Let’s Not Fall into Assad’s and Putin’s Trap in Syria

Syria’s Bashar Assad is not a bulwark against fanaticism and war. He is the enabler of both.

A young man holds up a portrait of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, August 21 2010
A young man holds up a portrait of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, August 21 2010 (Beshr Abdulhadi)

Since the start of the uprising against him, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has maintained that all his opponents are fanatics and terrorists. His Russian ally, Vladimir Putin, agreed and reiterated his position in interviews and at the United Nations this week.

What the two are saying boils down to this: Without Assad’s firm hand, Syria has descended into violence. Hence, the world better support Assad to stop the mayhem. The alternative is the barbarism of Al Qaeda and the self-declared Islamic State.

With an estimated 230,000 dead and half of Syria’s population displaced, Westerners may be forgiven for thinking they’re right.

Problem is, Assad isn’t fighting Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Worse, as the Atlantic Sentinel has reported, there is evidence his regime helped create the latter.


Assad’s troops and supporters, including the Hezbollah militia from Lebanon, have seldom engaged Islamic State militants on the battlefield. Rather, they have concentrated their firepower on the least fanatical opposition forces in the north, around Aleppo, and in the vicinity of Damascus, the capital.

Regime defectors have said that Assad locked up protesters who were involved in peaceful demonstrations while fanatics and violent offenders were let out of jail.

The purpose was to downplay the revolutionary narrative of the “Arab Spring” and portray the opposition movement as an Islamist insurgency against a secular government instead.

To exacerbate the sectarian dimension of the conflict, Alawite militias were unleashed on Sunni Arab villagers in the mountains separating Assad’s coastal homeland in the northwest from the rest of the country. It was recently reported that Sunni homes in the capital were being razed as well.

Syria’s security services knew what they were doing. They had after all played an integral part in the Iraqi civil war just a few years earlier. Syria’s spymasters facilitated the movement of foreign jihadists into Iraq from 2006 to 2007. They replicated that strategy at home when it seemed Assad might be the next Arab strongman to fall in a series of Middle Eastern uprisings.

It’s a trap

Assad and his allies may not be altogether wrong when they claim that the regime is all that stands between Syria’s civilians (those who are left anyway) and the cruelty of the Islamic State.

But that’s only because Assad made it that way.

He destroyed all viable alternatives to his tyranny. His troops, backed by Hezbollah’s terrorists and Iran’s expeditionary forces, routed the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, which was being led by professional soldiers who had defected. He gassed civilian neighborhoods that were believed to be sympathetic to the rebellion. He compelled Syria’s middle classes to flee the country.

Assad told the world, Après moi le déluge. But then he created the very deluge he had vowed to keep at bay.

Putin now warns that without Assad, the suffering would surely get worse. But how much worse can it get?

Let’s not fall into Assad’s and Putin’s trap. The Syrian dictator is not the bulwark against fanaticism and war they say he is. He is the enabler of both. Assad doesn’t represent order. After four years of destruction and hundreds of thousands of casualties, it should be obvious that he represent the very opposite.

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