Between naivety and hypocrisy: Boris Johnson's praise for Assad

Between naivety and hypocrisy: Boris Johnson's praise for Assad
Comment: London's Boris Johnson praised a 'vile tyrant' for taking over Palmyra from IS, naively obscuring the complicity of Assad in the rise of IS, argues Kyle Orton.
6 min read
29 Mar, 2016
Johnson's praise for Assad helps disseminate the tyrant's propaganda [Getty]

"Hooray," says Boris Johnson on the conquest of Palmyra by the army of Bashar al-Assad and Iranian-controlled Shi'a jihadists under the cover of Russian airstrikes. "Bravo," he adds.  Something like this reaction has been seen in numerous other formats. The U.S. Department of Defence itself said the pro-Assad coalition taking Palmyra was "a good thing".

The basic argument comes down to the lesser evil theory. The pro-Assad forces are preferable to the Islamic State (IS), which had held Palmyra from last May until Sunday morning, the argument goes. As Johnson phrases it: "no matter how repulsive the Assad regime may be—and it is—their opponents in [IS] are far, far worse." There are at least two ways in which this argument falls.

Firstly, there is nothing IS has done that Assad's regime has not. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) concluded last month that Assad's regime had waged a “systematic and widespread attack against [the Syrian] civilian population”, committing a raft of war crimes and seven separate crimes against humanity (systematic war crimes), including extermination.

At least 11,000 prisoners have been tortured and starved to death by Assad, as documented in photographs smuggled to the outside world by a defector. Rape has been used as a weapon of war from the earliest days of the war. In November 2011, when the Syrian population was just beginning to take up arms to defend itself after months of peaceful protests, the U.N. reported on the regime's use of torture against children, sometimes to death, and the sexual violence against children, specifically targeting boys.

The whole world remembers IS burning alive a Jordanian pilot alive in a cage; Johnson himself cites the case. Many fewer know of Assad burning whole families alive in their homes.

470,000 people have been killed in Syria and more than ten million displaced, and the Assad regime is responsible for the overwhelming majority of them. In 2015 alone, Assad murdered nearly ten times more civilians than IS. Assad's strategy from the beginning focused on displacement: he bombed Syria's population centres to remove populations sympathetic to the opposition. Meanwhile, in an echo of IS's settler-colonial project, Assad's foreign jihadist allies like Hizballah have begun colonising cleared areas — notably Christian zones of Damascus— to re-arrange the demographic picture in the regime's favour.

There is nothing IS has done that Assad's regime has not.

The second objection to Johnson's formulation concerns the definition of the word "opponent". To be clear: in the long term, Assad wants to defeat IS and retake control of all of Syria. But IS has proven a most useful adversary, discrediting the opposition, locally and internationally, and physically destroying sections of the rebellion. To this end, Assad has sought to build up IS and similar forces to make Syria a binary choice — the dictator or the terrorists.

Within eleven days of the uprising beginning, Assad released nearly 250 hardened jihadists. The intention was to stain the opposition movement — which had taken to the streets with slogans like "One, One, One, the Syrian People are One"— with sectarianism and terrorism. "The Assad regime and Iran have meticulously nurtured the rise of al-Qaeda, and then ISIS, in Syria," a senior regime defector pointed out in late 2014. Assad continued arresting and killing peaceful, secular activists, while being "careful to never take any steps to attack ISIS as they grew in power and strength."

It is a simple military fact that during IS's formative period, up to late 2014, while Assad was blitzing rebel-held areas to prevent an attractive opposition government taking hold, he was leaving IS alone. Two further jihadi amnesties, in May and June 2011, as the crackdown on the protest movement widened, put many more violent Islamists in the field. "The regime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in their work, in their creation of armed brigades," a defector from Assad's intelligence, who carried out these orders, later explained.

It was these prisoners, such as Amr al-Absi, who linked up with a secret detachment of IS from Iraq, sent and overseen by the caliph's deputy, Samir al-Khlifawi, better known as Haji Bakr, who formed IS's Syrian wing (Jabhat an-Nusra), which later split from its parent organization. But when forming Nusra, there was a third component: an already vast IS network of individuals and logistics on Syrian soil, which had operated with the knowledge and assistance of the Assad regime since 2002 as part of the effort to destabilise post-Saddam Iraq.

It is a simple military fact that during IS's formative period, up to late 2014, while Assad was blitzing rebel-held areas to prevent an attractive opposition government taking hold, he was leaving IS alone.

Before the Iraq invasion had even begun, IS's founder had set up "ratlines" to bring foreign fighters into Iraq. Jihadi clerics in the pocket of the regime, notably Mahmoud al-Aghasi (Abu al-Qaqa), incited—and the regime bused—thousands of jihadists over the border during the invasion to attack Western soldiers. In 2008, IS's lead facilitator for foreign volunteers, Badran al-Mazidi (Abu Ghadiya), was killed in a safe-house overseen by Assad's intelligence services in eastern Syria. In that area on the Iraqi border, there were IS training camps, also overseen by Syrian intelligence.

When IS fighters got injured they received medical treatment in Damascus. IS relied on Assad for its supply of suicide bombers, and Assad directly planned terrorist strikes in Iraq with IS at least as late as 2009. Assad has also been found guilty in two separate court cases of helping IS behead two Americans and carry out the bombing of the hotels in Amman in November 2005.

Put simply, IS would not be this strong without the assistance of the Assad regime; it might not even exist.

Johnson adds that "the victory of Assad is a victory for archaeology". Protecting artefacts would be an odd reason to ignore mass-murder, but this isn't true either. Assad bombed Palmyra before IS had announced itself in Syria, and the corrupt regime officers looted the treasures from Palmyra to sell on the black market when they held the city. Residents who have fled Palmyra and activists who have remained reported that Russia's 900 airstrikes during the operation to take Palmyra attacked the ancient historical sites and the inhabited areas of Palmyra indiscriminately.

Assad has sought to build up IS and similar forces to make Syria a binary choice — the dictator or the terrorists.

The Assad regime's ability to pose among the ruins in Palmyra furthers its messaging claim that it is the frontline for civilization against barbarism, but it is not a major strategic loss for IS; this was the periphery of IS's caliphate. The regime now claims it is going to drive IS from its heartlands. Even if attempted this is impossible: the regime simply doesn't have the manpower.

The regime might look for one or two more symbolic anti-IS victories, but that is all it is capable of. Assad has facilitated the rise of the IS monster in an attempt to cannibalize the moderate opposition, but he cannot put it down: he is relying on gaining international support to do that.

In the wake of the Brussels attack, the capture of Palmyra was narratively perfect for the Assad regime. But to accept the regime's claim that it is a bulwark against terrorism, rather than its generator, is to collaborate in a falsehood. It would be helpful if prominent elected officials in the West did not assist the Assad regime in disseminating propaganda.

Kyle Orton is a Middle East analyst and an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. Follow him on Twitter: @KyleWOrton

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.