Upon closer investigation it becomes obvious that the intentions and motivations of recent interventionists are contaminated by a dangerous mix of hubris and dementia. 

Evidence, Likelihood and History

The call to resuscitate the ancient lore of Western moral superiority diverts attention from the fact that pro-intervention partisans still refuse to produce any evidence for the Syrian president’s use of chemical weapons. American foreign secretary Kerry shamelessly claims that there can be no doubt over Assad’s guilt, whilst refusing to share any of the information that inspired his conclusion. To the concern of many, Washington’s official statements on the matter are eerily reminiscent of the infamous Powell-presentation on Iraqi WMDs. Indeed, there are loud Syrian echoes of the yellow-cake hoax that enabled the third gulf war. The wish to evade the crucial little detail that the UN’s verdict is still out is unsurprising, given just how similarly unconvincing the narrative that blames Assad for the attacks is. The Veterans Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), a group of former intelligence officials addressed President Obama in a memorandum on September 6th, warning him that the information he quoted to justify an attack was not credible. The same group raised red flags to no avail when it decried the Bush/Cheney administration’s faulty use of evidence in 2003.  UN investigators have already stated that the so-called rebels were the most likely candidate for a previous chemical attack. The same conglomerate of fighters, huge swaths of which consist of foreign extremist lured by the call to jihad, had by then already been caught smuggling Sarin, a potent nerve gas, over the Turkish border. The rebels consequently have the capability and track record to make them probable culprits, but above all it is the timing and location of the most recent attacks that indicates their responsibility. Assad would have to be nothing short of a foaming madman to use chemical weapons in an outskirt of his Damascene stronghold on the very day U.N. investigators set foot in his country. At the very least, Western leaders must await the verdict of international experts before threatening retribution, or drafting a U.N. resolution for chemical disarmament. The recently concluded examination by the WHO and OPCW cannot be seen as sufficient in this context, since the mission only had a mandate to determine whether an attack took place without investigating who performed it. Any efforts prior to a neutral and founded definition of agency in the Sarin assault are detrimental to the credibility of Foreign policy and international law in general. France’s resolution draft must be seen as prejudiced and unacceptable, because it already listed Assad as the perpetrator.

The scalding light of freedom

The last stage in Obama’s bout of ideological fervour highlighted just how important Syrian plight really is to Washington. It takes an impressively cynical outlook to reduce a nation to a means of demonstrating that Western threats to express its dubious moral superiority must be taken seriously. Enthusiasm in U.S. lead democratic crusades has not weaned without reason – be it Orwellian global internet surveillance today, Washington-directed terrorism in Central America in the 80s, or simply the mass civilian casualties in every part of the world from Vietnam to Iraq to which U.S. soldiers have carried the destructive torch of democracy. The Syrian people are an inacceptable price to pay for the hopeless effort of restoring faith in American foreign policy with the kind of behaviour that made it vanish in the first place. Little wonder that the majority of U.S. citizens are not convinced by the lamentations of Senator McCain about the moral degeneration of President Assad. Who is he to judge, after championing two wars that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, thousands of U.S. soldiers and cost the American taxpayers trillions of dollars? Why is he backed by a president who won election by promising an end to such counterproductive aggression? Was it a hoax from the start, or does Obama really believe that saving the USA’s reputation for having the world’s most aggressive military-industrial apparatus is really worth his supposedly pacifist conviction that the Nobel committee overeagerly rewarded? Most importantly though, when did the risk of humiliation for Western civilization become a legitimate reason for a non-UN backed illegal first strike? Sure enough, Obama does not exhibit the near-missionary desire for warfare and disregard for international law that inhibited his predecessor. One can only hope that his tacit reluctance is a sign that Washington has presented the ultimate resort of an invasion with the sole intention of inspiring a diplomatic solution.

