After several weeks on the offensive, forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad are poised to take the entirety of East Aleppo from besieged rebel groups. The brutal campaign intensified with Donald Trump’s presidential victory, as his promise to break with Barak Obama’s Syria policy has emboldened Assad and his main sponsor, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
During his presidential campaign, Trump painted Assad as the lesser evil in the Syrian civil war, stating, as reported by Politico, “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS.” He also repeatedly implied that he would coordinate directly with the Syrian president even though the regime is responsible for the majority of deaths in the conflict. For Donald Trump, as well as Assad’s supporters, the Syrian leader’s supposed commitment to secular governance and willingness to battle “terrorism” make him the best option to rule the country.
But, as the histories of Syria, Iraq, and Egypt illustrate, “secular” Arab regimes have been some of the most brutal in the region. They have relied on secret police, mass arrests, torture, and extensive domestic intelligence networks to silence dissent. This repression has also involved the use of large-scale deadly force.
In 1982, for example, then Syrian president Hafez al-Assad leveled the city of Hama and massacred thousands to put down a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion. Saddam Hussein similarly killed thousands of Kurdish civilians in gas attacks in 1998. He would later use massive violence to put down widespread unrest in 1991. Similarly, Algeria’s secular government engaged in a bloody civil war in the 1990s after overturning the victory of Islamist political parties in democratic parliamentary elections in 1991.
While these regimes often targeted Islamist political organizations, they did so not out of a commitment to secular rule. Rather, their goal was simply to crush all political opposition, which happened to be largely made up of Islamist groups.
Indeed, sometimes these Arab secular rulers used distinctly anti-secular strategies to maintain their control. Saddam Hussein famously enacted the “Return to Faith Campaign,” in an effort to manipulate and co-opt the growing Sunni Islamist trend that followed the Gulf War. Egypt’s prosecutor-general under Hosni Mubarak put fifty-two gay men on trial for “exploiting Islam,” “performing immoral acts,” and “fomenting strife.” Revealingly, they were tried under state security laws originally written to target Islamist political groups.
The War on Terror increased Western willingness to embrace oppressive Arab regimes as allies in the fight against radical Islamism. After 9/11, substantial amounts of military aid were allocated to Mubarak and intelligence coordination with Egypt was deepened. The historically tense relationship between Syria and the United States even began to improve. Until 2005, Bashar al-Assad hosted CIA “extraordinary rendition” torture sites in Syria. Military aid to Algeria was also significantly increased.
The War on Terror was a useful tool for the region’s repressive regimes. “Terrorism” became a discursive cudgel with which to beat all opponents and gave a sense of legitimacy and moral imperative to the repression. Crackdowns on internal opposition could now be presented as a defense of freedom and religious pluralism.
Together, Bashar al-Assad and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi represent two of the most repressive among the current generation of secular Arab autocrats.
In his war against his own people, Assad has used chemical weapons, bombed hospitals, and arrested and tortured thousands while claiming to defend secularism and battle terrorism. In Egypt, Sisi took power through a coup against Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Morsi. Sisi’s forces massacred protestors in the streets and led a crackdown, which remains ongoing, against human rights and civil society organizations to consolidate power and repress potential dissent.
Like their predecessors, Assad and Sisi have abandoned their nominal secularism when it has suited them. Instead of relying primarily on the secular Syrian Army, Hezbollah and Shiite fighters from Iraq and Afghanistan have been the backbone of Assad’s Aleppo offensive. For his part, Sisi has arrested over 250 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people for “habitual debauchery” in an extended mortality campaign intended to improve the image of the Egyptian police.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Trump recently expressed his commitment to “a new foreign policy that finally learns from the mistakes of the past.” This supposedly new policy is nothing more than a renewed embrace of secular Arab autocrats as lesser evils in the fight against radical Islam. Regimes like those in Egypt and Syria should, however, not be judged according to a nominal separation between religion and state. As history has shown, self-professed secularism is no guarantee of benevolent rule and does not erase or prevent brutal violence.