We read how young Muslims in the West, indeed from all over the world, depart on jihad in Syria. There they will join 'jihadis'. 'Jihadis' in Syria are examined and classified with an entomological precision that discovers myriad species of this genus. The entomology is supplemented with a great deal of psychology intended to explain the pathologies and mental deficiencies that allow this plague to grow and flourish. It's as if the whole process takes place in a realm devoid of normal (let alone decent) human beings.
Yet these people who go to Syria join with others there who have one thing in common. Like Syrian Christians, atheists, secularist, and liberals, they fight the régime of Bashar al Assad. So in one respect they are a lot better than all the analysts and patronizing commentators, a lot more decent than the many millions of Westerners who, push come to shove, side with a regime which they themselves recognize as evil
. These millions, if they do not support Assad directly, favor attacking only his enemies and leaving him in peace. Oddly enough the experts, pundits and 'world leaders' have never explained why this is less of a crime against humanity than the very worst work of the 'jihadis'.
But don't the 'jihadis' include, at least, ISIS? No doubt by now some earnest declaration that ISIS is indescribably horrible and brutal is overdue. Yet in the current political climate, the repugnance at ISIS is itself repugnant.
The pundits and ordinary moralists who rage against ISIS aren't merely indulging in hypocrisy or inconsistency, as when someone condemns, say, the colonial record of Spain but not of England. They have actually thrown in their lot with Assad. They have expressed, not some opinions about something over and done with, but rather their preference for a living, breathing monster. They have delivered a blank cheque to the greatest evil they could find. They inhabit democracies, where it is assumed that opinions matter, so that their preferences must be supposed to have some effect on policy. The wave of disgust over ISIS encourages the West to continue its tacit cooperation with Assad.
To be clear, this effect is not diminished by 'even-handed', verbal indignation about the Syrian régime. (The French actually get praised for practicing this at a national level.) It couldn't be clearer that the West is determined to fight ISIS from as much safety as possible, because it couldn't be clearer that that's what Western electorates want. "Keeping our brave young men and women safe" requires using every anti-ISIS force available. It means not only using Iran, Assad's chief backer, but also Assad himself, who is given free reign to bomb civilians and is rewarded by the occasional 'allied' air strike in support of his battles with ISIS, for example in Deir Ezzor. So if you get all horrified about both ISIS and Assad, the net effect is to bolster support for Assad.
But forget the public and consider the decision-makers, as well as the top-level political scientists (like Stephen Walt and Zbigniew Brzezinski), think tankers and columnists. They all help to determine and reflect the Obama administration's view, which must be understood to suppose that acting against Assad is, well, adolescent. So, he castrates children a bit, ties prisoners to dead bodies a bit, pokes out eyes a bit and so on. We are encouraged to grow up and get over it, so we can see the political realities, the strategic necessities, the real-world choices that occupy the minds of grown-up political animals. Why then is it not even more immature to go on about the lesser crimes of IS? Cynicism and hyper-realism may be rationally defensible, but not if it is selective. So I won't declare how I really do utterly deplore what ISIS does. Better to suggest that genuine realism requires a grown-up attitude about 'jihadis'.
Jihadis are people. Many are not 'foreigners' - odd how xenophobic bigotry becomes a hallmark of decency when commenting on Syria. These human beings took up arms long before some Islamic guy said something that might or might not be Islamic. In Syria, they emerged from the struggle against the Syrian régime.
The story has been told many times. The Syrian revolution began as something the West could like. Largely middle class liberals, plus at worst some radical leftists and lower-class urbanites, mounted huge peaceful demonstrations. When the demonstrators discovered that dignified or joyous protests, no matter how courageous, could not really stand up to artillery fire and machine guns, some resorted to armed struggle. Assad succeeded, if not in turning the whole conflict sectarian, at least in recruiting sectarian gangs to commit unspeakable atrocities against whole areas containing rebel elements. As the armed revolutionaries were forced to set up operations outside the large cities, the whole country suffered these attacks.
The composition of the armed rebellion changed. The nice Western types weren't able to protect the population against Assad. The attacks had to be countered. The expanded resistance could come only from the long-suppressed forces that had resisted and plotted against the Assad régime for decades - the Muslim Brotherhood and many new, small, fighting units, all Islamists. Many of these fighters embraced the very conservative ethos of the countryside from which they came. They grew, not because primarily because naughty Arabs financed them, but because in costly, heroic operations, they captured weapons from the enemy. And from all over the world, Islamist governments and individuals felt compelled to help.
Well, the West was having none of that. These folks were not for freedom and democracy, but for a thoroughly Islamic state. Yet the Syrians, even the secular liberals and certainly even the most moderate Islamists, were indeed having some of that. They were fighting side by side with these 'extremists' and were not about to treat them as enemies. They might even let some arms go their way.
From then on, unbeknownst even to itself, the West definitively abandoned even the secular liberals, who from then on would receive only a conscience-salving dribble of support. These rebels just couldn't be trusted. From then on it literally did not matter what Assad did, how spectacularly he broke every constraint associated with civilization. The West wouldn't permit his overthrow because to do so would inevitably empower Islamists, including extreme Islamists. That's what mattered.
Long story short, the moderates wilted; the extremists got more extreme; and the very most extreme understandably struck out not only against Assad, but against any rebels in any way associated with the criminal complacency of the West. ISIS, which began as a not entirely insane resistance movement against the US and its stooges in Iraq, deteriorated into what it is today. In other words, ISIS became a disaster because, as the analysts never tired of telling us, we had to beware of the 'jihadis' in Syria.
Suppose the West hadn't been so wary. Suppose, two or three years ago, the West had been able to accept that the cause of secular liberalism in Syria was lost, but had nonetheless devoted whole-hearted, extensive, military support to the rebels, including the Islamists'. Part of that scenario isn't speculation but a certainty. Assad would be gone. Equally certain, some sort of Islamist régime would have replaced him.
Then there are uncertainties - would there be sectarian slaughter? would Syria become some hotbed of terrorism spawning attacks on the West? The realization of these risks provoked an irrational response in the West, parallel to its panic about Islamists. Normally if you're preoccupied with a risk, you consider how to address it. In this case that would mean considering how to strengthen moderate (though largely Islamist) forces. Given the West's virtually unlimited capacity for strengthening forces, this hardly seems impossible, even difficult. But the West, instead, treated Islamist extremism, unlike the secularist extremism of Assad, as something too icky to manage. As so often with irrational responses, this only brought much more of the feared outcome. As the Syrian revolution faltered, extreme Islamism flourished.
The inability to accept an Islamist future for Syria lies at the heart of Western support for Assad. It began by licensing his atrocities. It continued and continues by assuring that Western support for Assad opponents remains trivial in comparison to what Iran and Russia provide to the régime. And today it is ratified by indiscriminate fussing about jihad and jihadis.
Here is where the hysteria about young people going on jihad to Syria gets nasty. It yokes a stampede of patronizing outrage to the destruction of the Syrian revolution. No distinction is made between going to fight with the revolution's radical-Islamist ally, Jabhat al Nusra, and its far more extreme enemy, IS. Yet the difference could hardly be more important.
ISIS aside, Jabhat al Nusra is by far the most successful opponent of Assad. It's now a bit unusual even to hear it named; it has become "Syria's- al-Qaeda" affiliate, a perfectly accurate and entirely misleading description. Jabhat-al-Nusra is, to put it mildly, socially conservative. It's kind of against freedom and democracy. It commits some atrocities and mounts some attacks on anti-Assad forces, for various localized reasons. That's to say it's not one bit worse that any Western-backed force or indeed than the West itself. A beheading from 5000 feet - absolutely inevitable and expected "collateral damage" - is just as brutal as a beheading at ground level. It's also more 'senseless' and 'arbitrary'.
Yet the very same analysts and policy makers who want us to grow up about Western and Assadist atrocities insist on an infantile approach to Jabhat al Nusra. On other occasions and in a different mood, they tell us that "Al Qaeda affiliate" doesn't imply even vaguely serious efforts to hurt Western targets. But suppose otherwise. For the last 8000 years or so, and as recently as World War II, political decision-makers have made alliances with parties who, in other circumstances, would want or even will want them dead. Sometimes these decision-makers have found, like the British, French and Germans, that the alliances can even extinguish murderous inclinations. And for the last 8000 years, realists have understood that sometimes people talk trash, make threats that aren't to be taken seriously.
Recently all this accumulated knowledge has been effaced by an obsession with keeping appearances - especially within democracies. What will people think, how will they vote, if we associate with people who might hurt us in the future, or people who have said bad things about us? To allow such fears to steer policy is, very simply, to let quite small domestic policy concerns trump often quite large foreign ones. After all, elections almost always turn on domestic, not foreign concerns.
No doubt realism will continue to drive Syria policy - very likely selective realism. If the West wants to consign the Syrian people to hell for the sake of appearances, so be it. The damage to Western interests won't be incalculable. Even if ferocious Islamists conquered the whole Middle East, oil would continue to flow and business would likely be much as usual. Less certain is whether the West can do well once its reputation as a cowardly and treacherous is firmly cemented. No one can calculate that risk. The only certainty is that foggy moralizing about jihadis won't reduce it.