Did Daesh/ ISIL’s Paris attacks bolster al-Assad? Spain calls him ‘lesser of evils’

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Spanish foreign minister José Manuel García Margallo said Wednesday in the course of a television interview:

“At the end of the day, the thesis has begun to clarify that it is the lesser evil to make an agreement with Bashar al-Assad and to thereby achieve a cease-fire that will allow the delivery of aid to the displaced, the halting or controlling of the flow of refugees, putting in place a political transition, and, above all, attacking the common enemy, i.e. Daesh [ISIS, ISIL].”

Margallo has been pushing this line for the past few months, but the Paris attacks made his suggestion more plausible.


Then Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right National Party in France, was asked on the radio about the barbarity of Bashar al-Assad. She dismissed the term as meaningless. “However controversial, the state headed by Bashar al-Assad is a state, and as such it protects from the barbarity of the Islamic State.”

In spring of 2011 when youth and labor protests broke out against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, President Obama called on him to step down. The US and Western Europe generally sympathized with the Syrian rebels, organized as the Syrian National Council with a paramilitary arm, the Free Syrian Army. But then from 2012 forward the Free Syrian Army fell apart and many of its members joined hard line Sunni fundamentalist militias. Many of them allied with Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, the Support Front. Some of the fighters and some whole units joined the al-Qaeda offshoot, Daesh (ISIS, ISIL).

No country was more insistent that al-Assad must go than France. But now, as Daesh looms large as enemy number one, Europe is reconsidering al-Assad’s fate. In some ways they are treading the same path as Vladimir Putin, who clearly decided in late summer that al-Assad must not be allowed to fall, lest hard core al-Qaeda types sweep into Damascus and take over a Syria that is only a 24-hour drive through Turkey from Russian territory.

President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker just said “It must not be imagined that there is a solution with al-Assad. But it must not be imagined that there is a solution without al-Assad.” (The European Commission is the executive arm of the European Union).

President Obama is still correctly demanding that al-Assad step down (he has loads of blood on his hands), but it may be that his view is losing support in Europe, and the Realpolitic view of Vladimir Putin is coming up in the world.

Posted in Featured,Syria | 25 Responses | Print |

25 Responses

  1. “President Obama is still correctly demanding that al-Assad step down”

    Assad is a vicious monster and he should definitely face trial for all the crimes he’s committed, but isn’t demanding that he step down immediately unrealistic and actually harmful to the prospects of ending the conflict?

    He will never acquiesce to that and will continue fighting to death if he knows that it’s either that or a prison in The Hague (or worse), which will only prolong the fighting and lead to more loss of lives.

  2. There is no doubt that Bashar Assad has been a brutal dictator and has the blood of thousands of Syrians on his hands. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that he does not bear the sole responsibility for the catastrophic situation in Syria. It is true that the way that he coped with the demonstrations in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring” was excessive and heavy-handed, but long before the uprising a campaign was waged by Sunni states, headed by Saudi Arabia and supported by the West, to topple him. The civil war in Syria was not a sectarian war between Sunnis and Shi’as (after all, Assad was a secular leader and his Ba’thist Party was not a Shi’ite outfit), but a geopolitical war waged by Sunni states that had been unhappy with the removal of Saddam in order to weaken Iran. It is the same war that is being waged in Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen.

    As early as March 2005, in an insightful article, Seymour Hersh wrote that in a shift of policy the Bush Administration had decided to confront Iran, and one way of doing so was to weaken Iran by removing Bashar Assad. Hersh wrote” “To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.”
    link to newyorker.com
    The Arab Uprisings provided an excuse to many Middle Eastern and Western countries to spend billions of dollars in organizing Jihadi, Salafi fighters to fight Assad. Those forces morphed into al-Nusra Front and ultimately into the Islamic State. Removing Assad by force would reward the terrorists and their backers and would plunge Syria into even worse chaos. A better solution would be to organize a coalition of Western and regional countries, including Russia and Iran, to fight the ISIS, and once calm has been established to prepare for a transition period leading to UN-supervised elections, and then respect the result of the election whatever it might be.

