The siege of eastern Aleppo, the last major Syrian urban area in rebel hands, is almost over. Rebel resistance has collapsed, civilians are being evacuated, and Syrian government forces and their allies are reoccupying the area. Meanwhile the western political and media classes have erupted into a frenzy of blame-slinging and moral pontificating that just shows how clueless they all are.
Bashar al Assad is not very nice. He’s an authoritarian leader who manipulates a blatantly rigged electoral system to stay in power, and he’s perfectly willing to turn his air force on his own people. On the other hand, most of the rebels are a lot worse. If any of them had succeeded in overthrowing Assad, with or without western backing, Syria would not have turned into a sort of Middle Eastern Switzerland. It would have become yet another hard-line theocratic Sunni state. Because the paradox of the Middle East is that only an authoritarian leader can rule a multi-ethnic state. True democracy will inevitably lead to one group dominating. Iraq’s old secular order has been completely overthrown by the Shia majority, and if Assad had fallen Syria would have become dominated by Sunni Arabs. That would obviously have been extremely bad news for the Shia, Alewites, Christians, Kurds and Turkmen who make up 40% of the population.
The Syrian civil war began as part of the wider Arab Spring, a wave of mostly Sunni, mostly violent uprisings that swept the region in 2010 and 2011. Some genuinely unpleasant regimes were threatened and western leaders, entranced by the fantasy of spreading democracy, were generally supportive of the rebels. Assad soon became a particular target, mostly because his regime follows the same Ba’athist ideology as Saddam Hussein did and because his father was a Soviet ally during the Cold War. It’s irrelevant that the largely secular Syrian Ba’athist regime contributed troops to the anti-Saddam coalition in Gulf War I, or that Assad the Younger had been feeding the west intelligence on al Qaeda for over a decade. Washington, and to a lesser extent London and Brussels, decided it was time for him to go; so the search was on for a suitably moderate rebel group that could overthrow him.
And of course there wasn’t one. The only rebels who were reliably non-Islamist are the Kurds, and they weren’t much use for the west’s purposes. All they’re interested in is carving out an autonomous Kurdish state; beyond that, they don’t really care who rules Syria. There’s also the awkward fact that the Kurds and Turkey, the major NATO power in the region, can’t stand each other. In fact Turkey’s current Islamist government has spent more time attacking the Kurds than it has on fighting Islamic State.
So, the USA has backed a succession of “moderate” rebel groups that have all turned out to be not moderate or completely ineffective. That, and the fact all the other rebel groups spent more time fighting among themselves, gave Assad’s government some breathing space – and he used it well. First, reinforcements from Iran and Hezbollah stiffened his demoralized army. Then Russian air strikes pinned the rebels in place and began grinding them down. Now the Syrian military is back on the offensive. Once it’s secured, the Alawite heartland Assad’s support depends on it will probably start retaking the areas currently occupied by ISIS. Meanwhile the west is still looking for a trustworthy moderate rebel group.
When are we going to learn?
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