The situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, while the brutality of the regime, which has killed over 3,500 people and tortured even children, has escalated. Meanwhile, a motley crew of Western commentators continues to carry water for President Bashar al-Assad.
These commentators cannot be immune from responsibility for their words. Their defense of a brutal dictatorship cannot go unchallenged or unexamined. While they have every right to their opinions, the rest of us have not only a right but a responsibility to draw the conclusion that these individuals, in fact, oppose freedom for the Syrian people by supporting a regime denying Syrians their freedom.
The essentially pro-regime stance of Professor Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma is well-established. To mention one small example, last April he praised what he called “the stability that the Assad family has enforced in Syria and… the vision of tolerance and secularism they have promoted.”
But there are a number of other commentators whose support for the Syrian dictatorship deserves more careful scrutiny. Probably the most relentless is Alistair Crooke, a former British intelligence officer who is a strong supporter of official Iranian ideology and foreign policy, as Michael Weiss and I have demonstrated. It is surely Assad’s alliance with Tehran that has prompted Crooke’s enthusiasm for the Syrian leader.
Crooke initially claimed that Assad was immune from any popular uprising because of his opposition to the West and Israel, and his support for “resistance.” In April, he actually predicted, “Assad will emerge with his stature enhanced, and Syria will be… resuming its traditional place at the center of Arab politics.”
In July, Crooke claimed the protests were led by followers of the late al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Moussab al-Zarqawi, applying the most terrifying image possible to the opposition. According to Crooke, the uprising he predicted was impossible was in fact a plot by the West and Qatar to install the most extreme Sunni Islamists in power in order to “weaken Iran.”
Columbia University professor Joseph Massad has also condemned the Syrian and other Arab uprisings as having been engineered or co-opted by an imperialistic “US-British-Saudi-Qatari axis.” He even argued that the United States had engineered the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in order to install “a more pliant dictator,” as if post-Mubarak Egypt is friendlier toward Washington’s foreign policy.
Massad has also condemned NATO’s role in Libya in the harshest possible terms, saying it was all based on lies. Again, he pointed out, the intervention was designed to impose a more “pliant” government in Tripoli. This is the mirror image of the hysterical arguments that al Qaeda now rules in Libya. In truth, Moammar Qaddafi was not posing any problems to the West when the uprising began, happily selling his oil at market rates. There’s no reason to believe that the new government in Tripoli will be “more pliant” then Qaddafi was. In truth, the West has little leverage to ensure how Libyans will behave in the future.
As for Syria, Massad has concluded that the Syrians should abandon their struggle for freedom because it can only lead to a “US-imposed pliant and repressive regime à la Iraq and Libya,” given that the West “has destroyed the possibility of a democratic outcome.” Naturally, he does not explain how this is the case. The bottom line is that Massad is urging Syrians to keep Assad in power, then to go home and shut up.
But perhaps the most surprising Western backer of the Assad regime is Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations. In August he described the prospects of overthrowing Assad as “so small” as to be irrelevant. He also argued that more people would be killed in a civil war than by the crushing of the uprising (a line used by Qaddafi backers as well), before concluding, “At present Mr. Assad remains the least worst option.”
Husain also wrote that “Assad has been good news for Israel’s security and borders,” and he predicted that Islamists would be the inevitable rulers of a post-Assad Syria and more unfriendly to the West. Husain has also come out strongly against the policy of sanctions, arguing, “The West would be mistaken to continue developing policy measures that harm Syria and Syrians.” He suggested that support for the uprising could provoke a “campaign of suicide bomb attacks against the West in our cities.” Husain’sprescription was for the West to do absolutely nothing in response to the brutality of the Assad regime, and “leave Syrians alone to put their complicated, sectarian house in order.”
With varying arguments, Crooke, Massad and Husain have joined the notorious Landis in arguing that the Syrian people should be left to the tender mercies of their regime. The alternatives are worse, they say, and Assad’s leadership isn’t really as bad as people think.
Diversity of opinion is a fine thing, but organizations can and should take responsibility for what they choose to sponsor or permit. The Council on Foreign Relations needs to ask itself some serious questions about its role in promoting Husain, one of the most zealous Western opponents of the quest for freedom in Syria.
All of these individuals claim to respect freedom and human rights, but how can that be squared with their eager defense of the Syrian regime? Crooke’s obvious allegiance to Iran, Massad’s knee-jerk anti-Western attitudes and Husain’s fears of an Islamist takeover have all led them to adopt indefensible, and in some cases dishonest, stances that effectively mean they are backing the most brutal repression taking place in the Arab world today. Nothing can justify the outrageous conduct of the Assad dictatorship and no agenda is sufficient to excuse it.