    • Farhang Jahranpour,

      I agree with much of what you write here, but I must with some regret suggest that the Western powers have nothing of any value to offer to Syria and will never have anything of any value to offer to Syria. The West will never coalesce with Russia and others to neutralize IS, because such neutralization requires the prior neutralization of all the other alphabet jihadis first. The Syrian Arab Army cannot address ISIS while its country still faces danger from the rebels and jihadis in West and Central Syria. And as long as the West remains devoted to the sentimental goal of toppling Assad, the West will never assist any genuine action leading to the eventual elimination of IS. From a Syrian eye view, one might well refer to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc. as the “near jihadis” and to France, America, Britain, etc. as the “far jihadis”.

      One can only hope the R + 6 are able to exterminate every last trace of rebellion in Syria before the Axis of Jihad can figure out new ways to support its jihadi proxies in Syria against the legitimate Assad government.

    • Sorry for the typo about the date of the article by Seymour Hersh. As it can be clearly seen from the article, the date of Hersh’s article was March 5, 2007, and not 2005.

    • The western powers would not respect the result of the elections if it is not what they want. See Egypt, the people elected the Muslim Brotherhood, the western powers did not like it and they replaced the Brotherhood with the General they liked better.

  3. Well, at least in Germany the mainstream media are working overtime to prevent any kind of realpolitik.

    The newspapers are being flooded with articles warning against stopping the american regime change nonsense, even though that is what started all the problems in the first place…

    It looks like the facts will force the european politicians to act. They were fools to go along with the regime change in the first place. It is extremely unlikely that the regime change will occur soon and it won’t have any desirable consequences if it does since the with the complete breakdown of the syrian state the chaos will only increase.

    Politicians in the US don’t care for one minute about that. They don’t have to deal with millions of refugees and their country is far away enough to be save from IS terror attacks. Thus they will just go on letting the conflict continue.

    In other words european and american interests are not the same here. In fact there has never been a better chance for nato to break up. It would be wise to realize that.

  4. Isn’t it an inescapable fact that there are no nonbarbaric actors on the Syrian scene? Hasn’t US policy foundered on the fantasy that there are ‘moderate’ forces to be wooed and built up?

    In a situation like this, Realpolitik would seem to be the only Politik. The greatest danger to us — and I would like to hear realistic ways to deal with it, since none have presented themselves — is the triumph of the right, which may be equally unstoppable.

  5. The question remains….who replaces al Assad? if he steps aside will Syria automatically become a democracy and hold elections to choose a candidate who has all factions best interest at heart? I think not.

    The bottom line is that a Russian/ Iranian alliance to keep al Assad alive and well frustrates Israeli and American plans to control Syria even if they have to make a pack with the devil (al Qaeda or ISIS) to reject Russia and Iran influences. Didn’t Bibi recently say…”We can work with al Qaeda….they’re not so bad.”

    • If the rebels can be methodically and unemotionally exterminated down to the very last rebel, then it won’t matter what the rebels “won’t ever accept”.

  6. This recent article adds more details. I had forgotten Zib’s open admission that the USG created Al Quida in a successful attempt to dupe Russia into invading Afganistan. He brags about it openly. Also, a former French FM has stated he was told of the plan to use sunni terrorists to topple Assad in 2009 – two years before the Arab Spring.

    link to consortiumnews.com

  7. I honestly find it a bit odd you are here saying Assad has to go while in other columns you basically said he can’t go until ISIS is destroyed and that France should stop listening to Saudi Arabia. Still can’t make up your mind?

  8. We in the West have dealt with, and at times enabled, far worse monsters than Assad. So, setting such precondition is to fall into the Saudis’ trap, who themselves are among the monsters. Besides, nations don’t have permanent allies.

  9. Daesh’s attacks on “soft” targets in the West may turn out to be a blunder as significant as Bush’s decision to occupy Afghanistan and Iraq and Obama’s decision to put his shoulder to the wheel of regime change.

    Maybe we did more damage than we knew to al-Qaeda when we killed off its first generation of leaders.

  10. President Obama is still correctly demanding that al-Assad step down (he has loads of blood on his hands), …

    Suggestion for a future column: “Top 10 Friends of Obama with blood on their hands.”

