Foreign Policy

Strongman regimes the better of two bad options in Middle East

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The horrific chemicals attack on civilians in Syria has forced the U.S. to strike Syrian assets directly for the first time in its civil war.

In a piece for Foreign Affairs, Sam Heller reminded us that, “The United States has a compelling interest in preventing Assad from using chemical weapons against the Syrian people and in reestablishing the international norm against chemical weapons use that arguably eroded after 2013.”

But, he cautions that, “Any military action should be framed exclusively in terms of chemical weapons deterrence and not in terms of regime change.”

{mosads}The only forces who would gain from regime change would be Islamic extremists, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The ensuing chaos would drive millions of refugees into Syria’s already destabilized neighbors and Europe.


Nearly two decades ago, the U.S. intervened at the head of a coalition of allies in Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein, claiming his regime had weapons of mass destruction. No weapons were ever found and U.S. rhetoric on the strategic goals of intervention had to quickly change to the promotion of democracy and nation-building in the Middle East.

Institutional support for such rhetoric is not difficult to find as Washington’s democracy-promoting foundations are numerous and have expanded in scope and activities since President Ronald Reagan established the National Endowment for Democracy in 1983.

The new rhetoric was a means to secure large allocations of funding for the promotion of democracy in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, and they therefore welcomed the Arab Spring as a signal that history was on their side.

Former British Prime Minister David Cameron and the European Union (EU) became staunch U.S. allies in the new zeal to bring democracy to the Middle East. In 2004, the EU launched its new Neighbourhood Policy to create a “ring of friends” along its southern and eastern borders.

Democracy promotion and nation-building along the EU’s southern borders in Egypt, Libya and Syria has proven to be disastrous, cautioning us to support the removal of Bashar al-Assad.

In Egypt, the extremist Muslim Brotherhood came to power and was subsequently overthrown by the military during a coup that claimed 700 lives. Libya and Syria, following Iraq earlier, descended into anarchy and bloodshed opening up power vacuums for all manner of anti-Western extremist Islamic groups to proliferate with the financial support of our ostensible Saudi, Turkish and Qatari allies.

It is time to rein in the Washington democracy-promotion lobbies. Events on the ground have shown there are only two (unpalatable) alternatives — stable states run by authoritarian strongmen, or unstable states captured by anti-Western extremist Islamic groups.

Despite the horrors of Syria’s gassing of its own people, recent history should prompt one to reflect on four key points:

First, however unpleasant Saddam Hussein was and Bashar al-Assad is, they never launched terrorist attacks against the U.S. and Europe. Strongman regimes such as these do not represent a threat to the domestic security of Western democracies.

Second, poorly thought-out Western policies created power vacuums into which Russia was able to expand its influence in the Middle East. President Barack Obama’s weak and inconsistent policies and fake red lines in Syria provided President Vladimir Putin with the opportunity for Russia to re-assert itself as a great power in a replay of earlier Soviet interventions in the Middle East. Russia may be poised to repeat its successful Syrian intervention in Libya.

Third, the carnage in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East has produced a migrant crisis that has threatened the stability of Europe by increasing the popularity of far-right Islamophobic groups.

Europe’s nationalist and neo-fascist right are allies of Russia’s Putin in their common goal of seeking to destroy the EU. National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who recently returned from a visit to Moscow to solicit support, could win the French elections with her campaign against the “twin evils” of globalization and Islamization.

Fourth, terrorist groups in Syria have kidnapped, tortured and massacred non-Sunni religious groups, including Shiites, Alawites, Christians, Yazidis, Kurds and Armenians. The Taliban and ISIL have deprived women of rights and made non-Sunni women prisoners or their personal sex slaves.

Where the Taliban and ISIL have come to power in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, they have imposed sharia-based Sunni supremacist regimes and committed massive crimes against humanity. One such crime was recently uncovered at a sinkhole in Khasfa, Iraq, 30 kilometers south of Mosul. There, ISIL murdered 7,000 people — Iraqi security personnel, political opponents and religious minorities.

The U.S. policy in Syria has encountered the same pitfall as its policy in Afghanistan in the 1980s with the anti-Soviet mujahedeen — who evolved into the Taliban and ISIL terrorist groups. In both instances, weapons given to “pro-Western moderates” ended up in the hands of extremists and were then used against the U.S. and Europe.

As Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) declared when announcing his support for the Stop Arming Terrorists Act — H.R. 608 and S. 532 — legislation: “One of the unintended consequences of nation-building and open-ended intervention is American funds and weapons benefiting those who hate us.”

In Syria, every non-Kurdish opposition group has coordinated with the jihadists at some point in the six-year-old conflict, which the United Nations and Arab League Envoy to Syria estimate has killed nearly half a million people.

This is why the Stop Arming Terrorists Act is so timely and is receiving bipartisan support in Congress. The draft legislation “prohibits the use of federal agency funds to provide covered assistance to Al Qaeda, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, ISIL and individuals and groups that are affiliated with, associated with, cooperating with such groups and with governments who have provided covered assistance to these groups.”

The Stop Arming Terrorist Act will provide the conceptual tools for U.S. policymakers to end support to so-called “pro-Western moderates” who, in reality, are fictions of our wishful thinking. The adoption of this legislation will also provide the means for U.S. and European policymakers to reset away from the earlier failed policies of democracy-promotion, regime change and nation-building in the Middle East.


Taras Kuzio is a Toronto-based leading international expert on contemporary Ukrainian and post-communist politics, nationalism and European integration at the Centre for Political and Regional Studies, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta and a non-resident fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations (CTR), School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University. He holds a doctorate in political science from the University of Birmingham.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

Tags Anti-Shi'ism Barack Obama Bashar al-Assad Iraqi insurgency Islamic extremism Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Politics of Syria Rand Paul Terrorism in Iraq

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