When you ask Syrians – whether those living in the hell the country has become, or the refugees that have managed to escape – what is the main problem, the majority will give a one-word answer: “Assad”.
This is why I find the rising voices of people like The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn, journalist Tariq Ali, and others on the left so bizarre.
“To defeat ISIS”, they say, “we must back Assad”. In fact even London’s Mayor Boris Johnson has weighed and taken the same stance. And in a sense, this is not an absurd proposition. Assad does have the largest fighting force in Syria, and has a (partially) functioning state behind him with which he could go on to administer the territories reclaimed from ISIS, and make sure that some semblance of order is restored to the country. If we look at this situation in just these terms, of course, backing Assad does make a certain amount of sense.
Civil society destroyed
But to Syrians, this really makes no sense at all. To understand why, one must understand what the history of the Assad regime, father and son, has been in Syria. This regime has been a Ba’athist “socialist popular republic”. And if that sounds a lot like the communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe, it is because that is exactly the right parallel to draw. That includes the ways in which the regime has systematically destroyed civil society with liberal use of Stasi-like state surveillance, extensive use of torture of political dissident voices, and the strangely frequent accidental deaths in custody of those whom would not be “re-educated”.
We urged Syrians to rise up and cast off the chains of oppression. Now some would suggest that actually it would be preferable, after all, that Syrians should continue to wear those chains.Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
There was one crucial difference with Eastern Europe though. The Assad regime was overwhelmingly dominated by the minority Shia-aligned Alawite sect in Syria, who numbered no more than 12 percent of the population. And in that sense, the style of administration somewhat resembled the old colonial model of Western empires, where Britain and France would typically elevate one minority over the rest of the population and use them to administer territory. Being a minority, this would be the only way they could maintain such a prominent position, so their loyalty to the colonial masters was implicit. And this sectarian dimension also played out in the way that state repression was dished out in Syria: Sunnis, especially, bore the brunt of the repression, since they constituted about 80 percent of the population, so were always the most likely threat to the regime.
The 1989 moment?
When the Arab Spring came to Syria, it did not come as a jihadist, or even especially sectarian revolt or uprising. To Syria in particular, but perhaps to Libya as well, it came as their 1989 moment. The moment when they would overthrow a brutal dictatorship and establish a modern, democratic state. That was the stated goal of many of the Syrian revolutionaries, and that is what we in the West have encouraged them to do. The situation has since descended into a sectarian hell, but that was largely courtesy to the mess that we’ve left in northern Iraq, after the invasion and the insurgency, where ISIS was born. That simply spilled into the chaos of the Syria civil war.
In 2010, we urged Syrians to rise up and cast off the chains of oppression. In 2015, some commentators would suggest that actually it would be preferable, after all, that Syrians should continue to wear those chains, especially on our own security calculations.
And it is all very tragic that Syrians should have to put up with Assad even as he has, by now, killed hundreds of thousands of his own people with chemical attacks, banned cluster munitions and barrel bombs. But as far as we in the West are concerned, Assad poses no threat to our security, whereas ISIS inspires attacks on us with alarming frequency. So our calculation should be simple. But to Syrians, this would be like Bill Clinton telling the people of the former Yugoslavia that actually, they should all go back to being governed by Slobodan Milošević after all.
And the funny thing is, that also does sound an awful lot like the narrative ISIS uses to recruit fighters from Western countries in particular: “The West has no interest in the wellbeing of Syrian or Muslim people, and they will back and murderous dictator, as they have so often done in the past, to protect their own imperial ambitions and interests.”
If the governments of the U.S. and the UK were to sanction in any way the continuation of the Assad regime, they would, in effect, validate the ISIS recruitment propaganda. And I, for one, cannot think of anything that any Western leader could do to make his or her country less safe from terror attacks at this point in time.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim