A pro-Syria protest in Beirut, Lebanon
In the post-9/11 world, the “War on Terror” has allowed the United States to justify its interventions in the Middle East on the grounds that it is bringing the fight to those hostile to the Western way of life. The Bush Doctrine, which justified the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, also whetted the appetites of proponents of America’s foreign policy initiatives. While the War on Terror created new opportunities for regime change in the Middle East, U.S. leaders forgot to consider the consequences of uprooting such deeply entrenched dictatorships.
Shooting with Eyes Closed
The American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 resulted not only in the removal of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, but also in the formation and rise of ISIS. Speaking with VICE News in March, US President Barack Obama said:
“ISIL is a direct outgrowth of Al Qaeda in Iraq – that grew out of our invasion; which is an example of unintended consequences which is why we should generally aim before we shoot. We’ve got a 60 country coalition [working against ISIS]. We will slowly push back ISIL out of Iraq. I’m confident that will happen.”
Unfortunately, the United States continues to fire blindly in Syria, albeit with a different weapon. Since Obama took office, the American strategy in the Middle East has changed. Instead of invading countries and installing governments friendly to the US, Washington is supporting domestic opposition groups in a bid to destabilize established regimes hostile to American interests. This occurred in Libya, now in chaos after “moderate” rebel forces – aided by NATO airstrikes – executed long-reigning dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Apparently, America is keen on making the same mistake twice.
The US has hedged its bets against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by funnelling weapons and training to so-called moderate opposition forces, such as the Free Syrian Army and the New Syrian Forces. Despite spending half a billion dollars on the initiative so far, results have been counterproductive. According to reports, US-backed rebels have been killed, captured, or forced to give up their equipment to Jabhat al-Nusra (an Al Qaeda affiliate). Some have even switched sides – fighting with ISIS instead of against it. Observers have likened the Syrian rebel training program to a Middle Eastern equivalent of the Bay of Pigs incident under Kennedy. With such pathetic results it is no wonder that Russia has been so critical of how the United States has attempted to eradicate ISIS in Syria and Iraq, not to mention its broader intervention in the Middle East.
“Do you realize what you’ve done?”
Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria ruffled the feathers of American officials, who have remained skeptical of Moscow’s claims that it is joining the fight against ISIS. For Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the distinction between friend and foe in Syria is simple: “If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist, right?” Despite Russia’s claim that it is only targeting ISIS and its affiliates, US-backed rebels have reportedly been hit by Russian airstrikes. In retaliation, Washington has condemned the Russian operation, arguing that it has only made the situation worse.
In contrast, Russia argues that supporting Assad’s government is the only way to ensure stability in the country. In his speech at the UN’s 70th General Assembly, Vladimir Putin outlined the problems he believes the United States and its allies have caused in the Middle East:
“It is obvious that the power vacuum created in some countries of the Middle East and North Africa lead to the emergence of anarchy areas. Those immediately started to be filled with extremists and terrorists. … And now the ranks of radicals are being joined by the Western countries who [support them]. First, they are armed and trained, and then they defect to the Islamic State. … It is equally irresponsible to try and manipulate extremist groups and place them at one’s service in order to achieve one’s own political goals in hope of .liquidating them later. We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government … We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s Armed Forces and the Kurd militia are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.”
Supporting Assad’s regime is not the Kremlin’s only goal in Syria. By taking an active role in steering the situation towards a better outcome, Russia, according to Fyodor Lukyanov, is trying to portray itself as a responsible actor on the world stage with the ability to find solutions. To that end, Putin has reached out to the US, emphasizing “the opportunity to work on joint problems together,” despite the chasm between him and Obama.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
If the international community wants to put an end to the crisis, it has to choose between two undesirable consequences. On one hand, the United States and its allies can continue exploiting the situation in Syria by getting opposing sides to massacre one another. However, this approach has resulted in an unspeakable number of civilian casualties, and has provoked the migration of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East to Europe. On the flip side, perhaps it is more realistic to bite the bullet and accept the fact that Assad, as brutal a dictator as he is, is the lesser evil in this situation.
Of course, it would be wrong to claim that keeping Assad in power is an acceptable solution for Syria. His unrestricted and often indiscriminate use of force against civilians has been widely documented. He has used chemical weapons such as Sarin and chlorine gas, improvised ‘barrel bombs’ packed with gasoline and shrapnel, and heavy artillery against resistant towns. At the same time, however, Assad has cooperated with some Western demands, such as when he handed over large amounts of chemical weapons after being threatened with a US invasion, and even offering to relinquish power if the West stopped supporting rebel groups – a solution offered by Russian negotiations in 2012 that Washington rejected. Despite the indefensible atrocities committed by the Syrian president, the alternative is even worse.
If the U.S. does manage to overthrow Assad, then what about ISIS? Currently, the Syrian government has been losing ground against the group – the very reason why Russia became involved in the first place. How could creating yet another power vacuum in Syria improve the region’s disastrous security situation? One does not have to look far to see that Western efforts in overthrowing Middle Eastern dictatorships have utterly failed: Libya is in a state of crisis, and the Iraqi government is barely beating back ISIS – even with extensive NATO air support and help from the Kurdish Peshmerga. When comparing the current chaos in Iraq, Libya and Syria to the condition of those countries prior to the Bush Doctrine, it appears that a repressive peace is better than leaving people to their own devices after uprooting what little security and political stability they had. In supporting Assad, Russia may actually have the better argument, regardless of how unpleasant the ramifications may be.