The Option Not Taken and the Syrian Civil War

Remember how President Barack Hussein Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton encouraged the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ and told us how it would spread democracy throughout the Arab world? Muammar Qadafi is dead, but Libya is no democracy. Hosni Mubarak has gone to his eternal reward, but Egypt is dictatorship run by the former general who organized the coup d’état. Yemen is wracked by war.

And now the greatest failure of the Arab spring. From The Economist:

Syria will poison the region for years to come

Bashar al-Assad is on the verge of retaking Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold. But that will not end the chaos he has wrought at home and abroad

September 5, 2019

“Assad or we burn the country.” For years Bashar al-Assad’s troops have daubed that phrase onto walls in the towns they recapture. The insurgents pushed the dictator to the brink. But Mr Assad shrugged off the empty threats of Western leaders, and enlisted the help of Iran and Russia. True to his slogan, he destroyed whole cities and gassed and starved his own people. What rebels remain are holed up in Idlib province. It, too, will soon fall. Against all the odds, the monster has won.

Yet it is a hollow victory. Far from bringing order to the country, as the Russians and Iranians claim, Mr Assad has displaced half the population. Eight years of civil war have destroyed the economy and cost 500,000 lives. Mr Assad has nothing good to offer his people. His country will be wretched and divided. The consequences will be felt far beyond its borders.

The precise moment of Mr Assad’s triumph will be determined in Idlib. About 3m people live there, many of whom fled fighting elsewhere. The area is controlled by the hardest-core rebels, jihadists linked to al-Qaeda, who will not go quietly. That, too, is a legacy of Mr Assad’s ruthlessness. He released hundreds of jihadists from prison in 2011, hoping that they would taint the once-peaceful, multi-confessional uprising. Now the regime is bombing them, along with civilians and hospitals. The offensive will take time—and it will be bloody (see article).

When the fighting stops, the tensions that originally threatened the regime will remain—but they will be worse than ever. Start with religion. Mr Assad’s father, Hafez, a member of the Alawite minority, clung to power partly by holding the line between the country’s faiths. His son, though, painted his Sunni opponents as fundamentalists as a way of rallying Christians, Druze and secular-minded Syrians to his side. Millions of Sunnis have fled the country, creating what Mr Assad calls “a healthier and more homogeneous society”, but millions remain. They have seen their homes looted, property confiscated and districts overrun by Assad supporters. Resentful, fearful and oppressed, they will be a source of opposition to the regime.

There’s a long section, an overview of the civil war and noting how Russia and Iran aided the dictator, but here are the two concluding paragraphs:

Having failed to act in the war’s early days, when they might have pushed the dictator out, Western countries can do little now to change Syria’s course. Some European leaders think it is time to engage with Mr Assad, participate in reconstruction and send the refugees home. This is misguided. The refugees will not return willingly. Reconstruction will only benefit the regime and the warlords and foreigners who backed it. Better to let Russia and Iran pay.

Instead the West should try to spare Syria’s suffering by offering strictly humanitarian assistance and threatening retribution for heinous acts, such as the use of chemical weapons. America should stay to keep is and al-Qaeda in check. But for as long as Mr Assad is allowed to misrule Syria, most aid money would be better spent helping its neighbours. Syrians have suffered terribly. With Mr Assad’s victory, their misery will go on.

“(A)s long as Mr Assad is allowed to misrule Syria”? Guffaws! The West has spent the last 8½ years trying to depose President Assad, and the effort has included a small contingent of American troops. Foreign Policy’s Lara Segilman lamented President Trump’s decision to withdraw those troops, though he later decided to leave 400 troops in al Tanf. A congressional panel was aghast at the withdrawal, and worries that Da’ish¹ would rise again fueled it. Still, our participation certainly hadn’t resolved the civil war, had it?  Things might turn out badly due to our withdrawal, but they haven’t gotten better with us being there.

But there was one clear failing on the part of the democratic West which has led to the carnage, something no one will admit. Some nations have offered asylum to dictators being forced from power, such as France and Haiti’s deposed dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986 and Saudi Arabia to Uganda’s Idi Amin Dada in 1980.² Chile came up with an arrangement to spare dictator Augusto Pinochet, which worked fine until he was arrested in the United Kingdom in October of 1998 under the cockamamie doctrine of universal jurisdiction.

The arrest of General Pinochet and the doctrine of universal jurisdiction meant that Bashir al-Assad had only two choices when civil war broke out in Syria: fight or die. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid supposedly offered asylum in Dubai to Saddam Hussein in 2003, to avoid war with the United States, but Mr Hussein declined. The ousted Iraqi dictator’s fate at the end of a noose showed President Assad just what could happen to him if he surrendered. Even if he avoided the noose, Mr Assad, who turned 54 today, could not be looking forward to perhaps thirty or forty years in prison.

And so President Assad had to fight, and the best guesstimates are that 13 million Syrians have been displaced, with more than five million of them refugees who have fled the country. The rise of nationalism in Europe and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom are directly attributable to the open acceptance of the Syrian refugees pushed by German Führerin und Reichskanzlerin Angela Merkel. Estimates vary widely, but apparently more than 400,000 Syrians have been killed in the civil war.

What would have happened had President Assad been offered a safe and luxurious exile, in France or Saudi Arabia or Iran? We cannot know if he would have accepted, just as Mr Assad would not have known if the asylum offer would have eventually led to betrayal and arrest. And while a safe and luxurious exile offends notions of justice, wouldn’t that have been better than what has happened without it?
¹ – I am not particularly fond of the initials ISIS, and the reduction to just IS, for Islamic State, seems even worse. Da’ish is an acronym for the Arabic al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham. According to the BBC, the group “objects to the term and has advised against its usage,” and therefore, I shall use it.
² – Idi Amin first fled to Libya, where he was sheltered for a year.
Please visit my Red State story archive for more of my articles.
My personal website, The First Street Journal, includes articles not necessarily in Red State’s paradigm.
You can follow me on Twitter.