The Syrian rebellion is teeming with jihadists. Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin are war criminals. Moscow inappropriately interfered in our presidential election. A war with Russia must be avoided.
Those are not contradictory propositions. They’re the painful moral grays that foreign policy thinkers must contend with, especially when it comes to the infinitely complex Middle East. I bring them up because I just finished watching Congressman Dana Rohrabacher tell a skeptical “Morning Joe” roundtable that the United States should be collaborating with Assad to fight Middle Eastern terrorism. Rohrabacher is a Republican who represents Orange County and five days ago he actually said it was “baloney” to call Russia a human rights abuser.
The people of Aleppo might disagree, given that they’re being indiscriminately bombed by Russian jets and targeted for massacres by Assadist death squads. The Syrian regime has reportedly retaken Aleppo after rebels captured many of its eastern districts in 2012 and the cost has been blood amidst rubble. The UN, citing “credible sources,” reports that 82 civilians have been shot on sight by Syrian forces in an aftermath it chillingly describes as a “complete meltdown of humanity.” And while there may at last be a cessation of violence once this initial bloodletting is over, the greater Syrian Civil War will rage on, in north and south where rebels still maintain strongholds, and the east where ISIS recently drove Assadists out of Palmyra after the regime’s ballyhooed victory there earlier this year.
So much for fighting jihadists.
Those who take the Rohrabacher line on Syria like to view Assad as a secularist bulwark against Sunni extremists. He “might be a bad guy,” as the qualifier is inevitably mumbled, but he’s still more favorable than the alternative—”at least he was our son of a bitch,” as one State Department official observed of the Cuban Batista regime in the 1950s. That might have been a defensible argument six years ago, but since then Assad has crossed too many Rubicons. Even a cold-eyed American foreign policy should have some moral timber, and the reality for any realist seeking it is that Syria’s leader is a mass murderer who has already found his benefactor in Russia and whose existence continues to be a recruiting poster for Sunni jihadists. An ally? There is no outstretched hand to take, even a blood-soaked one.
The problem now is that our arguments over Russia and therefore Syria are being crammed into the current simplistic political divide, with anti-Trumpers deploring that we didn’t do more to assist the rebellion and pro-Trumpers like Rohrabacher saying we ought to team up with Assad. But the proper case against intervening in the Syrian Civil War was always that neither side warranted our support and there was no other good option available. That includes the rebels who from late 2012 onwards were teeming with jihadists and whose victory in Syria would have resulted in significant bloodshed and a possible al-Qaeda emirate. Meanwhile, the DIY solutions touted by many alleged foreign policy thinkers—especially the fatuously easy-peasy notion of a “safe zone”—were more likely to inflame the violence than extinguish it. Abstaining was not a blueprint for eventual peace; it was the least horrific option in that most regrettable of situations, the third-world civil war.
This is fairly standard American foreign policy. The closest analogue on record to the Syrian Civil War was the Lebanese Civil War, which raged for 15 years, and went ignored by Ronald Reagan after he withdrew the Marines from Beirut in 1984. Those claiming Aleppo is the “heir to Rwanda” might have taken note of the actual heir to Rwanda, the Second Congo War, which killed millions while they sat silently, never demanding George W. Bush launch a quixotic military intervention into the heart of Africa. Foreign conflicts happen and America is usually ill-equipped to tidy them up. That lesson applies to Syria, too, but it doesn’t mean we should rationalize away the crimes of a killer or plug our ears to the screams in Aleppo.