Syria Civil War: Maybe the Bad Guys Are the Syrian Rebels, and Assad is the Key to Democracy


As the battles between Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s troops and the rebels continue in Aleppo and elsewhere in the country, Syria has become a symptom of an identity crisis within Western foreign policy towards the Middle East. We welcome friendly dictatorships, accuse anti-state forces as terrorists, and support the freedom fighters who become the top terrorists in our collective political imaginations a decade later. However, this kind of approach will have to end, because in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, it will become far too costly to maintain.

The rationale for pursuing this kind of policy is not hard to grasp. By keeping countries in constant turmoil within themselves and with each other allows for ongoing Western relevance in the Mideast, through war or diplomacy. The divide and conquer game is a standard text in superpower school, successfully practiced by every hegemon of the day. The limit, however, comes when principles and practice begin to conflict openly.

The Arab Spring began in North Africa, but it went relatively quickly and bloodlessly in Tunisia and Algeria. The power of the military in Egypt and the more sophisticated political culture of the Egyptians, a result of their long history, worked in silent contract to prevent the spiral into civil war through the regime change; it is also the only country in the region, whose former leader is currently on trial by law. Libya saw a Western intervention by way of an air embargo, enforced by the air forces of NATO countries; Gaddafi chose to fight and logically lost, but as he was politically uncomfortable for many in the West, his death was a welcome development. The new Libya, however, is not delivering on the democracy it promised. Yemen, a strategically unimportant country saw a peaceful transition of power from President Saleh amid continuing domestic violence, but Bahrain’s democratic aspirations were tactfully put down. The overall conclusion of these examples is that they were all allowed or denied with Western logistical, diplomatic or direct support for intentional regime change.

Syria seems to be the black swan in our fairy-tale of white swan democracy. Assad, for all the people who deserted his regime, army and government, is continuing to run an effective state machinery that the rebels are not able to overcome, which also means that he has sufficient public support behind him as well. Were we foolish to dismiss the Assad dynasty, going as far as to talk in past tense about it?

We can frame Assad in several ways. One is that he is a sovereign under threat, aiming to restore control over the domain he controls; this is in line with Western political thought. The rebels, in his viewpoint, are terrorists, doing exactly what the insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan are doing to undermine state and Western power in the region. It is also a hard fact to deny from this perspective. We see Assad as an authoritarian who cares about little else than his power, at any price in human cost. It does remind one of Rumsfeld’s famous words in a Fox interview, “We don’t do body counts.” Simply put, Operation Iraqi Freedom does place Washington in the same light, for example.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is abiding by international norms through his firm support for a UN resolution; it is an indirect challenge to the West if it can live up to its liberal principles, when the capacity to circumvent them in practice is not as available any more. De jure, Russia is behaving as it should behave on this issue, and its position is cold and unsupportive, but pragmatic, because Moscow has enough interests to keep Assad in Syria, or if a change in regime is to be had, it can only happen with him as a factor in it. For better or for worse, Lavrov has made his country a necessary factor on the Syria question.

We may witness the first time in recent Mideast political history an authoritarian regime choosing to morph in some ways to accommodate dissident armed elements, whereas the formula for democracy so far has been the de jure and de facto removal of the previous regime. The normative challenge is that it would have to come at the price of a re-engagement with the Assad regime after nothing less than denouncing its legitimacy, and the entire validity of the democratic thesis in the Arab Spring going down the drain. Put another way, Assad might very easily restore his legitimacy, when the only monopolist of violence in Syria left is him, and go ahead and call himself democratic for reforming the regime.

So, here is the long-winded point: the new principle is that the typical “post-Arab Spring” regimes are going to legitimate themselves by virtue of popular choice. Normatively and theoretically, we would share “common values” with them. Any grounds for supporting rebels, as we do now in Syria, will immediately become allegations that a Western democracy is attempting to usurp another democracy by force. Moreover, the surge in support for the Islamist movements we fought to contain in the last 10 years and their presence in power through popular legitimation leaves one uncomfortable question unanswered:

What happens the next time these democratic regimes find themselves embattled against domestic resistance, tacitly supported by transnational networks? 

In an officially mutual democratic context, do we call them freedom fighters or terrorists, and do we support the violence of a regime against its people?

Future Mideast policy hinges on the answer to this question, but I will give one hint: bombing someone democratically is not it.

The next article in this series will explore some of the consequences for the regional international relations.