Between Assad and ISIS

On February 2, 1982 the then President Hafez al-Assad ordered the complete obliteration of the town of Hama, resulting in the carnage of over 2,000 people at the hands of Syrian forces. The ‘over 2,000 people’ are believed to have numbered anywhere up to 40,000, with the consensus being that at least 20,000 Syrians were killed when the Ba’athist regime headed by the Alawite leadership, targeted a Sunni Islamist uprising spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood.

In From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman, then The New York Times’ Middle East Correspondent, dubbed the deafening silence in the aftermath of the butchery ‘Hama Rules’.

“Hama Rules were the prevailing leadership rules in the Arab world. They said: Rule by fear — strike fear in the heart of your people by letting them know that you play by no rules at all, so they won’t ever, ever, ever think about rebelling against you,” Friedman writes.

Three decades later, with Hafez’ son Bashar al-Assad in charge, Syria is self-replicating.

For starters, reporting on human massacre is similarly subjective to ‘greater agenda’. There’s no way to ascertain how many Syrians have been killed over the past six years. The figure of 500,000 has been claimed by some independent groups. But the term ‘independence’ itself is subjective in Syria – especially for those forming death count figures.

While human life has been reduced to stats – inaccurate at that – what’s arguably even more excruciating is the ensuing whodunit.

When ‘more than 80 people’ were killed in a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun last Tuesday, the most pressing concern for many stakeholders, and their supporters, was a debate over how ‘their side’ wasn’t responsible.

Even President Donald Trump, who ordered airstrikes to target the base where the Khan Sheikhoun was launched from, referred to the “children of God suffering from horrors”, to substantiate his own strikes. President Trump wouldn't be leaving doors open for these 'children of God' anytime soon. 

The Syrian military denied using any chemical agents in the airstrikes on the town, and its ally Russia said one of the strikes had hit a chemical munitions depot owned by rebels. This allowed accusations to be hurled at both the Syrian government and the rebels at the same time.

The debate following the gas attack in Damascus in 2013, when ‘over 1400’ were killed, continues to this day. Was it Bashar or the rebels? And of course there are few terms more subjective, in all of world politics, than ‘Syrian rebels’.

These ‘rebels’ could be anyone from the ordinary pro-democracy Syrian citizens fighting for basic human rights – to moderate militants taking up arms to defend their state – to Kurd separatists fighting for an independent Kurdistan – to al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra – to ISIS itself, depending on who’s using the term.

Similarly the Assad regime is deliberately eliminating the moderate militia to strengthen ISIS as a bigger evil than itself – or the Syria-Russia alliance is the only coalition serious about the elimination of the Islamic State, which continues to be US-Saudi funded – or Damascus and ISIS have a symbiotic understanding to sustain their separate jurisdictions, while occasionally skirmishing on whatever geographically and geopolitically overlaps – again depending on who’s talking.

Little wonder then that there is infinite ‘evidence’ for one to believe whatever one might want to. For, Syria has long ceased to be a state. It is now the single common remaining battleground for the two biggest ideological conflicts, and proxy wars, which dominated the second half of the previous century.

Post 2011 Arab Spring, the US interest in Syria has been two-pronged: countering the influence of Russia and Iran through dismantling the Assad regime that has been allied with both since Hafez al-Assad’s usurpation of the government. But with ISIS springing up in the vacuum that the US left behind following its misadventure in Iraq, and the P5+1 agreeing the nuclear deal with Iran, Washington’s interests have been primarily centered around curbing Moscow’s influence.

For Russia, the Assad regime is a rare reliable ally outside of the Soviet republics. Its naval installation in Tartus remains Russia’s only Mediterranean access. Similarly, Syria stands in the way of Qatar-Saudi-Turkey gas supply to the European Union, which currently relies on Russia for a quarter of its energy needs.

For Saudi Arabia and Iran the Shia dictatorship in a Sunni-majority Syria has been critical post Iranian Revolution and the ensuing battle for ideological supremacy in the Muslim World in general, and the Middle East in particular. The recently patched up Saudi-led 41-state Islamic military alliance, wherein Syria, Iraq and Iran are conspicuously missing, obviously has Damascus on its menu.

For Tehran, the Assad regime provides assistance in transferring financial and military support to Hezbollah and Hamas. Syria has historically also acted as a counter balance to Sunni rulers over Shia majoroity populations in Bahrain and Iraq at the time of Saddam Hussein.

But while two global powers, and ideologues of the Muslim world, are at loggerheads for political, economic and military gains in the region, the Assad regime’s only real domestic rival – on paper and on ground – remains ISIS.

And so, at a time when even Saudi Arabia is looking to militarily challenge its ideological offspring, and the Trump government vocal about eliminating the group it touts as its number one enemy, what’s the endgame in Syria?

Is Assad now unanimously accepted as the ‘lesser evil’?

To some, the US strikes this week might suggest otherwise. But when one looks closer, Washington striking the same airbase over and over again, after giving the warnings in advance – to both Demascus and Moscow – smacks more of domestic point-scoring for the Trump regime, more so than any exhibition of intent in targeting Assad.

It allows Trump to boast of something that Barack Obama had copped out of: military action following chemical attacks attributed to Assad. At best it’s Washington warning Damascus against similar gas attacks, nothing more confrontational.

Those who ask what Assad has to gain from the chemical attacks, and recreating the Hama Rules 35 years later, only need to look at the successes of the Syrian Army in eastern Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus itself. ‘Ruling by fear’ has never been more lucrative for either Assad, when the ‘greater evil’ has penetrated both US and Saudi borders through its foot soldiers.

There’s little doubt that all stakeholders have agreed – or acquiesced – to zooming in on eliminating ISIS as the first step towards any solution. If nothing else, destroying the ISIS umbrella would prevent the ideological inspiration that is simultaneously pushing many towards terror attacks across European capitals and throughout the Muslim World.

But let’s make no mistake about it, reducing the Syria question to between him and ISIS is a win for Assad. As the ‘lesser evil’ gas bombs its own citizens, its ‘greater’ counterpart killed almost 50 in Egypt in twin bombings targeting churches on Sunday.

And so, while the ‘great powers’ designate less and more according to who spills over closer to home, for the people in the Middle East the ‘lesser evil’ depends on what day of the week it is.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a former member of staffHe can be reached at Follow him on Twitter

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