Photo credit: CNS News
Since the bloody terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris in January and November 2015, many Western politicians, journalists, bloggers and foreign policy gurus have called for an alliance between the West, Russia and Bashar el-Assad’s regime in order to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has claimed responsibility for these attacks.
When confronted with the genocidal record of both of these regimes, especially Assad’s, and Russia’s aggressive behavior towards the West itself, they claim that a “deal with the devil” is nonetheless necessary to save the world from the dastardly ISIS threat. Proponents of such a policy compare it to the alliance forged by Western democracies with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany during World War 2.
This argument, however, doesn’t hold any water. It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny at all. And we will debunk it here and today, on the 71st anniversary of Germany’s surrender.
Why? For several reasons.
Assad and al-Maliki created this monster
First and foremost, Assad’s regime and Russia are, quite simply, of no use whatsoever against the Islamic State; in fact, they are only making the problems worse. Worst of all, though, it is Assad’s regime (along with the Shia government of then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki) who created the ISIS threat in the first place.
How? By persecuting – through imprisonment, torture, and murder – the Sunni Muslim population of these two countries and responding to any dissent and resistance with even bloodier persecution – a full-scale war on the Syrian people, in Assad’s case. When an uprising against him erupted in 2011, his response was – and has continued to be – to use all the military force at his disposal to murder anyone opposing him; indeed, to drown the opposition in its own blood – with the Kremlin’s full military backing.
It is against this background – as well as Maliki’s persecution of Sunni Iraqis – that the Islamic State was created and has grown in strength, gaining thousands of new recruits every year.
(Recall that already before Maliki had come to power, the US had completely “de-baathified” the Iraqi government and disbanded Saddam’s military (which was led by Sunni officers). Maliki went even further and orchestrated full-scale purges, witchhunts, and systematic persecution of Sunni Arabs in Iraq, leading them to join Al-Qaeda in Iraq and to rebel against the Baghdad government and the US military forces in Iraq.)
Together, it was Bashar el-Assad and Nouri al-Maliki who led to the creation of ISIS – the very monster we are now seeking to slay.
Even worse, in 2011, at the start of the rebellion, Assad released hundreds of Sunni jihadists from his prisons, and these men soon joined ISIS and some of them made it to the organization’s top leadership.
So Assad (and his Russian benefactor) cannot be of any help whatsoever against ISIS; in fact, he’s the greatest hindrace in our struggle against this terrorist group, for the simple reason that he is the primary reason why ISIS exists and thrives. He’s the jihadist group’s best recruitment poster, and by continuing to slaughter those who oppose him, he’s only creating thousands of new recruits for ISIS.
This Time magazine cover quite rightly called for ending Assad’s genocidal rule on humanitarian grounds. What few people realize, however, is that Assad needs to be driven out of power primarily because his genocidal crimes are driving Syrian Sunni Muslims en masse into the Islamic State’s arms – and army. And without Sunni Muslims turning against ISIS, we will never be able to defeat the caliphate.
It bears repeating: the ISIS was created by Sunni Muslims not out of some random zeal to wage jihad on someone, but out of a fervent desire to topple the repressive Shia regimes of Syria and Iraq run at the time by Assad (who’s still in power, of course) and Nouri al-Maliki (widely seen in Iraq as an American puppet).
The very reason why ISIS exists is because the Shia regimes of Syria and Iraq have used (and continue to use) bloody repression to crush the dissent of the Sunni populations of these countries (which, in Syria, constitutes a majority of the entire populace of that country).
And of course, since it is a Sunni jihadi group aiming to topple Shia regimes, it has enjoyed generous backing from Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey.
Allying ourselves with the very Shia regime whose repression of Sunni Arabs has led to the creation of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate is the worst, most foolish, most catastrophic mistake we can make. Far from enabling us to defeat ISIS (as Assad’s and Putin’s sycophants in the West falsely claim), it would seal our defeat and ISIS’s victory.
