A Reply to Josh Marshall: America must never wage a war without mercy

مجزرة حماه - Hama Massacre
The aftermath of the 1982 Hama Massacre in Hama, Syria. (Freedom House/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

I was disappointed with Josh Marshall’s proposal to make Assad the winner of the Syrian Civil War. I understand it was meant to be something of a “realpolitik” approach but it looked to me like the attacks in Paris have made him think about spending some quality time on the Dark Side with Darth Cheney. It isn’t a very well thought out idea and he seems to be foolishly assuming that there are no consequences that would follow from the United States taking action to bring about the Assad Family’s victory.

To begin with, the whole idea struck me as revolting; a sort of reverse trolley problem in which Josh Marshall decided that it was the right choice that ten thousand innocent muslims should die rather than one innocent European or American. I don’t that’s the right choice for us as a people. We went down that road after September 11th and look at our public discourse now.

The moral issues notwithstanding, there are also problems that make this a very poor idea from a “realpolitik” perspective. To begin with, here is my assumption about what happens if we make Assad the winner. The losing side of this civil war is going to be in for decades of truly horrific, unspeakable reprisals. Even if that is acceptable to us, the rest of the Islamic world is going to horrified at what they see our client doing to their coreligionists.

If you Google “Hama Rules” you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. We’re talking about whole families being slaughtered in the most graphic, nightmarish ways possible. The Assad Family has done things to political opponents that I wouldn’t even be willing to put on my blog. Just reading about it gives me nightmares. The fact that Assad himself is a Muslim isn’t going to matter nearly as much as his being the client of the Americans and Europeans.

Marsall’s proposal also doesn’t say what happens to the millions of refugees who have already fled. Will they be sent back to be massacred? Will they be resettled in a Europe that backed the man who has slaughtered their families and will soon be pleasuring himself with a truly epic bloodletting of everyone in their extended families who couldn’t make it out in time?

And, of course, the moment it becomes clear that the Americans have chosen Assad as their champion, the trickle of refugees will become a raging river. That isn’t a problem for Americans since it’s clear that as a people we’d rather see them all dead then let a single Muslim child find refuge here but it will be a very tricky situation for the Europeans.

If, as Art Goldhammer says, “the question of political Islam has become for the twenty-first century what Sartre said Marxism was for the twentieth: the ‘unsurpassable horizon’ of our time,” the betrayal of millions of helpless people and the horrific reprisals by our client will be a radicalizing event like nothing else could ever be. The ISIS and al-Qaeda propaganda practically writes itself. And it will strongly resonate throughout Sunni Islam.

Once Assad becomes our client, Syrian refugees will become both pitiful and very, very dangerous. And if they aren’t today, they soon will be. The millions of Sunni Muslims in Western countries around the world will know that we’ve sided against them and will reason, correctly, that their position in the West is precarious with predictably disastrous consequences.

There are five million Muslims in France alone. Tens of millions in Europe as a whole. As Arun Kapil has written:

The Islamic State, telling Muslims in the West that, in effect, they must either adhere to the IS and its conception of Islam or ‘apostatize’ and adopt the ‘kufri’ (infidel) religion of the West. In other words, Muslims in France must get off the fence and choose their camp. It goes without saying that, if presented with that choice, the huge majority will side with the ‘kuffars.’ As they say, it’s a no brainer.

As a reminder, on Thursday the Islamic State staged a terrorist attack in Beirut’s southern suburbs—the Dahiya—that killed over forty people. The Dahiya is entirely populated by Shi’ite Muslims and where state power is exercised by Hizbullah, not the Lebanese state. Ergo, the Islamic State death cult is as great a threat—when, concretely speaking, not more of one—to Muslims than it is to non-Muslims.

I think Arun is basically right about the implications of the attacks for Muslims. He’s right, too, about the opportunities we have right now for making a billion Muslims allies in the fight against Islamism. We need to dampen down the idiots in the Republican Party talking trash and trying to bring about a clash of civilizations. But, equally, if making Assad the winner results in the deaths of hundreds of thousands or perhaps even millions of Sunnis, the choice for the billion Muslims on the planet will still be a “no brainer” but not in the way that Arun thinks.

There’s also the practical problem of clientism that has basically wreaked so many American foreign adventures. The problem was particularly on display in an Afghanistan where every effort by the US to build a civil society was undercut by the corruption of our client, his family and followers. As seems to be customary with these adventures, the blood and treasure spent to build a country found its way into the bank accounts that we allow our clients and their families to keep in London, New York and Dubai.

Similarly, in Iraq, because keeping our clients happy became the most important thing, we had no way to stop the disintegration of the nascent Iraqi state and its decent into yet another civil war. The Iraqi Army didn’t survive it first encounter with ISIS because they really didn’t care. It was our money, not theirs that paid for the weapons they threw away and there’s always more where that came from. And, by and large, it seems most joined the army as a form of patronage rather than out of a desire to defend Iraq.

Think about what happens to the war against ISIS if Assad becomes our client: What incentive will Assad have to actually defeat ISIS or even to weaken it to the point where it can no longer mount terrorist operations against the West? None. After all, if Josh Marshall’s proposal is acted upon, the attacks of November 13th will have been the best thing to ever happen to Assad. Every further attack would almost certainly bring him vast increases in wealth and power; why should wage real war against ISIS when phony war pays better and we’re committed to keeping him in power no matter what?

Also, whether it was a throw away line to mollify “non-realists” like me, surely Marshall’s saying up front that we can always get rid of Assad once he has done our bidding gives Assad a powerful incentive to favor a perpetual phony war against ISIS over victory that would be his death warrant?

This is a terrible idea. If we make Assad the winner in the Syrian Civil War, we will lose our souls and gain nothing.