Attempting to remove from power Syrian President Bashar al Assad has proved to be one of the costliest blunders of the 21st century.
America must learn that in the Middle East, and perhaps the world over, the greatest virtue in politics is authority, which is manifested by the existence of government itself. All other virtues and institutions are secondary: human rights, transparency, education, healthcare, marriage, family, etc. These latter virtues and institutions follow authority or should follow authority.
Without authority, the invisible chains that pin down man’s baser nature are loosed, and horrors beyond the imagination are released upon humanity. Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and Syria support this foreign policy “axiom,” and today that axiom screams: “Assad must stay!”*
If the greatest virtue in the Middle East is authority, then what recourse did Syria’s opposition have? Since Assad refused to redress the grievances of the opposition in a manner that they were willing to support, then was not violent revolution justified? Aha! The million-dollar question!
To answer the million-dollar question, we will defer to those 18th century Americans who signed the Declaration of Independence, which explained the basis of their armed rebellion against Great Britain. They argued that all people possess certain God-given rights and that governments are set up to protect those rights. When a tyrannical government removes people’s rights, then it loses its legitimacy and people may abolish the tyrannical government and set up a new one.
Actually, the Syrian crisis did not begin as a civil war. It began as peaceful protests in early 2011 when Assad’s opposition joined in the so-called Arab Spring, a populist movement that resulted in the over throw of multiple Middle Eastern governments. What happened was that Assad, a dictator, forcibly suppressed the protests. His brutality pushed the opposition too far and it responded by taking up arms against him in the summer of the same year.
Indeed, one could argue that President Assad’s government was tyrannical, at least towards his opposition, and that an armed rebellion was justified. The problem is that after nearly six years of fighting, Assad is winning handedly and is going to win. Assad was made strong by his allies, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, but made invincible by Russian air power.
Meanwhile, the opposition warped into a hideous monster. The opposition fragmented into many groups, and many were radicalized through religious extremism. Two major opposition factions, ISIS and the al Nusra Front (al Qaeda in Syria), sworn enemies of America, also joined the Syrian civil war to topple Assad.
The radicalization of the Syrian rebels changed everything, or should have changed everything, from an American policy point of view. Which is worse for America, a post-war Syria where Assad rules, or where ISIS rules, or al Qaeda rules? None is good since all threaten Israel’s security. However, of these scenarios, Assad is the best one.
What if Assad had been quickly overthrown before the religious extremists took over a large portion of the rebellion? Would life have been better for all Syrians? Would Syria’s majority Sunni Arabs have created a stable post-war government? Would they have assembled Syria’s other minority groups to build a representative government?
Likely, the opposition would have built a sectarian authoritative government that suppressed Assad and his allies, but no one will ever know for sure. However, one thing is certain: Syria’s opposition has missed its moment.
A major lesson learned in Iraq is that, in the Middle East, the transition to a new government is not smooth or guaranteed. As others have noted, George Washingtons and Thomas Jeffersons do not automatically spring forth from the populace after a revolution. Instead, one might argue that Charles Mansons and Darth Vaders rise up and wreak havoc on the people.
What saved Iraq was the presence of many thousands of American soldiers on the ground that acted as a security force in the post-Saddam era following the widespread looting that resulted from the toppling of Saddam’s government. Libya was not as fortunate since it did not have American soldiers on the ground. U.S. air power forced Muammar Gaddafi from power and then, without a government, the country spiraled into chaos.
Incidentally, history looks kindly upon the American Revolutionary War, perhaps not because the rebels won, but because their victory was followed by over two centuries of successfully governance, which included America becoming the world’s greatest superpower.
Perhaps the end justified the means. However, what if America had fallen apart politically after the Revolutionary War and a period of brutality occurred, such as what happened during the French Revolution? Under such circumstances, later generations might have frowned upon America’s rebellion against Britain, seeing it as an act of folly.
When discussing Syria’s future, certain parameters rooted in the on-the-ground reality must guide America’s response. Since the West is unwilling to engage the Russian military in Syria, it is immediately evident that the Syrian civil war is not the type of situation where Western politicians or the United Nations can decide unilaterally what is to be done and then do it.
Today’s Syrian crisis is very different. Assad has the upper hand in negotiating Syria’s future because he has the backing of the Russian military. That fact, and it is a fact, must be acknowledged because it is the first parameter in negotiating Syria’s future.
The second parameter flows from the first: any discussion of Syria’s post-war future must begin with Assad as president. No matter how Western politicians may feel about Assad, those feelings are irrelevant as far as post-war Syria is concerned, because Western politicians have chosen not to engage the Russian military in Syria.
