Response to “Assad must go?”

Opinion by Andrew Mather
Nov. 5, 2015, 11:59 p.m.

A couple of weeks ago, an article by Terence Zhao questioned the interventionist American policy toward Syria and raised doubts about the merit of the country’s sustained opposition to Bashar al-Assad. In some print editions of the Daily, the article was accidentally attributed to me, so I figured I should take this opportunity to set the record straight.

While Zhao’s article did pose a number of important questions about the American role in foreign affairs, in terms of discussing Syria his characterizations fell far short. His column reflected multiple fundamental misunderstandings of the implications of the current humanitarian crisis stemming from the country and, more importantly, its causes.

Simply speaking, the refugee crisis in Syria will never truly reach an end without the removal of Assad from office. The Assad regime’s indiscriminate warfare has almost certainly killed more civilians than ISIS has, and its tactics in doing so have been about as morally reprehensible as anyone could possibly imagine.

Its faults go far beyond Assad’s widely publicized gas attacks. The government’s use of highly explosive barrel bombs, for instance, has killed thousands of people who have just had the misfortune to live in rebel-controlled areas. As long as this man remains in power, it will be impossible for the majority of Syrians to return to their normal way of life.

These vicious attacks have removed all remaining legitimacy from Syria’s already weakened institutions. Only a thoroughly oppressed people would be willing to live under an administration and army complicit in murdering many of their friends and relatives. At the end of the day, Assad no longer has the power to create such a police state regardless of how much help he receives from his allies.

Assad’s current position is actually one of considerable weakness. The ruler territorial holdings have been reduced to just 25% of Syrian territory, and his prospects for increasing this number appear virtually nonexistent. Even with Russian support, forces of the Syrian Arab Army have been thus far unable to rescue soldiers trapped in a surrounded air base that is a mere 20 kilometers away from their position. If Assad’s troops had started in Palo Alto, two months later they still wouldn’t yet have made it to Redwood City.

That record hardly seems to predicate inevitable recapture of the country.

Assad’s chips at the table simply aren’t as numerous as many would think, and the crimes that led to the Syrian protests in the first place have multiplied to a point where they are downright unforgivable. Even if America did not have any way to influence this conflict, any tacit acceptance of his rule would be unacceptable.

Fortunately, the odds aren’t as stacked against the US’s mission as many people think. Some of Assad’s most staunch allies have begun to turn on him, and there’s reason to hope that a viable pathway for the country’s future may eventually become available.

There are factions to which the US could try to provide more support in Syria that might bring this crisis a much-needed solution. The components of the recently-formed Syrian Democratic Front, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces, have probably seen the most success against ISIS of anyone thus far, and their goal of deciding the country’s future by popular determination appears legitimate. The group is a bit of a motley crew right now, but it’s easy to imagine that a few victories could go a long way to bringing it together.

A two-state solution might also become an increasingly viable option if the military stalemate continues. At least in this circumstance, some successor to the Assad regime might only control the few territories where it has retained support.

Of course, it’s not likely that either of these options will quickly create a unified Syria, nor will it do much to rapidly end the nation’s humanitarian crisis. The point, however, is that simply removing American opposition to Assad is certainly an even less immediate solution than the other mediocre choices available. Other than publicly opposing him, the US has actually done relatively little to hinder Assad’s advances, and we may have actually helped him by weakening the ISIS and al-Nusra forces that we both are fighting. Unless we literally sent troops to join Assad’s ranks, removing our opposition to Assad would do next to nothing to give the dictator the upper hand against any of the other groups we oppose in the country.   

There are no reasons why America should support Bashar al-Assad and there are plenty of reasons for us to oppose him. Assad is bad for America’s foreign policy interests, he’s bad for human rights, he may threaten America’s allies, and he’s bad for regional stability. Until he’s gone, America must back any alternative, no matter how long the odds, in which neither he, ISIS, Al Qaeda or a comparably corrupt group gets a chance to control Syria.

Contact Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’

Andrew Mather served as a sports editor and as the Chief Operating Officer of The Daily. A devout Clippers and Iowa Hawkeyes fan from the suburbs of Los Angeles, Mather grew accustomed to watching his favorite programs snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He brought this nihilistic pessimism to The Daily, where he often felt a sense of déjà vu while covering basketball, football and golf.

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