The British government has said that it won't work with President Bashar al-Assad in order to destroy the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq.
This is in response to the comments of the former head of the British Army, Lord Dannatt (along with former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who recently advised some kind of alliance with Assad. (As a military man, I suppose that Lord Dannatt may know what he's talking about.)
Nonetheless, since these suggestions seem to have arisen specifically in response to the beheading of the U.S. journalist James Foley, they may simply be knee-jerk reactions. After all, if it's worth working with Assad now, surely it was worth working with him last week or even months ago. After all, IS have been carrying out large-scale killings and wreaking havoc in Syria and Iraq for up to four months now.
Despite Lord Dannatt's words, the Foreign Secretary (during an interview on BBC Radio 4's World at One) has said that cooperating with the Syrian regime would “poison” Britain's endeavors in that part of the world. Philip Hammond said:
"We may very well find that we are fighting, on some occasions, the same people that he is but that doesn't make us his ally."
In other words, is our enemy’s enemy necessarily our friend? Well, no; not necessarily our friend. However, that doesn't stop us from working with an enemy in order to defeat a worse enemy. In any case, working with someone doesn't make that person our friend. Or, as Sir Rifkind put it, history has shown us that "sometimes you actually have to make an arrangement with some nasty people in order to get rid of some even nastier ones".
Here we also face another classic philosophical question: Do the ends justify the means? More specifically, can working with a poisonous regime be justified if the end result is the destruction of an even more poisonous entity (in this case, the Islamic State)?
Of course if Britain were to work with Bashar Assad to defeat the Islamic State (IS), many people will be up in arms and start using the words “hypocrisy”, “double-standards” and whatnot. (Conspiracy-theory-based Trotskyist groups -- such as the Assad-friendly Stop the War Coalition -- would have a field day.) Yet if there were an alliance, it would simply be strategic, politically and militarily speaking. And strategy, or Realpolitik, is the stuff of politics.
Think about it.
We aligned with Stalin during World War II. Before that, the Nazis signed the 1939 nonaggression pact with the same man. And, as Leftists and Muslims are always telling me, the United States funded -- and the CIA trained -- the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan in the period before the rise of the Taliban.
Even the Liberal Democrats-Conservative Party coalition of 2010 was/is a strategic alliance of sorts. And up and down the country -- as well as throughout the 20th century -- MPs and councilors have allied with people of different political parties – sometimes with radically different parties.
I mentioned Trotskyists and Trotskyist groups earlier. These people themselves have forged many and varied alliances with all manner of Islamic reactionaries, (brown) racists, misogynists, killers, and oppressors to advance the white, middle-class (mainly university-based) Trotskyist revolution.
Yet sometimes alliances with false friends have to be made in order to achieve one's objectives. And in this case that objective would be to defeat the Islamic State. Now the question may not be whether it's a good thing to ally with Bashar Assad, but whether it would work. Another question would be whether or not it would create more problems for Britain in the long run. Or, as Philip Hammond put it, it may not be “practical, sensible or helpful” to work with Assad.
Philip Hammond's point may be that even if an alliance with an enemy were to defeat a worse enemy, it may still not be a good thing to do in the long run.
What about alliances with Iran, for example, in order to defeat IS? That could well end up being a very bad move in certain hypothetical scenarios. Take the case of Iran directly intervening in Iraq with massive force and the British government enabling and cooperating with that intervention. This could end up with Iran gaining control of the whole of Iraq or at least it installing a puppet leader. (That's if this isn't already the case to some degree.) Not only would a direct Iranian control of Iraq be a bad thing for the West, the surrounding Sunni states (including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan) wouldn't like it either. In fact the problem could become even worse than the situation with IS because nuclear weapons could then be involved and the whole region -- including Jordan and Saudi Arabia (even Turkey) -- could then be at war.
So yes, it was only almost exactly a year ago that the British government contemplated going to war with Bashar Assad's regime. But that was then. This is now. We may have to work with a bastard in order to defeat a far worse bastard. Such is politics. Again, the argument isn't that it would be advisable to ally Bashar Assad, it's that it could be.
After saying all that, the British government has said that it won't work with him. Though that was yesterday. The government may change its tune tomorrow.
1) Much of the Western Left (especially Trotskyist groups and individuals) isn't too keen on eradicating Bashar Assad, despite its many close relations with Sunni Muslim groups and individuals. In fact this has proved problematic for George Galloway in his Respect constituency in Bradford (nearly all Sunni Muslims).
The UK's Stop the War Coalition has similar close relations with Iran and therefore with Syria. George Galloway, John Rees, Lindsey German, Yvonne Ridley, etc. have all worked for Iran's Press TV at some point. And the former SWP man, John Rees (now of Stop the War and Counterfire) once said that he'd support Iran if Iran and the UK were at war.
2) Part of the problem in Syria has been the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the most important group within the "rebel" forces fighting against Assad (i.e., outside the jihadists of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS)).
Conflicts with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria date back to the 1960s or even before.
The Muslim Brotherhood of Syria was formed (in the early 1930s) only a few years after the Egyptian original. There was the Battle of Hama in 1982 in which between 20,000 and 40,000 died.
So the Muslim Brotherhood - as in the US and Egypt - is part of the problem.
3) I'm not sure about the often-used phrase "war criminal" as used against Assad (as well as many others). That phrase has been used against the US and UK many times. Indeed, when you think about it, all it usually means is this:
"war criminal"/"war crimes" = political and military acts which I disagree with
Israel is accused almost every day of committing war crimes when, in fact, they are all legal - legal according to Israel and often legal when it comes to the UN too!
It's funny really because the "illegal" status of these acts, whether by Assad or Israel, is care-of the United Nations. Yet many of those on both the Left and Right who use the words "war crimes" or "illegal act" don't have any time for the UN.... unless the UN is doing and saying stuff which they agree with. If it doesn't, then they criticise the UN as an 'imperialist front", etc.
I personally don't care what the UN thinks. If what Assad is doing is wrong, then it's wrong. The fact that this global organisation - with 51 (mainly Sunni) Muslim states within in and which has had Syria and China on its Security Council - classes what he Assad does as "illegal" doesn't really clinch it for me.