Sadly, Assad may be Syria’s best option

“Least horrible” may be a better way of putting it.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Remember how innocently the Syrian rebellion began? In March 2011, as part of the Arab Spring which started in Tunisia, Syrians engaged in mostly peaceful demonstrations, though they did demand the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad. Ironically, his heavy-handed response – shooting demonstrators – began a process that posed more of a threat to his regime than did the demonstrators. Especially when jihadists arrived from outside Syria to ostensibly help the armed Syrian resistance that rose up. In fact, they sought to capitalize on the crisis in Syria with their version of the shock doctrine – that is, exploiting a crisis for their own purposes.

Concerns about jihadist control – however unlikely an opposition victory seems lately  –  is one reason Syria is better off (or less poorly off) with the Assad regime remaining in place. For example, writes C.J. Chivers in the New York Times,

While the jihadis claim to be superior fighters, and have collaborated with secular Syrian rebels, some analysts and diplomats also note that they can appear less focused on toppling President Bashar al-Assad. Instead, they said, they focus more on establishing a zone of influence spanning Iraq’s Anbar Province and the desert eastern areas of Syria, and eventually establishing an Islamic territory under their administration.

Another reason that Assad’s continuing rule is preferable is because it keeps chemical weapons out of the hands of jihadists, either through theft during the civil war or if they inherit ownership if the opposition won. At Warscapes, John McCreary, the veteran intelligence analyst who composes NightWatch, explains.

American strategists must recognize that [the chemical-weapons accord] deal is only good so long as the Ba’athist government survives in Damascus. Thus, the US promise to not attack Assad would amount to a protection agreement because the Islamists and the moderate Islamists will not make a similar guarantee. … even so-called moderate rebel groups announced that they recognized Israel as their enemy and would attack it if they came to power.

The US protective umbrella would also apply to Israel for the same reason it applies to the US. If the Islamists win, Israel would be under a chemical warfare threat. That threat goes away only if the Ba’athist government remains in power.

On the unlikely grounds that if the jihadists won, they’d establish the fabled caliphate, to the more likely grounds that they might not have compunctions about using chemical weapons as an instrument of war – instead of for internal repression, as it seems more and more probably that the Syrian military did, according to a UN report issued Monday  – the least worst case scenario is that President Assad, the lesser of two evils, remain in power.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.