Indeed, Western policy recommendations for post-war Syria, which begin with a scenario where Assad is absent or phased out, are fantasy. Assad is here to stay and he will remain president when Syria’s civil war is over. That die has been cast and time travel is not a possibility.
To those who still insist that Assad must go, must be asked, “What Western policy is so important as to demand Assad’s ouster?” Put another way, “Which Westerners will accept a policy that calls for many more thousands of dead Syrians, and millions more displaced, in order to align Syria with Saudi Arabia?”
Western political leaders that still insist Assad must go infer that they are willing to prolong the civil war indefinitely when it is clear already that Assad’s presidency will remain. In fact, so egregious is that position that one wonders if those leaders could be guilty of war crimes indirectly by encouraging more fighting.
So what can the Trump administration do to end the Syrian civil war? The quickest path is to enter negotiations with Russia. Since Russia is Assad’s guarantor, it has enormous influence on Assad. Russia is the gate to ending the war. Failure to engage Russia diplomatically will lead to the U.S. being sidelined altogether, having no role in directly shaping post-war Syria.
As a historical note, on the eve of Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war, Assad’s government was on the verge of collapse. “The jihadists alliances as well as other rebel groups were surging at the time and held the most territory at any point in the civil war before the Russians intervened.”** Put another way, Syria’s opposition forces had overwhelmed the combined strength of Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Assad knows that.
The U.S. should communicate to Russia that it will lend its diplomatic support to an Assad post-war presidency, in exchange for post-war assurances that Assad will institute certain political changes to be hammered out between the U.S., Russia, and Syria. These post-war changes should include what to do about the future well being of Syria’s opposition.
However, given today’s disastrous U.S.-Russia relations, an American attempt to initiate negotiations with Russia on Syria, may be met with failure. If Russia assented, it would be bringing the U.S. on board as somewhat of an equal partner to affect Assad’s future. Why would Russia do that?
It is therefore apparent that the resolution of the Syrian civil war demands a thawing of U.S.-Russia relations. Restore U.S.-Russia relations and bring an end to Syria’s civil war. For Assad to receive the backing of President Donald Trump, the president who shakes the world with a “tweet,” would be to suck the air out of Assad’s enemies and restore Assad’s legitimacy to the world. Assad is unlikely to turn down that deal.
In a perfect world, the post-war changes to Syria would include a power sharing arrangement and a democratic form of government, but since this is not post-war Iraq, where many thousands of American troops were on the ground and its provisional government owed its very existence to the U.S., these aspirations are unrealistic.
Assad is going to remain a dictator after the war is over. However, that fact does not preclude the U.S. and Russia getting Assad to agree to certain reforms in his government that would provide human rights’ protections and a voice for the opposition. Achieving these two goals would be a huge win for the opposition.
A downside to this plan is that it assumes no post-war trials as occurred in Iraq. They would be impossible since Assad remains in power.*** So where is justice? Can Syria limp along after the civil war without justice being dealt to the various parties to war atrocities? That will be an issue long pondered.
The U.S. and Russia also need to push Assad to agree to a general amnesty for the rebels. What that does is it prevents Assad from killing opposition figures after the war is over, but it would also prevent the bringing to justice of any opposition figures who are also guilty of war crimes. In short, neither side will find the justice that they want after the war is over.
Assuming the U.S. were to pull off the above negotiations with Russia and Assad successfully, what about the opposition? Could it be brought on board to accept a peaceful resolution to the war, particularly since the opposition is fractured into many groups, two of which are ISIS and al Qaeda? The U.S. appears to have influence over some Syrian factions, but ISIS and al Qaeda, and any other faction that does not lay down its arms, will have to be defeated street-by-street and house-by-house.
At present, rocky is the road both to peace and after peace. If Assad does not make significant concessions then Syria’s Sunnis will remain disenfranchised. Add to that Iraq’s disenfranchised Sunnis just across the border, and another ISIS is sure to come. Does Assad want that?
Also, Syrians will discover that rebuilding its destroyed towns and cities will be slow as the money needed to do it will be difficult to acquire. Without thousands of foreign troops on the ground setting up a new government, foreign governments are unlikely to pump billions of dollars into Syria’s ravished infrastructure as they did in Afghanistan. Likewise, as Afghanistan also illustrates, investors are typically unwilling to take action in war-torn countries with uncertain political futures.
* For a further explanation, see: Michael Huffman, “Three Major Intervention Lessons Learned from Iraq,” USpolicyinaBigWorld.com, March 13, 2017.
** February 16, 2017 email correspondence with Bill Roggio, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor at the Long War Journal.
*** It is worth noting that finding justice in a post war era is difficult. Even in a country like Afghanistan, which has had so much hands-on involvement by the world community, none of its warlords have been held accountable for war crimes, not even notorious Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum.