Syria: Which Devil?

Michael Neumann

"The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was indeed a compromise with the imperialists, but it was a compromise which, under the circumstances, had to be made. ... To reject compromises 'on principle', to reject the permissibility of compromises in general, no matter of what kind, is childishness, which it is difficult even to consider seriously ... One must be able to analyze the situation and the concrete conditions of each compromise, or of each variety of compromise." - Lenin, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder;

There is talk about how 'the international community' or 'the UN' are 'failing' 'Syria', or how the world 'doesn't care' about Syria. This talk isn't divisive enough. There is no international community and the UN has no collective policy or will. As for the world, very few commentators or nations, whatever they may say, simply want a 'solution' in Syria or an end to the violence. They want one side or the other to win. No plan, however ingenious, no amount of caring or ranting, can get around this fact.

Some want Assad to win because they actually like him, consider him an innocent victim of Western or imperialist or neo-colonialist or neo-liberal plots. These fanboys have deliberately lost touch with reality and aren't worth serious consideration. Others worry about Islamists running wild, as if this very uncertain possibility should weigh more heavily than the very certain and gory reality of Assad's rule. But what of the rest, who realize that Assad is a monster but back him anyway? Sometimes political agents must ally themselves with the devil. But which devil, and when?

Among non-aligned nations and across much of the political spectrum, support for Assad is considered the smart choice. They support him because they have picked sides in some other conflict. Either they support the Palestinians against the Israelis or they support the world, more or less, against the West.

In making these choices, however much they deny it, they are engaging in Realpolitik. Among the even moderately well-informed, their engagement began a long time ago. Reports from human rights organizations and other sources, going back decades, have provided authoritative descriptions of horrendous torture in Syria. Then there was the great massacre at Hama in 1982. I and many others chose to ignore this, and perhaps some of Assad's supporters continue to ignore or minimize Syria's horrors because they don't want to admit their callousness. That said, Realpolitik isn't necessarily immoral; it can simply be a well-justified choice of lesser evils - well-justified because the lesser evil is inextricably associated with a (hopefully far) greater good.

Supporting Assad, though, is Realpolitik gone badly wrong. Times change. Perhaps, once, the Palestinian cause or the need to restrain the West could excuse support for Assad. They cannot do so today.

The West Outside the West and within, many oppose its domination or its idiotic military adventures. Assad benefits from this; he is thought by some a bulwark against imperialism, colonialism, neo-liberalism or any other pretext for expanding western power. Of course no one thinks he will put an end to these things, but he is supported, despite his brutalities, for 'being on the right side'. But is he really such an asset to it? He suffers from comparison with other anti-Western heroes, even those who might also be classed devils. Ataturk, Nasser, and Milosevic were all guilty of torture or other atrocities over a number of years, but could also be considered nationalist heroes. Ataturk may be depicted as literally the savior of his country and a genuine counterweight to European imperial ambitions. Nasser made heroic efforts to better the lot of the poor and strengthen the Third World; he is undoubtedly the most loved of all Egyptian leaders. Whatever his ultimate agenda, Milosevic was fighting to preserve Yugoslavia, which in retrospect looks like a paradise compared to the results of its Western-backed breakup. Assad achieved nothing of the sort either internationally or domestically. So he is not in the same league as these 'devils', let alone the likes of Fidel Castro or Ho Chi Minh.

If there is no positive case for Assad as model for resistance to the West, there might be a negative one: maybe the West, or Western interference, is even worse. The West, after all, has killed far more people than Assad ever will, and brought misery to millions. This is not ancient history, like the millions killed in Vietnam; it is the story of Iraq and Afghanistan.

This record, however, makes no case for supporting Assad - that is, opposing Western interference - in Syria. The appearance of a case relies too much on a past in too rapidly changing circumstances. To see this, consider the immediate and remote possibilities. (Because Europe is not up to big military adventures without the US, what follows focuses on that country.)

The immediate, near-term possibilities don't involve the West creating even greater misery in Syria. The horrors of Afghanistan and Iraq were also obvious and widely understood failures of US policy. If Berlin in 1947 has looked like Baghdad under US occupation, the whole US General staff would have been fired. In Afghanistan, there isn't even a pretense of having attained any objectives. Moreover these adventures were undertaken with an international carte blanche that would never be offered today. No nation overtly backed the Taliban. Saddam Hussein, by invading Kuwait, has manoeuvred himself into the unique position of being hated by both the Iranians and the Gulf States. Assad has powerful friends who make UN sanctioned occupation impossible. What's more the US has lost its appetite for big military actions. It has, in the last decade, demonstrated military weakness and political incompetence; that is why it is so much more timid now. In the near term, there's no reason to anticipate anything but a very modest Western military effort.

As for the remote possibilities, absolutely, major idiots might gain control of the American government, and who knows what they might get up to. But if you consider the remote possibilities, you also have to consider the remote chance of positive outcomes. Maybe the US will get tired of idiocy. Maybe other nations will be strong enough and assertive enough to contain US ambitions. Maybe the US will suffer further decline, making it incapable of doing anything much anywhere. The remote future offers no basis for preferring the certainty of stopping Assad's atrocities to the very uncertain benefits of leaving him alone.

The West, having watched impotently for over a year, will gain little credit for supporting Assad. It will gain little power; Syria is no economic or strategic gem. Intervention will not make the US any more or less likely to commit mayhem in the future. Anti-US sentiment, however justified, cannot justify leaving Assad in power.

The Palestinians

Though it is contested, there is certainly good reason to hold that Assad has been a help to the Palestinians and, had there been no revolt, would continue to be. Syria is an important, possibly essential element in the support for Hizbollah, which in my opinion now represents the best hope for Palestine. A negotiated settlement has not become a bad joke; it has been a bad joke for a decade. Only outside pressure will convince Israel that the occupied territories are more trouble than they are worth, and at this point Hizbollah is all the outside pressure there is. It does not matter if, as some have said, Assad is no true friend to the Palestinians, that he doesn't care about them, that his intentions are in some way bad. What matters are results, and Syria has played a significant part in generating the only results at all likely to make any difference. In this context, Hizbollah's success against Israel would have to be seen as positive. What else, in the sorry recent history of Palestine, fits that description?

Quite possibly, then, the fall of Assad will be a disaster for the Palestinians. But so will his survival. The disaster has already been set in motion, and can't be stopped. Assad, even if he wins, is a spent force. What he has done cannot be undone.. Most of Syria's population will hate him passionately well past the foreseeable future. He will certainly remain under heavy sanctions from the US and, more importantly, from Europe. He is detested by the Gulf States. China and Russia will be muted in their support because he will remain a regional pariah except for Iran, also isolated, under sanctions, and with no easy transportation routes to its ally. All this will keep Syria an economic basket case, which cannot bode well for its political stability. Relations with Turkey, once reasonably good, are hostile, and so it will be with the Arab world. Assad is already very unpopular in Lebanon and this will get much worse.

Of course there is no guarantee that, if Assad falls, the next Syrian state will be an effective support for the Palestinians, particularly since that state is likely to break with Iran. On the other hand, it is exceedingly unlikely that any new state would be any less well-disposed to the Palestinians: with the almost comical exception of the US and Canada, the whole world despises Israel and the whole Middle East, even moreso. Perhpas the will to confront Israel will find a way, and the prospects can hardly be worse than with Assad.

There is nothing, then, in Realpolitik to justify supporting Assad. There is certainly nothing in morality requiring it, which is fortunate, because supporting Assad, directly or indirectly, carries with it the huge political liability of supporting a notorious oppressor. Even if it is a choice between devils, Assad is not the right devil to back.