Nearly half a million lives have been lost in the five years since the Syrian war began, the majority of which lie at the feet of President Bashar Al-Assad. In spite of this fact, many in the West have endorsed the propagandistic narrative that the Assad regime is the best of the rotten fruits in Syria—a necessary evil worth supporting in the fight against terrorism. Responding to the Paris attacks in an interview with TVE Television on November 18, 2015, for example, Spanish Foreign Minister, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, explicitly referred to Assad as a “lesser evil” because he fights a common enemy with the West, namely ISIS, according to Middle East Eye.
As shortsighted as Garcia-Margallo’s remarks may be, they are hardly surprising. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Western mind has been inordinately fixated on the transnational dangers of “Islamic extremism.” Assad has successfully played into this deeply entrenched, Western fear about the enemy-Other by overstating the threat groups like ISIS pose to the safety of the world, and thereafter positioning himself as a resistance force against them. In an interview with NBC’s Bill Neely on July 13, 2016, for example, Assad referred to himself as a defender of Syria against “terrorism,” claiming that he hopes to go down in history “as the man who protected his country…and saved its sovereignty.”
This has garnered Assad a fair amount of support, but it is not the only reason he has become a “lesser evil” to many in the West. Another important reason Westerners complacently support Assad is because the loss of Syrian lives are largely disregarded in their calculations about the war. As I have discussed in the past, Syrian deaths are often treated as unimportant—like the loss of pawns in a bigger game of chess.
Indeed, for Garcia-Margallo and many in the West, the greatest tragedy of the Syrian war is in its potential impact on their immediate lives. As tragic as the ISIS attacks in Paris were, it is nonsensically immoral to consider Assad a “lesser evil” on the basis of 130 Parisian deaths given that Syrians regularly die at the hands of the regime in much higher numbers. In truth, it is only because ISIS has a propensity for targeting the wrong kinds of victims—namely Western ones—that it is ultimately considered “worse” than Assad in the eyes of Garcia-Margallo and others like him. This is a perfect case-study of the distinction political philosopher Noam Chomsky makes between “worthy” and “unworthy” victims in his book Manufacturing Consent, which discusses the ways in which some victims are made to matter more than others.
One of the most dismal examples of the way Syrian victims are neglected as “unworthy” can be seen in a TRT World interview with political scientist, Max Abrahms, on May 9, 2016. In the interview, Abrahms openly admits that he analyzes the Syrian war and the “question of what to do with Assad from the perspective of an American, not from a Syrian.” As he states: “If I were a Syrian, it’s quite possible…that I would be in favor of removing Assad…But, from the perspective of U.S. national security, frankly, I’m much more worried about the kinds of groups that Assad is fighting against in Syria than I am of Assad himself.”
Even though Abrahms acknowledges that Syrian suffering is rooted in the continued existence of the Assad regime, he still distinguishes Assad as less of a problem than ISIS because, in his words, he is less of an obstacle to “international peace.” Used in this manner, however, the phrase “international peace” is clearly nothing more than a euphemism for “Western stability.”
It is evidently not for a lack of familiarity with the facts surrounding Assad’s brutality that he is considered a “lesser evil,” but rather due to a lack of principle and moral determination. Undoubtedly, the chauvinistic support that those like Garcia-Margallo and Abrahms have for Assad as an undesirable, albeit necessary evil is one of the greatest moral fiascos of the twenty-first century.