In the aftermath of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, the argument that a powerful and tyrannical dictator may be the only thing stopping a state from utterly collapsing into chaos is a powerful one. Libya is facing multiple insurgencies and different groups vying for power have caused untold misery, Afghanistan continues to languish under similar insurgencies that utilize its unmanageable terrain, and Iraq’s inept government has jurisdiction only over about half of its territory – the rest now belongs to ISIS. With the exception of Afghanistan, the other nations lack the brutal central dictator that they once had.
So to look at the Syrian Civil War, and the near quarter of a million people who have been killed, it’s easy to see why Assad is rapidly becoming the favoured choice for a post-war head of state, at least outside of the United States. That same United States lost the right to intervene in this conflict a long time ago, given that it had a hand in destabilizing Syria to begin with, and would surely only pursue a peace programme that would prise open the country for foreign markets to feast on.
Successive governments, both Democrat and Republican, have destabilized countless countries in Latin America and secured beneficial regime changes across the Middle East for this purpose too, and cannot be trusted whatsoever with negotiating a worthwhile end to the Civil War. Obama, one of the most bloodthirsty Presidents in living memory, certainly cares little for the Syrian people’s desire for genuine reform.
Enter Russia, which does not have such a blatant reputation for bloodshed and violence (although it certainly should). Russian imperialism has been quite effectively disguised in the past couple of decades, and has sat back and enjoyed the attention rightfully put on the United States for its aggressive warmongering and its puppeteering of once-sovereign states. Russia has its own skeletons in its closets, from Chechyna to Georgia, but is generally trusted more in its Middle Eastern interventions than the United States, provided those you ask are not on the government payroll.
For all intents and purposes, Russia isn’t the domineering global tyrant that Western leaders make it out to be, and its intervention against ISIS and the Syrian opposition has been received far better in the general population of Europe than America’s has. Even a right-wing British newspaper has lauded Putin for demoralizing ISIS and humiliating the United States for its failure to take them down.
But the effectiveness of Russia’s bombing campaigns does not tell us anything about it’s ethicalness – the U.S.-led effort to remove Saddam Hussein was successful, but it wasn’t moral because of the great turmoil and misery it brought the Iraqi people, turmoil and misery that even the most politically inept among us could realize would happen when you remove a powerful central figure like Hussein.
So too that is the argument in Syria – if you remove Assad, Syria becomes the next Iraq or the next Libya, with numerous extremist and non-secular opposition groups tearing the country apart, all trying to get a piece of it to implement their wishes and demands, which usually involve the same levels of brutality that Assad is responsible for, if not more. With Gaddafi gone, the prospect of Libya becoming a functional state with an effective central government looks less and less likely every day, and the parallels between the uprisings there with Syria are striking.
That’s a powerful argument for backing Assad, which the Americans have so far refused to do, and it doesn’t take a genius to realize that he is to Syria what Gaddafi was to Libya, or Saddam to Iraq – the only one capable of holding the state together. Why then, you might ask, is it worth questioning the Russians’ support of him? Is it because I’m a Cold War advocate who distrusts the Russians, or an imperialist who wants to see a tighter American grip over the region? Absolutely not, it’s because I’m not a supporter of state violence, and Assad is the biggest perpetrator of violence in this conflict.
Consider: Between March 15th 2011 and August 31st 2015, approximately 186,141 civilians in Syria have been killed. Of those, 96% were killed by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad’s government, while only 1.3% were killed by rebel groups (excluding ISIS and al-Nusra). That is 179,291 people who were murdered by the government, all in the name of keeping the state together and crushing the uprisings, which began peacefully before being hijacked by radicals and insurgents. Even in the grassroots civil uprising stage, which took place in the context of the Arab Spring, Assad responded ambivalently – both cracking down and approving of violence against demonstrators and protesters (in no small part due to the paranoia the U.S. Embassy induced in him), and offering concessions to the people that the UN described as:
“The formation of a new Government, the lifting of the state of emergency, the abolition of the Supreme State Security Court, the granting of general amnesties and new regulations on the right of citizens to participate in peaceful demonstrations”
Soon after – and this was wholly ignored by the international press – armed militias and gangs hijacked the national mood and began shelling campaigns against government strongholds, leading Assad to treat all protesters, whether they be peaceful or hostile, as a threat to the integrity of his government and the state in general. The results, according to the UN, have been as follows:
“[Assad’s forces have] committed the crimes against humanity of murder and of torture, war crimes and gross violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, including unlawful killing, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence, indiscriminate attack, pillaging and destruction of property”
By all accounts, and no matter what your views on imperialism or the lesser of two evils, the case for dragging Assad kicking and screaming to the doors of The International Court of Justice is extremely strong. It would be morally unjustified and frankly grossly hypocritical for we who consider ourselves advocates of human rights to support or act as apologists for Putin or Assad when we spend so much time denouncing Obama and Netanyahu – our primary concern should be the welfare of the civilians in Syria, who are overwhelmingly being slaughtered by Assad.
In summation, backing Bashar al-Assad’s corrupt and violent government cannot be the moral thing to do, whether it’s the Russians or the Americans doing it, but the alternatives, the opposition groups, may inflict more misery than it is possible to imagine, and Syria may join the increasing number of states with no central authority and no ability stop absolute anarchy, lawlessness, and the ethnic cleansing of Syria’s minority populations, the last of which Assad at least had the decency to oppose, not that this wins him any medals when put in the context of his scorched earth policy towards his own people.
In short, this article is less about discovering whether there is a moral basis for backing the Assad regime – there pretty much isn’t – but more of a plea to those of us who consider ourselves activists or criticizers of state violence to recognize that crimes against humanity are crimes against humanity no matter who is doing them and for what reason. Specifically, we run the risk of being total fools and hypocrites for backing Assad in the midst of his mass murder campaigns whilst condemning people like Netanyahu for theirs.