Autocrats before Theocrats: The Case for Supporting Bashar al-Assad

By Ben Edwards

When the Arab Spring kicked off in 2010, President Obama was caught off guard. What followed was a haphazard scramble of inconsistent responses. The US armed rebellious militias in Libya, overlooked protests in Bahrain, and tacitly played both sides in Egypt. But nowhere did President Obama’s blundering result in more carnage than in Syria.

To be clear, it was not Obama who dropped barrel bombs on Aleppo. Those war crimes belong to Bashar al-Assad. But it was under Obama’s tutelage that the US pursued an idealistic and ultimately irresolute policy towards the developing Syrian crisis. In 2011, Obama proclaimed that al-Assad must step-aside and allow for a peaceful transition. This proclamation delineated the American commitment to liberal democracy.

However, subsequent years exposed the blunder. While the president preached the value of a peaceful political transition, his intelligence agency funneled weapons to a loose consortium of Syrian Army defectors. Obama spoke of peaceful transition, but commanded the start of a violent coup d’etat. For better or worse, the Free Syrian Army never succeeded in overthrowing al-Assad. They focused instead on dismantling the Syrian state instead of seizing control of it. Nonetheless, the US increased its support for the rebels to a high of $1 billion per year by 2013.

Obama’s support for the Syrian rebels unintentionally led to the opposite of his desired outcome. Faced with an open rebellion, Bashar al-Assad further entrenched himself in power. Unlike Tunisia’s former dictator Ben Ali, al-Assad would not find refuge in Saudi Arabia if he fled. Unlike Egypt’s former dictator Hosni Mubarak, al-Assad was not under immediate threat of deposal by a politically-involved military. What Obama failed to recognize was that al-Assad had no incentive to leave and no guarantee of security if he did. So al-Assad dug in, the rebels armed up, and the Syrian people were crushed in the middle.

Today, President Trump’s inattentiveness means that the Obama-era snafu continues onward, albeit in different forms. The US has abandoned the same rebels that it previously armed, after many of them ended up joining Islamist groups like al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Instead, the US supplies Kurdish militants in northeastern Syria- thereby souring our relations with Turkey and warranting their intervention in Syria.

Had the US not intervened in such a way that it did, Syria might be in a better place by now. It would be no home for liberal democracy, but understand that liberalization has to be earned by a country- not forced. Bashar al-Assad is a bonafide autocrat. But the US-supported opposition turned into a jumble of Islamists and militia warlords. When faced with that dilemma, the US should defer on the side of stability.