Column: ISIS must go before al-Assad can be toppled

In this photo taken on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hand with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. (Alexei Druzhinin, RIA-Novosti, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

President Bashar al-Assad has been the figurehead for American policy in Syria. The civil war in Syria has been, since its inception in 2011, an endless bloodbath, with Human Rights Watch estimating a total of 191,000 deaths as of August 2014 and thousands more becoming refugees.

While Russian President Putin has continued to prop up the al-Assad regime, and the United States has continued to aid moderate opposition, the threat of the Islamic State (or ISIS) complicates this ostensible fight between tyranny and democracy. Though al-Assad is an abhorrent violator of human rights, a forced regime change will only create a vacuum of power for ISIS to fill. To spread democracy, the United States needs to first focus on eliminating ISIS, not toppling the al-Assad regime.

Only after ISIS is removed from the Syrian state can the U.S. focus on imparting democratic ideals on the Syrian people. Removing al-Assad before beating back ISIS will only worsen the situation for common Syrians by guaranteeing a fundamentalist takeover.

Propping up a dictator is contrary to the founding principles of the United States. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson argued, in regards to King George III, “A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every Act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People.” Opposition to tyrants, wherever they may rule, is a core pillar of American policy. To support a dictator and a tyrant is thus, a difficult pill to swallow.

However, in recent times and in the face of communism and promotion of the “domino theory” of world domination, America has developed a modus operandi in regards to dictators. So long as tyrants support American interests – chiefly economic and political – then human rights violations will not deter support.

According to Salon, prior to the Arab Spring in 2011, the U.S. had a long history of supporting President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Furthermore, the U.S. continues to support the royal family of Saudi Arabia, who continue to execute with swords and level Yemeni cities. While U.S. support of tyrannical governments must end in the name of democracy, al-Assad’s government cannot be removed prior to ISIS’ defeat without eliminating hope for Syrian democracy. 

After invading Iraq in 2003, the United States toppled Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. In a CNN op-ed, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair argued the “actual lesson of Iraq is not complicated but clear.” How does a liberating army “stabilize and govern [a] country when the ethnic, tribal and particularly religious tensions are unleashed after the oppression has been lifted.”

Though Blair agreed the regime change helped lead to the ISIS takeover of Iraq in recent years since the U.S. pullout, he supported the removal of the violent Hussein. If the U.S. succeeds in Syria, a power vacuum will once again occur. Though a moderate opposition, whom the Obama Administration is supporting, will take over for a short while, infighting will allow ISIS to seize power.

Though al-Assad does not respect human rights, as evidenced by their use of chemical weapons, he will be far more controllable than the ISIS caliphate, given his need to interact with the international world, and ISIS’ inability to be sanctioned or controlled. If al-Assad regains stability through Putin’s aid, the U.S. will at least have the opportunity to inspire opposition and democratic reform through sanctions and popular influence.

Leaving Syria as a pile of hellfire missile rubble will only leave the Syrian people hung from the Islamic State gallows. A fundamentalist regime will replace a tyrannical government; their archaic and fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law will strip the people of their humanity.

The United States has rightfully argued that the al-Assad regime has egregiously discarded human rights and contributed to the death of thousands of citizens, as verified by the Human Rights Watch. However, the United States is in no place to criticize Russia for supporting an unsavory tyrant. The U.S. has a long history of doing so, stretching back to the earliest days of the communist spread.

While the U.S. should not directly support al-Assad, focusing military resources on fighting ISIS should be the priority. A power vacuum will only serve to eliminate any chance at stability in Syria. Stability, even under a weakened, puppet dictator, will afford the only chance at a transition to democracy. For the Syrian people and democracy, Assad must go; however, before his regime is dethroned, ISIS must be beat back from Syria.


Christopher Sacco is opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.sacco@uconn.edu.