Victoria University history lecturer Dr Alexander Maxwell discusses the troubled question of what the world should do now in Syria

The Syrian civil war is, so far, the 21st century’s bloodiest catastrophe. Around 11 percent of all Syrians have been killed. About half of all Syrians have been forced from their homes. The country’s architectural heritage, including five UNESCO world heritage sites, have been damaged or destroyed. The violence and suffering show no sign of ending.

A sarin gas attack in the Syrian town of Khan Assal has just provoked military intervention from the United States. President Donald Trump, apparently shocked by pictures of children killed in Khan Assal, ordered a cruise missile strike against a Syrian government airport. Since Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, had described the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” the Syrian government should not cross, “red lines” have recently garnered much attention in the international media. Pundits have also talked about “sending a message” or “punishing Assad,” as if Assad were a naughty child.

I suggest, however, that Assad is not a child. He is fifty-one years old, and has been a head of state for 17 years. He is also commander in chief of an army waging a brutal civil war in which both sides fight hard, because both sides routinely massacre captured soldiers. Treating him like a child is arrogant, but, more importantly, it’s an inaccurate assessment of his situation, and thus a poor basis for an effective political strategy.

The United States, as it happens, conspicuously lacks any discernible strategy for ending the death and carnage. Trump has repeatedly spoken about defeating ISIS. Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, recently spoke about “regime change” and the need to remove Assad from power. Destroying ISIS and toppling Assad would not, however, end the violence: war ends with the establishment of a stable government. It’s not enough to talk about who should lose: somebody must win.

The United States and the European Union have a standard wish-list for Syria, reflecting their aspirations for the world as a whole. They want a prosperous, secular, democratic trading partner. They would like the ghost of Nelson Mandela to materialise in Syria and magically establish a stable government that respects human rights, fights terrorism, and does a lot of business with western corporations. As long as we’re dreaming, perhaps magic Syria could also cure cancer and breed unicorns for export.

Nelson Mandela’s ghost has unfortunately neglected to give any Western embassies a mobile number. In the meantime, politics abhors a vacuum, and somebody or other will hold power in Damascus. If the United States, or the international community generally, wants to help, perhaps it should look at the existing players in the Syrian game and pick a side.

Part of Syria is under the control of the Syrian government, which enjoys support from the country’s Druze, Christian and Alawite (Shia) minorities. President Bashar al-Assad comes from an Alawite background. Alawites have played a disproportionate role in the Syrian army since colonial times; the French recruited Alawites to serve in the army because they did not trust Syrians from the country’s Sunni majority. The army plays an important role in the politics of independent Syria, and has often discriminated against Sunnis. Assad is has put down previous Sunni uprisings. The Syrian government’s atrocities include the use of poison gas against civilian targets, mass torture, and mass killings in Sednaya prison near Damascus.

Part of Syria is under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, popularly known as ISIS. The Islamic State, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is currently the most radical and successful jihadi group in the world, and an open challenge to the core values of Western democracy. Its atrocities include the indiscriminate use of suicide bombers, burning prisoners of war live on film, beheadings, the use of human shields, and the attempted genocide against the country’s Yazidi minority.

Other parts of Syria are under the control of various militia groups fighting both the Assad regime and each other. Some of these militias nominally work with a would-be government in exile called the Free Syrian Army, whose leadership is weak, disorganised, and corrupt. The militias draw heavily from pre-war Syria’s Sunni majority, who were excluded and discriminated against before the Civil War began. Several Sunni militias are led by radical jihadis. One could understand ISIS as the best-organised and most successful of Sunni militias. Syrian militias are also accused of various atrocities, including the use of chemical weapons. Indeed, Russia claims the Khan Assal attack was a false-flag attack from the Basha’ir al-Nasr Brigade, one of the many Sunni militias loosely affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.

