As discussion intensifies over the possibility of the United States and Turkey establishing a protected zone in northern Syria, apologists for the Assad regime deploy the usual array of arguments: beware the slippery slope to invasion and occupation; do nothing until the Syrian opposition overcomes its dysfunction and presents an attractive alternative to the regime; avoid inadvertently unseating the Assad-Makhluf clan lest there be chaos a la Iraq following the downfall of Saddam Hussein. Although all of these arguments are specious, it is the last of the three that most angers the millions of Syrians victimized by relentless regime criminality for nearly four years.
Indeed, the Iraq analogy has weighed heavily and destructively on US policy toward Syria. Curiously, however, it did not do so at the outset of the crisis, when the White House fully expected Assad quickly to go the way of Ben Ali, Mubarak, Salih, and Qaddafi. When President Barack Obama called on Assad to step aside in August 2011, he fully expected the Syrian dictator to be yanked off-stage.
It was only when Assad demonstrated resilience by employing mass terror with sectarian overtones that the administration discovered something previously unnoticed: the putative benefits of the regime not disappearing too quickly. After all, no one wanted another Iraq, with de-Baathified civil servants and dismissed soldiers running amok. The Iraq analogy was believed by some but convenient for all: if Assad was going nowhere without a firm US push and that push was not to be forthcoming, perhaps there was, after all, value in him staying on for a bit; perhaps he could play a stabilizing role while the opposition got its act together. Sadly, this is what passed for strategic thinking in the context of Syria.
The consequences of reconciling mass murder with a peculiar, but convenient notion of stability have been staggering: over 200,000 dead; uncounted tens of thousands maimed, traumatized, and terrorized; more than 3 million run out of Syria across international borders; upwards of 7 million homeless inside the country; scores of thousands undergoing torture, starvation, and sexual abuse in regime prisons; civilian populations subjected mercilessly to barrel bombs and starvation sieges. Tons of documents smuggled out of Syria—many of an official nature—attest to the regime’s systematic regime war crimes and crimes against humanity. This, plus an underworld shabiha economy in Assad-dominated western Syria accompanied by the unspeakable suffering of Alawite families forced to sacrifice their children to preserve a rapacious ruling clan, is the price that has been paid by Syrians for what some would label stability.
Yet it is not the full price. The Assad regime facilitated the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq during the first decade of the 21st century and then helped to bring it back to life with its brutally cynical sectarian survival strategy. Having made Syria fertile ground for the growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), the regime figured out how to get along with ISIL for the sake of killing a common enemy: Syrian nationalists seeking to oust the regime and neutralize ISIL. This aspect of the Assad regime’s stabilizing qualities bore fruit in June of this year, when the ISIL volcano in Syria erupted and devoured much of Iraq. The militaries of a large, US-led coalition are now trying to deal with this Assad regime’s contribution to regional stability.
Yet Assad gets a free pass on much of this from analysts and commentators who profess to see a greater threat flowing from a fractious, exiled opposition. Perhaps there is precedent for this sort of thing. Perhaps people actually argued in 1943 that the allies should go slow in ousting Hitler. Who, after all, was prepared to take his place and govern Germany? Some opposition figures hiding out in Germany or languishing in exile? What is clear in the case of Syria is that there is no shortage of commentary willing to brush past regime depredations easily meeting the “never again” standard while piling sarcasm and scorn on opposition leaders already having to deal with “help” from regional “supporters” more interested in collecting surrogates than in helping to build a coherent opposition.
Is the Syrian National Coalition and its affiliated Syrian Interim Government prepared right now to govern all of Syria effectively? Of course not. Is Bashar al-Assad prepared to do so? He who has spent the better part of four years burning the place to the ground so that his family could continue to collect rents as Iranian employees? If the man recently labeled a murderer by President Obama in Brisbane were to disappear tomorrow, Syria would be destabilized?
Syrian minorities have every right and reason to fear the ultimate alternative to Assad. No one knows better than Syria’s Alawites the extent to which a single clan has sought to implicate them all in a campaign whose effects, if not intent, have been genocidal. No one knows better than Syrian Christians, who were leaving the country in large numbers long before March 2011, how corrupt, incompetent, and capricious the ruling family is. What weighs on them, however, is the fear that the regime’s minority hostage-taking strategy might work.
Regime apologists have long argued for a hands-off approach by Washington to Syria. Now that hands-off has, in combination with regime tactics, facilitated the rise of ISIL, the Nusra Front, and other sectarian primitives at the expense of the genuine opposition, they shed crocodile tears over the relative weakness of Syrian nationalists trying to fight both the regime and ISIL. They demand that the nationalists reassure the minorities, even as they counsel Washington to abandon the nationalists. According to the apologists, aiding the nationalists in their fight against two-way terror only prolongs the war and extends the suffering. Better that their guy, steeped in blood and borne aloft by foreign fighters imported to Syria by Iran, should win quickly.
The apologists will do what they do. The Obama administration, however, should ask itself some questions. Can the objective of defeating ISIL be achieved with the pseudo-caliph’s number one enabler—the Assad regime—unmolested and in-place? Can the humanitarian abomination of Syria be mitigated so long as the regime uses the anti-ISIL air campaign as cover for its own anti-civilian air terror campaign? Can the president’s objective of promoting decent, legitimate governance in Syria be advanced without a safe zone for it to take root? Can anti-regime Syrians be recruited to an anti-ISIL ground campaign if Aleppo is permitted to fall?
The operational implications of answering these questions truthfully are serious and complicated. Sadly, avoidance remains an option: one far from risk-free. Yet the alleged stabilizing qualities of the Assad regime in the face of opposition weakness should no longer be the unworthy alibi of choice.
Frederic C. Hof is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.