Because, as soon as such an alliance were forged – formally or informally – ISIS would be able to correctly claim that the West has allied itself with Assad’s regime, the Iraqi government, and Russia to wage all-out war against Sunni Muslims. It would then be able to correctly claim that Sunni Muslims have no choice but to join the ranks of ISIS if they want to rid themselves of the thuggish, repressive regimes in Damascus and Baghdad – especially the former.
As soon as that happens, the entire non-jihadist Syrian opposition, and the Kurds, will have been totally discredited in the eyes of Sunni Arabs, and the Islamic State’s ranks will swell with fresh recruits who will not hesitate to risk death to topple the hated, genocidal monster currently in power in Syria.
And then, ISIS will inevitably topple Assad, overrun most of Syria and Iraq, and reach the Med.
Far from saving our Western civilization, we will be sowing the seeds of its destruction by allying ourselves with the regimes responsible for creating the very monster we are now attempting to slay.
We will never be able to defeat ISIS without Sunni Muslims turning against it and joining our cause.
Wars Are Not Won Through Body Counts
My critics will inevitably say, “But you don’t understand. War is about killing the enemy before he can kill you. War is about making the poor bastards die for their cause. It’s about conquering land in Attilla-the-Hun style. It’s about physically destroying enemy armies, like Clausewitz taught.”
But they are dead wrong (and so were Attilla and Clausewitz). No, war is not just about killing the enemy. Wars are not won by killing your way out of them and amassing huge enemy body counts. Wars are not even won by occupying the opponent’s land.
Wars are also waged over human hearts and minds. Remember, it is people, not weapons, who wage war.
Wars are waged for many purposes: to conquer such and such land (or sea), or some natural resources, or to right perceived past wrongs; or to liberate yourself from someone else’s rule; or to impose your domination (and possibly your ideology or religion) on others.
The war currently ongoing in Syria and Iraq is hardly a mere war for control of those two countries; it is also waged for control over the people who live there; for the hearts and minds of Sunni Muslims (and Muslims more generally) around the world; for ISIS, it’s also a war to impose their domination on those two countries and then, the rest of the Middle East; for the regimes in Damascus and Baghdad, it’s a war to reassert, by brutal force, their rule over Sunni Arabs; and for the latter group, it is, above all, a war for liberation from these two repressive regimes.
In short, this is a war waged not only over territories, but most importantly, over the hearts and minds of the populations of the war zones – which are predominantly Sunni Muslim.
What matters is not just the physical terrain, but also, and most importantly, the human terrain – the hearts and minds of Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria.
And the Sunni inhabitants of the latter will never, ever, accept Bashar el-Assad as their president. They are willing to do everything to overthrow him.
If we – the West – strike a “deal with the devil” – an alliance with Assad and his Russian benefactor – we will only play into the hands of ISIS by surrendering a huge swath of “human terrain” – Syria’s and Iraq’s Sunni Muslim inhabitants – to that Islamic terrorist group.
And that will be our kiss of death. Far from opening the road to victory, it will seal our defeat and, over the long term, our civilization’s very demise. It will be a far greater boost to ISIS than any support Sunni Muslim countries have offered it.
Let’s Listen to Sun Tzu’s Advice
Let us also not forget that while ISIS is a powerful, well-armed, well-trained, and wealthy terrorist group whose fanaticism causes many people to tremble in fear, ISIS’s own genocidal behavior and its iron-fisted rule of the territories it has conquered are its greatest, yet so far unexploited weakness.
And, as the greatest military strategist in history, Sun Tzu, taught, the best way to defeat an enemy is to exploit his weaknesses:
“You may advance and be absolutely irresistible, if you make for the enemy’s weak points; you may retire and be safe from pursuit if your movements are more rapid than those of the enemy.”
(Sun Tzu, Art of War, Chapter III, verse 10)
“Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards. So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.”
(Ibidem, verses 29-30)
Let’s not forget that ISIS’s predecessor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, was defeated in a similar manner in 2007-2008. Before 2007, AQI’s ranks were also swelling with new recruits and the group was steadily gaining control of more and more territories populated mostly by Sunni Arabs. The repressive, but incompetent Shia government of Nouri al-Maliki was completely unable to stop AQI’s advance.