Finally, a small part of north-eastern Syria is under the control of a Kurdish provisional government known as Rojava. Kurds are the only non-Arab element in Syria’s population. As a linguistic minority, Kurds suffered discrimination before the war. The Kurdish state is the only player in the Civil War not linked to major atrocities. The Kurdish government does not seek to govern the whole of Syria. Kurdish territorial ambitions extend only to a Kurdish region, though arguably they imagine that region too broadly.

The United States has long supported the Rojava Kurds. The small number of American military advisors already fighting ISIS in Syria are based in the Kurdish region. Neither the United States nor European powers can support the Kurds too much or too openly without antagonising Turkey, an important regional ally. Turkey faces its own long-standing Kurdish insurgency and understandably fears that an independent Kurdish state on its borders would act as a safe haven for Kurds fighting Turkey. The complexities of Kurdish politics, however, are a sideshow for Syria as a whole: the Rojava government does not seek to govern Damascus, nor indeed to govern Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Latakia, Deir Ezzor, or Raqqa, Syria’s next-largest cities. So, who should wield power in Damascus?

None of the remaining parties makes an attractive ally for the United States, or for NATO, or for any incarnation of “the West.” Assad and ISIS both engage in mass killing against their political opponents. The various militias of the Free Syrian Army have, perhaps, been less violent, but only because they are less capable and less competent. Were the Assad regime to collapse suddenly, the massacre and ethnic cleansing of Alawis, Druze and Christians would probably ensue.

Lacking any attractive partner, the United States under the Obama administration chose to remain aloof. The do-nothing policy had several obvious attractions, particularly in the aftermath of the disastrous American intervention in Iraq. The military stalemate between the Assad regime and its enemies, however, led to the refugee crisis, and the refugee crisis, in turn, has caused problems in Western Europe. Fear of refugees contributed to the rise of right-wing populism generally, and the folly of Brexit in particular.

Perhaps, therefore, it is time to prefer an end with horrors, to horrors without end. The continuing absence of Nelson Mandela’s ghost leaves only bad options on the table. Supporting the Kurds is not enough, one must pick a side inside Syria proper. The Free Syrian Army appears incapable of victory; supporting it would merely prolong the anarchy and violence. That leaves only two realistic options left on the table: the Assad regime and the Islamic State. If foreign powers wish to intervene in Syria, therefore, they should support the Assad regime, complete with its chemical weapons and torture-prisons.

Both the Islamic State and the Assad regime, the contenders for power in Syria, are violent and brutal. However, the Syrian government at least pays lip service to representative government. The Assad regime’s 2012 constitution proclaims that “sovereignty shall be based on the principle of the rule of the people by the people and for the people” (article 2) and that “the political system of the state shall be based on the principle of political pluralism” (article 8).

By contrast, a document outlining the “principles of the administration of the Islamic State,” captured on the battlefield and published by the Guardian newspaper, explicitly rejects “coexistence with disbeliever sects” and equates “cultural exchange with the west” to “moral dissolution.” The state also proudly claims responsibility for bomb attacks against civilian targets worldwide, most notably bombing a Coptic church in Egypt. Syrian Sunnis have long had legitimate grievances with the Assad regime, but the Islamic State is a universal enemy. The United States, and the international powers, should do what is necessary for its destruction. Assad is the lesser of the two evils.

Since the United States has so little credibility with Arab public opinion, and particular with the Assad regime, perhaps the best course of action is to leave this as a job for Russia. The Assad regime has long enjoyed friendly relations with Russia; Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafiz al-Assad, was allied to the Soviet Union. Indeed, during the Cold War many Syrians studied in the Soviet Union, and several brought home Russian spouses. Some 30,000 ethnic Russians lived in Syria at the start of the war. Russia has organised peace talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana, for the first time bringing opposition fighters and Assad’s representatives. So, the western powers should support Russia’s attempts to broker a peace deal. 

Dr Alexander Maxwell is an associate professor in History at Victoria University of Wellington' School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations. He directs the Antipodean East...

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