  11. While the strikes on ISIL will increase by the new Western coalition, I think the US is still going to cooperate with the Gulf nations and Turkey to support ‘moderate’ (non-ISIL extremists) rebels despite Russian strikes (and don’t think the Europeans are going to strike the non-ISIL extremist rebels even with the new Russian alliance. They may consider Assad the lesser of 2 evils, but that would mean butting heads with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the US). Hard to see them change course…

  12. Why is it “correct” for Obama to demand that Assad’s step down, while not demanding the same of all the other bloody dictators in the world? –Oh I forgot, a bunch of them are US allies, while Assad Isn’t. He’s opposed the US elite’s geopolitical interests at many points.

    • Exactly. And if you ever hear of read a mainstream media journalist putting this to Obama, please let us know.

  13. I’ve gone back to Human Rights reports on Syria from before the civil war and have found that Assad was a fairly typical authoritarian. So, I’ve always been somewhat mystified by the huge anti-Assad movement in the West.
    My theory is that the neo-cons always had Syria in its gunsights, that Assad would be taken out soon after Iraq, in 2004 or 2005. But instead Cheney totally lost control of events when the Iraq Sunnis revolted. But then, with the Arab Spring, the neo-cons saw another chance to take out Syria. They realized by then that giving Iraq to Iran wasn’t such a great idea.
    But why non neo-cons supported the anti-Assad groups was not so clear. Journalists like Dexter Filkins from the New Yorker were so adamantly opposed to Assad. Every death in Syria was blamed on him. It would be like blaming Abraham Lincoln for every death in the American Civil War.

  14. The New York Times reports that Hillary Clinton proposed a “no-fly zone” in Syria today.

    According to the Times: “Mrs. Clinton offered additional details on her idea for a no-fly zone, saying it should be limited to northern Syria, similar to Turkish proposals for a buffer zone to protect civilians. Several Republican presidential candidates have also called for a more expansive no-fly zone.”

    Who would stop flying what if there were a no-fly zone in northern Syria? Is Daesh using helicopters and jets? I was not aware of that. Are they being supplied by air? Apparently, I don’t understand the situation on the ground at all. Hopefully, Dr. Cole will comment on Mrs. Clinton’s speech to the Council on Foreign Relations and clarify what a “no-fly zone” would accomplish.

  15. What exactly has Assad done? He is allied with Iran and Russia, and Hezbollah, no Sharia law in Syria, Christians are able to practice their religion, in what way exactly was he more brutal than other dictators? He did not invade other countries.
    It was outside forces that turned demonstrations into civil war and he reacted with brutality if what we are told about it is true.
    When Assad is gone, then what? Same as Iraq after Saddam and Libya after Gadaffy? Just another failed state?
    We go on destabilizing the region and ISIS is recruiting more people and spreading more terrorism .
    We need more journalists like Seymour Hersh. He could see what was coming.
    Who will protect the Christians and the Shiites against ISIS?

  16. Have to admire Putin’s handling of the situation.

    It was a given that after this Paris attack that Hollande would rush his one aircraft carrier to launch some Look At Me! Look How Tough I Am! raids on ISIS.

    Putin could have humiliated Hollande by putting his ships and planes in the way but, no, he declared solidarity with his fellow victim of terrorism (ahem, Sinai plane, anyone?) and offered Hollande any help he needed.

    What does Hollande do now? Can he refuse that help without looking venal? Can Obama complain about such cooperation without looking even more venal?

  17. What gives any outside power the right to demand Assad step down? I despise Obama! He has the blood of millions on his hands. It could easily be argued that the US is police state ruled by a violent dictator after all police constantly harass, arrest, assault and murder innocent people with impunity. There are more people in prison in the US than there that were ever in the gulag and most never even receive a trial because they cannot afford a lawyer. If we were a foreign nation that opposed any US policy they would have a case for humanitarian intervention. But i wouldn’t appreciate president Assad sending his military here and insisting Obama was somehow illegitimate.

  18. Saddam was absolutely horrible and yet we spend trillions taking him down and the occupying Iraq for a decade. We are now worse off than when we started. Our focus on bad people should prioritize those who have the inclination and the ability to threaten us and our allies. If it is determined that Assad is a threat to us, then by all means take him down.

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