When in 2000 Bashar al-Assad succeeded his autocratic father as president of Syria, he inherited, and subsequently maintained, a tightly controlled police state in which a powerful and all-encompassing security machine ensured that the slightest hint of opposition to the regime was ruthlessly crushed. In 2012 the BBC’s Tim Whewell broadcast a harrowing account, reminiscent of the worst days of Stalin’s Soviet Union, of the lengths to which reporters and opponents of Assad had to go in order to keep one step ahead of Syria’s secret police.
But by then, taking their cue from the Arab Spring uprisings that had spread across the Middle East, groups antagonistic to Assad's government had already begun nationwide protests. Gradually popular dissent developed into an armed rebellion. The opposition, consisting of a variety of groups but primarily the Free Syrian Armyto overthrow the despotic Assad regime and substitute a democratic form of government.
Had assistance of any sort been forthcoming from the US or other Western governments at that early stage, Assad could have been defeated, to be replaced by a democratically elected government. But President Obama hesitated, and went on hesitating even after it was clear in August 2013 that Assad had used chemical weapons against his opponents, regardless of the extensive civilian casualties that ensued.
Two factors inhibited Obama from taking decisive action – Russia and Iran.
Russia had long supported the Assad regime, which leases to the Russian navy a military installation in the port of Tartus, Russia’s only Mediterranean repair and replenishment facility. Tartus saves Russia’s warships the trip back to their Black Sea bases through the Turkish Straits. After the chemical weapons debacle, when Obama seemed to be seriously considering an air-strike against the Assad regime, Russia’s President Putin intervened to broker a deal under which Assad agreed to relinquish his whole chemical arsenal. Obama held off striking, and Assad has subsequently held on to power in up to 40 percent of Syria.
As for Iran, Assad’s other powerful ally, it has become increasingly clear that Obama’s strategy has been, perhaps from the start of his presidency, to permit Iran some leeway in its efforts to achieve the leading position in the Middle East to which its Supreme Leader aspires. It seems that this flawed strategy, devised as far back as 2006 by the Iraq Study Group, was based on the idea of engaging with two Shia Muslim ‘axis of evil’ members, Syria and Iran, on the assumption that they would, for their own sakes, combat Sunni Muslim al-Qaeda – the major terrorist threat at that time.
In the event Iran has indeed, both directly and by way of its puppet organization, Hezbollah, engaged with the Sunni jihadists in war-torn Syria, and especially with Islamic State (IS) which has proved itself much more of a threat to the rest of the world even than al-Qaeda. What Iran will not do is engage in co-ordinated military operations with the US, despite the reports that Obama has written secretly on at least four occasions to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, urging Iran to involve itself more fully in opposing IS forces in Syria. Suspicions persist that these approaches by Obama are connected with the long-drawn-out negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program and its likely outcome – namely an acknowledgement of Iran’s "right to enrichment" and agreement for it to retain its massive centrifuge infrastructure. Iran might well be emerge with the ability to acquire a nuclear weapons capability within a comparatively short period – a horrifying prospect, given its record as the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, its support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, and its aim to dominate the Middle East both politically and religiously.
Given this background, and in view of Assad’s continuing struggle against IS, some EU countries are said to be considering restoring relations with the Syrian government despite the view of the US, the UK and France that Assad has lost all legitimacy, and that his departure is a precondition for negotiating an end to the civil war. But as the collapse of his government seems increasingly less likely, and especially since the US has become more actively involved in combatting IS, at least seven EU states are believed to support thawing relations with Damascus. US officials are still saying that their goal is for Assad to leave power, but with no means of achieving this at an acceptable cost they seem to have put it on the back burner while focussing on the anti-IS struggle.
Meanwhile Assad does not lack apologists in the West, largely from the far-right. Among those voicing their support are Jean-Marie Le Pen, former leader of France’s National Front, Nick Griffin former leader of the far-right British National Party, and no less than David Duke, former leader of the American Ku Klux Klan. Perhaps the most extreme example of far-right support for Assad is the Greek neo-Nazi Black Lilley group whose members have been reportedly fighting alongside the Syrian army.
One of the most prominent pro-Assad groups affiliated with the far-right is the European Solidarity Front, a coalition of political activists who organise delegations to Syria in support of the Assad government. “The European Solidarity Front is open to all those who love Syria,” the group said in a 2013 statement, “and support solidarity with President Assad, the Syrian nation and its army.”
It is extremely concerning that the idea of supporting Assad, however peripherally, seems to be infiltrating mainstream political thinking in parts of Europe. It is a form of realpolitik reaction to the lack of a clear lead from Washington and Brussels about how to treat the enemy’s enemy – in other words, while fighting IS how does one deal with Assad who is also fighting IS?
"We don't know what this coalition wants and the United States is not deciding," said Bassma Kodmani, director of the Paris-based Arab Reform Initiative and a former member of the main Syrian opposition in exile. "That's leading to calls in Europe that Assad is the lesser of the two evils."
The logical answer comes, as might be expected, from France. Asked whether France should resume intelligence sharing with Damascus in the fight against IS, the French Defence Minister, Jean Yves Le Drian, said robustly: "Bashar al-Assad has been murdering his people for years. He is not part of the solution for Syria. We don't need to choose between a bloody dictator and a ruthless terrorist army. The two should be fought."
Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 March 2015: