Assad fanned the flames of extremism

Published by The Independent (7th December, 2015)

How quickly the narrative changes. Just two years ago, our leaders insisted we could not stand idly by after Syria’s president was accused of using chemical warfare. We were warned about the dangers of inaction, told how global security was at stake and urged not to let crimes against humanity go unpunished. Now we are sending our aircraft to attack his enemies, effectively allying ourselves with the gruesome regime that caused the country’s devastating conflict.

Still the government insists Bashar Assad is our enemy, along with the jihadists of Isis now in our sights, while arguing 70,000 moderate fighters can rescue Syria. But as these claims dissolve, we hear a rising crescendo of voices calling for an alliance of necessity with the doctor who became a dictator. France and the United States have softened their position against him, influential British MPs seek a deal, and respected commentators say he is the only salvation for their shattered nation.

This change of tone is profoundly depressing. The regime has killed far more people than Isis. And even in a conflict that has plumbed new depths of depravity on all sides, the government emerges badly with its hideous barrel bombs pulverising neighbourhoods, cruel deployment of gas and utterly grotesque torture. Engaged in a desperate fight for survival it has callously targeted civilians in rebel-held areas, driving away many of the four million people who have fled the country.

Yet read the smooth words of Assad in his latest interview, talking to Paris Match following the jihadist atrocities in Paris as he seeks fresh support for his lethal regime. He denies responsibility for the tragedy that has befallen his blighted nation, claims original protests against him were ‘not large in number’, blames Western aggression for his problems and brands people seeking democracy as ‘terrorists’. Truly, it is Orwellian in its manipulation of reality; his ally Vladimir Putin must be proud of such doublespeak.

The sudden shift in attitudes to Assad is astonishingly short-termist, even by the standards of modern foreign policy. While focused on Isis, a group that revels in savagery to promote its medieval cause, we must not forget this is just one manifestation of a wider global problem. Jihadist groups are active and exploiting local concerns from Afghanistan and Bangladesh through to Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Somali and Yemen among others. Yet the regime in Damascus that some now seek to support played a key role in promoting these bigoted fanatics for its own ends.

Professor Peter Neumann, the London-based expert on security and radicalisation, has detailed how Assad and his intelligence chiefs actively encouraged Syrian extremists to fight in Iraq after the 2003 invasion led by America. Their logic was many would die or disappear, while the insurgency would weaken Western resolve to topple despotic regimes (since many senior figures feared their nation might be next.) They even released Islamist prisoners and gave them military training. The result was Syria became the key entry point for foreign jihadists heading to Iraq and a hotbed for fundamentalists.

Syrian security forces went on to fan Islamic extremism in Lebanon, again opening up their country to international networks of jihadists and foreign fighters. The legacy, according to Neumann, was that when protests erupted against Assad four years ago these groups were in position to attack the government and rapidly raise funds from sympathisers for weapons. Yet this same cynical regime now presents itself as a bulwark against terrorists.

But it gets worse. For when Syrians tired of corruption and repression rose up against Assad, the government’s strategy seems to have been to crush moderates and foster militants to win outside support by appearing the lesser evil. This strategy is now paying off – and not just with Russia, which came to the rescue of Assad by bombing moderate rebel forces as well as Isis. Once again, jihadists were released from jails, the cells then stuffed with dissidents and students held in horrific conditions.

After the emergence of Isis, the government it was supposedly seeking to oust bought the oil that funds its reign of terror. There is evidence suggesting the two sides avoided each other in battle, focusing on different spheres of influence. And US diplomats earlier this year accused Assad’s forces of making air strikes in support of Isis advances into Aleppo, which echoed long-held complaints of collusion from other rebel forces.

Syria has become a hideous quagmire, a proxy war that has forced half the population from their homes and left more than 250,000 people dead. Assad has been saved once by Iraq, and now by Russia; according to analysts, government forces controlled barely one sixth of the country’s territory before Putin acted nine weeks ago to protect his nation’s last overseas military base outside the former Soviet Union. Now there are claims Russia is using banned white phosphorus weapons, only adding to the nation’s agony.

The idea being proposed that to defeat jihadists spreading terror around the planet we must ally with the mendacious Assad is naive nonsense. It is not simply that it betrays those maimed, murdered, tortured and driven out by his regime, along with the cause of democracy and moderate forces. Nor that it reveals the discredited old mindset of backing despots to stifle dissent. But most treacherously, it rewards a regime that deliberately fanned the flames of jihadism, aiding those that attacked our troops and that we seek so desperately to defeat.

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