Keep Pandora’s box shut

Yet even if the Syrian government was guilty of chemical assault and failed to comply with any disarmament plans, or even if ensuring the credibility of democratic crusades was a worthy cause, the disadvantages of an intervention would still outweigh its benefits. Assad is no saint, but his failings pale against those of his opponents. Syria might have always been a bit too cosy with Russia for some, but it only recently morphed into a full-fledged enemy of the West in diplomatic communication. Tolerating Assad’s authoritarian tendencies was warranted because he ensured that his country remained a rare beacon of pluralism in the Middle Eastern vicinity. For decades, Syria has remained unscathed from the sectarian violence that ravaged her neighbours. Despite a multi-ethnic and multi-religious population, communitarian interaction was harmonious and minorities were safe. The rebels who have risen thanks to the sponsorship of Saudi, Qatari and Western governments, have bought an abrupt end to the culture of tolerance that characterised  Assad’s Syria. Many of the fighters whom Washington and its allies seem to consider as a legitimate opposition are not even Syrians –Their ranks are riddled with Islamist extremists who have migrated across the Syrian border for the sole purpose of joining Al-Qaeda and other radical Salafist and Wahhabi forces in jihad. As the controversial British MP George Galloway pointed out in an emotional and heated parliamentary debate, the so-called Syrian Free Army has already committed far more despicable crimes than were heard of during Assad’s entire reign. Sunni, Christian and Jewish minorities in Syria are terrified by a stream of reports on the brutal violence directed towards their communities. Opposition fighters take pride in having decapitated priests with saws. One of their commanders has achieved fame on Youtube for tearing out and devouring the heart and liver of a government soldier. Confusingly, these are the sort of people, recently strengthened by a relief army of Islamist prisoners sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia, whom the United States and EU prefer over the current Syrian regime. Their movement’s success, aided by Western money and arms donations (of which the first shipment has just arrived) will plunge an already notoriously instable region into even deeper misery. Oil-rich Sunni rulers in the Arabian Gulf might delight in any opportunity they get to punish their Shia colleagues, but they are foolishly short-sighted to support the Islamist cause in Syria. The violence that rages through the country will not end when the regime has fallen, just like Hussein’s collapse did not bring peace to Iraq. It will only mark the 2nd stage in a bloody sectarian war which will be shouldered by innocents for years to come, threatening greater turmoil throughout the Middle East. The West consequently risks creating another permanent, extremist-infected conflict zone.

We’ve been here before. 3 decades ago, Washington helped a nascent Islamist warlord named Osama Bin Laden and his Mujahedin fighters to victory over the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Once the Russians withdrew from the Hindu Kush, the Mujahedin founded an organisation known as the “Students” or “Taleban” and Osama set up Al-Qaeda. Members of both groups thanked their former U.S. arms suppliers for the favour, by installing one most tyrannical and vile theocracies on the planet and crashing an airplane into the World Trade Centre. Perhaps if Washington had been willing to shell out even a fragment of the funds consumed by the initial covert military operation to Afghanistan’s post-war development, things would have been different. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the West’s relationship with its current rebel bedfellows will fare any better, if and when the fighting ends. The Syrian mujahedin do not take favourable views on what they perceive as Western decadence, arrogance and immorality. In case of their success, Israel would be an obvious next stop on their holy war trail. Obama has nothing to gain from an alliance with the Opposition - he will be scolded as an imperialist foe as soon he tries to exert influence over the policies of the new regime. The safest bet to prevent civilian deaths and terrorist attacks is still to resist the urge to bomb and shoot at the scattered remnants of the livelihoods of disenfranchised people. By aiding Assad’s adversaries with weapons or threatened strikes, the West is breeding the very extremists it fears.

In an ideal world, President Obama would not tolerate boundless cyber espionage and close Guantanamo. President Putin would protect the rights of his homosexual citizens and the government in Damascus would make less use of its aggressive secret police. Back in the real world however, Assad is still better than those fighting him. Arguments for taking action or party against him go to show that denial also runs through Syria.  

*Please note that the views expressed in this opinion piece are solely those of the author and may not necessarily reflect the views of European Ideas.

Recommended Readings