This is because, instead of trying to make peace with Sunni Arabs, al-Maliki responded to their resistance with ever-harsher persecution, thus driving them right into AQI’s arms. Even the mightiest military on the planet – the US military – was utterly unable to stop AQI’s spread.
But eventually, by 2007, Sunni Arabs themselves became disgusted with Al-Qaeda’s extreme, indiscriminate violence (which often produced casualties among them and not just among Shias and Americans), as well as AQI’s theft of contraband revenues and forced marriages in the territories it held sway. Thus began the so-called “Sunni Awakening” – Sunni Iraqis’ turning against AQI – which enabled the US military to start stabilizing Iraq and eliminating AQI (though not completely pacify it).
It was the Sunni Arabs themselves, not the US military, who dealt the decisive blow to AQI, and it was dealt to that terrorist group in Sunni Arabs’ hearts and minds, not on the physical battlefield. What happened on the battlefield was merely an inevitable consequence of the former. For, as they say, the body follows where the mind wants it to go.
Likewise, today we can defeat ISIS only if we completely disassociate ourselves from the Assad regime and its Russian benefactor and engineer, one way or another, its end – be it through overthrow or Assad’s own resignation in favor of a transition government.
It’s the Hearts And Minds That Matter
Sun Tzu also underlined the importance of a ruler enjoying the support of his own people if he is to win his wars:
“The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations, when seeking to determinethe conditions obtaining in the field. These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline. The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger. (…) These five heads should be familiar to every general: he who knows them will be victorious; he who knows them not will fail.
Therefore, in your deliberations, when seeking to determine the military conditions, let them be made the basis of a comparison, in this wise: (1) Which of the two sovereigns is imbued with the Moral law? (2) Which of the two generals has most ability? (3) With whom lie the advantages derived from Heaven and Earth? (4) On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced? (5) Which army is stronger? (6) On which side are officers and men more highly trained? (7) In which army is there the greater constancy both in reward and punishment? By means of these seven considerations I can forecast victory or defeat.”
(Sun Tzu, Art of War, Chapter I, verses 3-6 and 11-14)
Assad can never defeat the Islamic State or other rebel groups in Syria for the plain and simple reason that, through his genocidal actions, he has turned the vast majority of the Syrian people against him.
In short, Assad’s regime and his Russian ally are of no help whatsoever in our struggle against ISIS; in fact, they are a huge hindrance.
Immoral Alliances Are Not Acceptable
The second reason to reject any calls for a deal with them is that making alliances with such regimes is just plainly unacceptable – both practically and morally.
It has, unfortunately, become a standard Western policy to forge alliances with whatever dictatorial regime the West thinks fit to serve its temporary interests and objectives, no matter how thuggish the regime in question is. This, however, is a totally mistaken policy which should be abandoned.
Alliances with dictatorships should be a very rare exception, not the rule. They are a sound policy only if a country’s own survival, independence, territorial integrity, or liberty is gravely threatened and the potential ally would be of great help against the menace we are trying to defeat. Even if all three of these conditions are met, the alliance should be terminated as soon as the menace is removed.
This is what the US and Britain did during World War II by forging an alliance with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. The Third Reich was a grave threat to all of Europe, including Britain (and its Empire). Not only that, but it was the Soviet Union who bore the brunt of the war effort against the Nazi war machine. It was the Soviet Union who dealt crushing defeats to the Germans and eventually overran their own capital, Berlin, thus forcing Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender.
But as soon as WW2 was over, the Western Allies terminated their alliance with the Soviet Union, which, by that time, had itself become a menace to the West. President Truman and Prime Ministers Churchill and Attlee did not delude themselves that Moscow could be a “strategic partner” beyond WW2. They didn’t lapse into fantasies of friendship with Joseph Stalin. They simply needed the Red Army to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan – and for nothing else.
This Is Not WW2 and ISIS is not Nazi Germany
But ISIS is not Nazi Germany. As murderous as it is, it is not even close to posing as grave a menace to Europe (let alone the US) as Nazi Germany did.
