Is Bashar al-Assad the “lesser of two evils” in the West’s fight against ISIS?

The U.S. has began carrying out air strikes in Syria

After US airstrikes in Iraq against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), will we see a possible alliance between the West and Bashar al-Assad to combat ISIS in two fronts, asks Dilly Hussain.

If there is any lesson to be learnt from history, it is that political alliances always shift according to self-interest. This is also apparent in playground politics between children – you change friends and foes according to benefits. The global political arena can be described as a big playground, with strong, powerful and cunning bullies, their economic or military allies, and rebellious, uncontrollable rogue elements.


The term ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ is a well known phrase turned principle that has been used throughout centuries of political feuds and warfare: the Persian-Greco wars, Roman-Barbarian wars, Muslim conquest of Arabia and North Africa, the Crusades, Ottoman-Byzantine wars, the Anglo-French Hundred Years war, Napoleonic wars, WW1, WW2, the Cold War, and most recently – the war on terror. The simple logic and benefit behind this strategy is to fight a common enemy or a ‘greater evil’, which increases the probability of victory.

Numerous pagan Arabs united against Prophet Muhammad and the Rightly Guided Caliphs, there were many short-lived sectarian alliances (both Christian and Muslim) during the Crusades, and the ever-changing pacts between European powers during centuries of internal wars. In modern history, WW1 saw an alliance between the Ottomans and the Germans, and in WW2 the merging of an ideologically bipolar alliance between democratic capitalist Western powers and the communist USSR against Nazi Germany.

War on Terror and the Arab Spring

Saddam Hussein was armed by the West during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).
Saddam Hussein was armed by the West during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).

Correspondingly, the war on terror also led to some unlikely alliances. Al Qaeda and the Afghani mujahideen who were supported by the US against the USSR during the Cold War, became the main targets in a new crusade, led by G.W.Bush and Tony Blair in response to the 9/11 attacks. Similarly, Saddam Hussein, who was armed by the West during the Iraq-Iran conflict, was removed via an illegal war on the premise of possessing weapons of mass destruction. Iran, deemed as a defiant anti-Western rogue state became the key benefactor of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, which eliminated two hostile Sunni governments on its eastern and western fronts. This resulted in overwhelming Iranian influence in the Shia led government (backed by the US) that followed the removal of Saddam.

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Since the Arab Spring, Syria has entered its fourth year of civil war. It appeared at the beginning that the West was adamant in toppling Bashar al-Assad by arming ‘moderate’ elements of the opposition through the Syrian National Council (SNC), which was created at 5-star hotels in Turkey and Jordan but wielded no influence on the ground. I had stated from the beginning of the Syrian revolution that the US had no real intention to remove Assad, except to replace it with a subservient regime that would serve its interests in the region.


It had always been a case of killing two birds with one stone for the US and its allies, and that was to remove Assad, prevent an Islamist takeover in Syria and install a pro-Western government. This was evident in the way the West disowned its age-old allies under the banner of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ during the Arab Spring, to appear as supporters of change against despotic regimes they had supported for decades. Popular protests removed Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen but the governments that replaced them maintained the same political structure. En Nahda in Tunisia, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (removed and outlawed via a military coup a year later) and Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) posed no real threat to the status quo by making minor cosmetic changes to the same system they rose up against. Last year’s G8 Summit in Northern Ireland had even united Russia (protector of the Assad regime) and Western powers in ridding Syria of “terrorists and extremists” – whom the West selectively funded via their regional proxies.

Lebanese militia Hezbollah, Baathist Syria and Iran form the "Axis of Resistance" with the backing of Russia.
Lebanese militia Hezbollah, Baathist Syria and Iran form the “Axis of Resistance” with the backing of Russia.

When the Al Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) declared a Caliphate, stretching from Raqqa in Syria to Diyala in Iraq on 29th June, the principle of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ became clear for everyone to see. The US and Iran had committed themselves to train and arm the Iraqi army. Once ISIS began advancing towards the oil rich capital city of Kurdistan, Erbil, it was followed by US air strikes under the guise of ‘humanitarian intervention‘. The beheading of American journalist, James Foley, allegedly by a British jihadist was the straw which broke the camel’s back, resulting in the likelihood of Assad and the West joining forces to defeat a ‘greater evil’.

Whilst the US has kept its options open regarding a coordinated effort against ISIS, UK Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond has ruled out an alliance with Assad. General Lord Richard Dannatt, the former head of the British Army had strongly advised that working with Assad was imperative in defeating ISIS. However, if history is anything to go by, Hammond’s objection will be discarded and the UK will follow suit if and when the US decides colluding with Assad is a necessity.

What’s the moral of the story? Never fall for the rhetoric of superpowers. Initially, it seemed as if the lines had been drawn and the camps had been set for World War Three over Syria. The West and its regional proxies would arm the Syrian opposition to topple Assad, whilst the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, Iran and Russia would exhaust all their efforts to keep the despotic dictator in power. Three years later and we have a cosy US-Iranian relationship evident in Iraq, Russia drawing closer to the West in the war on terror, and Assad on the options list to defeat ISIS.

You would have been considered barking mad if you had predicted all this in 2011 – this is the irony of world politics.


This article was first published in the Huffington Post.

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