It’s a bizarrely counter-intuitive world we live in nowadays. Old norms are being constantly ripped up and rewritten. It’s probably too much of a cliché to invoke a 1984 quotation at this point but, in all reality, who are we now to say that war isn’t peace, freedom slavery and ignorance freedom? One of the bitterest pills to swallow in adjusting to this new paradigm may be in Syria where it is surely becoming necessary to ask the following question:
Are we now in a position where the best humanitarian hope for Syria is to hand control of it to the murderous dictator who has spent the last few years killing over 400,000 of his own citizens?
The situation in Aleppo is a genuine tragedy. Syrian army forces together with their Russian allies launched a major new offensive that seems certain to end with them reducing the rebels in the East to little more than a dwindling band of guerrilla fighters while the government re-establishes control over the whole city. The humanitarian consequences are dire and will only get heartbreakingly worse as the assault continues. The question remains, as it has been almost since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, “What can be done to stop this?” But where previously the answer could never, in good conscience, include Bashar Al-Assad, now it seems inevitable and possibly preferable that it will.
John Mearsheimer laid out a case for action through his structural realist lens this week. The validity of his theoretical world view bolstered, perhaps, by recent events across the globe. He would suggest an alliance with Russia. It is important for American power to realise, he would argue, that Russia, despite its posturing, is not a global superpower. It is not a peer competitor. It is, in fact, barely a regional power considering the calamity that is the Russian economy at the moment – lacking in modernisation and diversification and limping along under the weight of post Ukraine sanctions. His suggestion would be that the US simply allow Russia to assert its will in one of the geopolitically less relevant parts of the region and focus US power elsewhere where it more directly serves US interests (like the Persian gulf). This may actually turn out to be remarkably close to what Middle Eastern policy looks like under the next US President.
At this point, given the US election results and Trump’s apparent desire to remove US power from as much of the world as possible, Assad’s victory seems almost an inevitability given the interests that support his cause. The combined forces of Iran, Russia and Hezbollah are already directly involved in military efforts and though the Assad regime will undoubtedly face years and possibly decades of insurgent opposition even after any conventional victory can be claimed, it seems impossible that the rebels, of varying ideological persuasions, will be able to resist for much longer with a retreating West, whether or not certain gulf states do continue to sponsor them or not. At one point in mid 2015, before direct Russian military involvement, it looked as though Syria was turning into a war of attrition that the government forces were destined to lose. Russia’s bombs changed that picture and now, with waning Western support for the rebels, the equation has reversed entirely.
To many of us the acceptance of Assad’s rule is anathema to our deepest held principles. If a man who has displayed such barbarity towards his own people is allowed to continue what does that say about the global community? If a leader who has displayed flagrant disregard for international law and norms of warfare (including the use of chemical weapons against his own people) is not brought to justice then not only does it represent a clear moral failure, it also represents arguably the final reveal of the liberal international order we have spent decades establishing as nothing more than the toothless empty vessel its worst critics always painted it as.
CIA Director John Brennan spoke last week, employing the long held US official stance of opposition to Assad, highlighting exactly these crimes. But in the run up to President Elect Trump’s inauguration, he must know how empty his words sounded. Further, Brennan, along with the rest of the foreign policy establishment in the US, whether they come from inside the infamous blob or not, must know the damage this outcome will do to the US worldwide. Not only will they look weakened, but they will have failed in their moral imperative to remove Assad, reneged on their agreements and abandoned their allies, the moderate Syrian rebels, in favour of an isolationism that does nothing but damage the hopes for a more peaceful, prosperous global system in the future.
As morally reprehensible as it may seem to allow it, there are advantages to Assad’s victory, of course. Primarily, an end to the main part of the fighting throughout the country would provide the space for humanitarian assistance that had been lacking for so long. The Russians, too, might see the value in encouraging a transition of power which, while maintaining the current structures and institutions of the state, could see Assad eventually stepping aside as a figurehead. The Syrian government’s vitory could return a sense of order to a fractured country and wipe out the physical arenas from which Daesh and other extremist groups have established their global influence. Make no mistake, the great tragedy of this war is that Syria will not be a stable and peaceful country, much less a unified one, for decades to come but it could at least in the short term see a reduction in violence that could bring back some relative stability and the conditions in which to start to rebuild. For a world watching the desperate suffering of the Syrian people, whether within its borders or seeking refuge elsewhere, that is a huge advance. Whether such a temporary and fragile peace is worth the appeasement of a war criminal is a conversation for future historians. Increasingly, though, it looks like one they will definitely be having.