It could actually be argued that ISIS is not even a direct threat to Europe at all. There is so far zero solid evidence that it was actually involved in last year’s terrorist attacks in Paris or those that occurred in Belgium earlier this year. All the evidence available so far points to the same, relatively small group of homegrown French and Belgian Muslims operating from the Molenbeek quarter of Brussels.
If Western intel services have any evidence of direct ISIS involvement, they haven’t presented it yet.
More broadly, Europe’s problem with Islamic terrorism seems entirely homegrown, so far, originating from large Muslim immigrant communities in Europe that have utterly failed to integrate themselves with local societies and from these societies’ failure to require integration. In other words, Europe has been way too tolerant towards those immigrants who do not wish to integrate themselves with European societies and instead live in ghettos.
Be it as it may, ISIS (or even Islamic terrorism) is not even comparable to the threat posed by Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union (or by Putin’s Russia these days).
The Islamic terrorist threat is not even nearly as lethal as the everyday dangers which, sadly, we no longer really care about. Let’s put things into perspective. For example, a combined 150 people died in last year’s terrorist attacks in France (20 in January and 130 in the November attacks). But at the same time, throughout the year 2015, 3464 people died in traffic accidents in France – that is, 23 times more people than those who perished in those two jihadist attacks.
What, therefore, is a greater threat to the life, well-being, and security of French and European citizens?
But most importantly, as demonstrated above, not only isn’t Assad of any help against the Islamic State, he’s actually the greatest hindrance to our victory over that jihadist group. And, because of backing him to the hilt and defending his regime at any cost, so is Russia.
More broadly, let us not forget that the West has a problem with Islamic terrorism partially because the US and Britain (and, on a lesser scale, other Western countries) have historically supported a plethora of brutal regimes throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world, the most notable examples being those of Hosni Mubarak, the former Shah of Iran, the Pakistani military, and the Saudi and Bahraini royal families. This policy, as the CIA now admits, has resulted in blowback from angry populations whom these regimes have ruled throughout decades.
In the same manner, the West has also historically supported dozens of thuggish dictatorships all around the world, in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, including those of Mobutu Sese Seko, Ferdinand Marcos, Park Chung-hee, and the former military juntas of Latin America (Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, etc.). Likewise, in those cases, this has resulted (with the notable exception of South Korea) in deep distrust and resentment of the West – especially of the US.
Crawling into bed with the likes of Bashar al-Assad will only attract the anger of the Sunni majority of the Syrian people – and of Muslims all around the world – and create millions of new volunteers for ISIS. By allying ourselves with him and his Russian protector, we will only provide massive fodder for the very jihadist movement we are seeking to neutralize.
But even beyond the practical considerations, it is simply morally unacceptable to make common cause with the likes of Assad under any but the most extreme circumstances – which have not transpired now and are unlikely to occur. Crawling into bed with the likes of him completely rots our own political classes and our very societies. It is not simply impractical or immoral, it is utterly destructive to the Western civilization’s own identity, values and sense of self-worth to compromise those values and the undergirding fundamental principles for anything less than desperately needed aid against a grave menace to our own existence.
ISIS is not such a menace. And even if it were, it would be a moot question, since Assad and Russia are a huge obstacle, not asset, to our victory against this self-proclaimed caliphate.
The West needs to continue demanding that Assad resign from office and pave the way for a post-Assad transition in Syria – preferrably with Russian involvement, but without it if necessary. If preserving Russia’s bases in Syria is all that the Kremlin truly wants, this can be guaranteed.
But we should not harbor any illusions about Assad. He’s the greatest fodder the Islamic State could ask for, and without his removal, Syrian Sunni Arabs will not dump ISIS and join our cause. And without Sunni Arabs on our side, we are doomed to defeat.
Let Sun Tzu have the last word here, across 2,500 years of time:
The general that hearkens to my counsel and acts upon it, will conquer: let such a one be retained in command! The general that hearkens not to my counsel nor acts upon it, will suffer defeat: let such a one be dismissed!