Even if Assad is evil, given a choice between Assad and the IS, who do we prefer?
Of all the countries that caught fire during the Arab Spring, the fire in Syria continues to burn unabated and uninterrupted with ever-increasing ferocity. One cannot but wonder why. The fact that President Vladimir Putin and Russia are staunch supporters of the besieged Bashar al-Assad is evident reason for the fact that he has lasted as long as he has; but is there more to the whole episode? Putin has, from the beginning, accused the US of having stoked the uprising in Syria — which would suffice as sufficient reason for him to oppose the attempt at replacing Assad. And, of late, there is mounting evidence supporting Putin’s accusations. The greatest being the publishing of declassified documents by Judicial Watch, the official watchdog for the US government, in May this year.
These documents clearly indicate that at least as early as 2012, the Defense Intelligence Agency, then led by General Michael Flynn, was not merely aware that Assad’s overthrow would result in creating space for extremists, but considered it a “desirable” end in pursuit of US “interests”. Flynn spent most of his years in uniform, in intelligence. He is, apparently, an outspoken officer, who in 2010 authored a report castigating US policies and, in an interview since the publication of these papers, has acknowledged the truth of these revelations.
While Russian motivations to support Syria are far more complex, this revelation certainly appears to provide some justification for Putin’s support — which is reinforced by China — to a leader (seemingly) intent upon forcibly suppressing what is projected as a popular uprising. Depending on the source, an estimated 150,000 Syrians are believed to have perished in this conflict since it began, in 2011. More than 2.5 million have fled the country and have become refugees and an estimated 1.5 million are internally displaced.
While Putin accused the US of having created the revolt under cover of the Arab Spring, the US has consistently accused Russia of supporting an unpopular despot who rules by force and is responsible for many deaths. The US accusation seems no less true than Russia’s. However, while Putin might have been motivated by the pique he feels at the perceived betrayal by the US of his tacit support to the UN-led operation in Libya and/or by his desire to reassert Russia’s lost international status, the reason he presented in his defence was that the Islamic State (IS) would find political space if Assad was removed, and this could certainly happen.
The Ba’ath Party to which Assad belongs, consists of Alawites, a mere nine per cent of Syria’s population. The 2014 presidential election was the first of its kind in Syria in which more than one party fielded candidates. Out of an estimated (almost) 16 million registered voters, over 11.5 million cast their votes, over 10 million of them in Assad’s favour. In the midst of an ongoing civil war, the result certainly does not prove his unpopularity. Hassan Abdullah al-Nouri, who was next after Assad with a mere 500,000 votes, acknowledged the free and fair elections and accepted the results as soon as they were announced.
This certainly goes in favour of Assad staying on in power and, by extension, exonerates Putin for the use of force. It also offers an explanation for Assad’s determination not to quit, despite opposition.
For the rest of the world, it is time to rule on one critical question: even if Assad is evil, given a choice between Assad and the IS, who do we prefer? I know my answer; do you know yours?
Published in The Express Tribune, October 15th, 2015.
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