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Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Assad or ISIS

Why must restoring a functioning state in the region come at the expense of liberty, freedom and democracy?

Assad’s state is designed such that it will crumble in his absence, just as Saddam Hussein’s state vanished in April 2003. (AFP/Ria Novosti/Alexey Druzhinin)

Dictatorship breeds frustration that generates terrorism. Replacing autocracies with democracies was Washington’s answer to terrorism after 9/11, yet America’s failure left the Middle East with two competing forces: dictators like Bashar Assad and terrorist groups like ISIS. Now the world has to choose between these two in Syria, after both have worked together to kill US troops and undermine democracy in Iraq.

 

The Middle East lives in a bind. For sociocultural reasons, states like Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are unable to sustain elected governments. Even without an ongoing civil war like those in Syria and Iraq, a more stable Lebanon is drowning in garbage because of its political stalemate.

 

For the Lebanese, the Iraqis, and now the Syrians, picking rulers has always been a choice between the lesser of two evils. Often times, citizens of these states compare the bad to the ugly, instead of debating the merits of those fit to govern. Those fit to govern are usually too weak to survive the fatal political game.

 

Often times, faced by their failing states, the average Lebanese or Iraqi suggests that one ‘strong’ politician take over, eliminate all rivals, and run the country like clockwork. The model of the enlightened despot, so popular in non-Western countries, has so far proven to be the only viable one in most Arab nations.

 

Since America’s failure in Iraq and the rise of lawless post-Arab Spring lands like Libya, Yemen and Syria, the world has been looking for figures who can put these states back together, even if that means restoring the world’s worst dictators.

 

In Syria, the world now believes that Chemical Assad is less brutal than head-chopping ISIS. Both Assad and ISIS show governance skills — to the extent that ISIS offered to solve Lebanon’s garbage problem.

 

Assad’s ability to govern has dwarfed his opponents, who have made a mockery of themselves. The Syrian opposition has the opportunity to show some governing talent by running Syrian refugee camps, raising funds and creating relief networks. Instead, most members of the Syrian opposition have used donations for self-enrichment and luxury travel. They often appear on TV as pundits, rather than political leaders with alternative plans to run their country.

 

It’s unfortunate that the only two parties that can run Syria after the war are Assad and ISIS, which shows that a functioning state in Syria, Russia, Iraq or Iran always comes at the expense of liberty, freedom and democracy.

 

It’s also unfortunate that Assad’s state is designed such that it will crumble in his absence, just as Saddam Hussein’s state vanished in April 2003. The Egypt solution, the one that America hopes for in Syria, is to replace Assad with another dictator with similar pedigree and profile.

 

Like Assad, ISIS is too entrenched in both Iraq and Syria to be forced out. ISIS is not a political or a paramilitary organization that can be defeated, but a situation that has resulted from decades of local oppression and international complicity.

 

The savagery of ISIS is not new either. In the seventh century, Byzantine General Heraclius let the mobs kill his predecessor, the usurping General Phocas. The mob then paraded Phocas’s mutilated body around the streets of Istanbul. In 1958, Iraqis paraded the mutilated corpses of the toppled Hashemite royal family in the streets of Baghdad.

 

The world needs to muster all the soft power it can to change the Middle East’s violent culture and make it more amenable to sustaining accountable public institutions. At the same time, the world should foster the formation of a Syrian government in exile, replete with bureaucracy and security forces, before injecting it into protected Syrian territories outside of Assad’s and ISIS’s control.

 

The Geneva I model of transitioning from Assad to a national unity government — a scheme world powers discussed in Vienna on Friday — is just more of the same. The same thing was tried in Lebanon and Iraq and in both countries produced failed states.

 

America should help democratize the Middle East just as it created robust democracies in Nazi Europe and fascist Japan.

 

President Obama prefers hodgepodge solutions because he thinks America cannot build the world while taking care of itself. But when big presidents like FDR and Harry Truman ruled, America knew how to walk and chew gum at the same time. FDR led America out of its worst depression while simultaneously leading the world out of its darkest days.

 

Without an American-led effort to transform the Middle East from its current medieval status to a modern region, the odds are that Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran will keep warring, with or without Assad or ISIS.

 

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau chief of Alrai newspaper. He tweets @hahussain

Assad’s state is designed such that it will crumble in his absence, just as Saddam Hussein’s state vanished in April 2003. (AFP/Ria Novosti/Alexey Druzhinin)

It’s unfortunate that the only two parties that can run Syria after the war are Assad and ISIS, which shows that a functioning state in Syria, Russia, Iraq or Iran always comes at the expense of liberty, freedom and democracy."