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Appeasing Assad; Why Jeffrey Sachs is so Very Wrong

The Huffington Post recently published an article by Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University calling for the United States and the international community to drop its demand that Assad relinquish power, viewing it as the main reason the conflict has dragged on for so long. On Twitter, Sachs has elaborated on his viewpoint, claiming that all Bashar Assad wants is to preserve his rule, and that if the Syrian people just surrendered and acquiesced to living under thirty more years of his family’s tyranny, then the terrible bloodshed in Syria would stop overnight.

On a practical level, there are two main problems with Sachs’s suggestion that the Syrian people surrender to Assad so as to spare themselves anymore of his bloody repression. First, Sachs commits the cardinal sin that so many other “anti-establishment” Lefists have committed when talking about Syria; ridiculously exaggerating and inflating the USA’s role and influence on events in Syria.

Second, Sachs seems to be oblivious to the fact that some towns and villages in the country did indeed try exactly what he is suggesting, the foremost being my own hometown of Telkelakh. Today, ninety percent of its inhabitants have been made refugees, scattered all over the region, the fallout from a truce the regime blatantly broke in the summer of 2013.

In his article, Sachs makes the astonishing assumption that if only the United States publicly and clearly dropped its demand that Assad step down, that policy change would somehow have any sort of effect on the ground inside Syria. Sachs seems to believe that the opposition, made up of numerous disparate groups, is somehow waiting upon Washington for guidance on when to start and stop their rebellion against the Assad tyranny.

In reality, the United States has not contributed a single bullet to the rebels’ war effort. Indeed, Barack Obama has even gone so far as to prevent America’s regional allies from providing the rebels with the kind of anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry that would have neutralized Assad’s air superiority and advantage in armor. Today, the United States could cut off what trickle of monetary aid it does provide to a limited selection of rebel brigades, and it would have absolutely no effect whatsoever on the fighting capabilities of the opposition groups in general, the vast majority of whom receive nothing from the USA.

Contrary to the Left’s frenzied assertions of an American policy hell bent on regime change at any cost, America’s approach has been very inconsistent and haphazard when it came to Syria. Far from being at the forefront of the efforts to depose Assad, Barack Obama has been exactly the kind of weak, timid, indecisive American president that Assad could not possibly have hoped for in his wildest dreams.

Assuming that lives in a conflict will be spared if one party just surrendered to the other, is to depend on the good intentions and humanity of the conflict’s victor. Germany and Japan could surrender to the Allies in World War Two safe in the knowledge that there would be no mass reprisals in the aftermath of their defeat. What happened, however, to the communities of the countries that surrendered to Germany and Japan? Two words; concentration camps.

Sachs’ second major mistake was to assume that in three years of brutal war, some city or town in opposition to the regime did not at some point try exactly what he is suggesting. We have adequate precedents that illustrate exactly how the regime treats the areas it has reconquered, and they amply demonstrate the sheer absurdity of Sachs’ view that acquiescence to the Assad regime’s tyranny would stop the killing.

I have written before at length on what happened when my home town of Telkelakh attempted a truce with the regime in early 2013. It was a truce that was set up exactly along the lines that Sachs suggests. CNN even visited the town and loudly trumpeted it as a possible template for similar truces throughout the country.

And yet as a means to save lives, it failed miserably. From February to June, dozens of people in the town died from regime sniping and shelling. Relatives of fighters were arrested at the checkpoints surrounding the town. Finally, when the regime felt strong enough to retake Telkelakh in the wake of its conquest of Qusair, the army and Hizbollah invaded the town. Thirty rebel fighters who had surrendered on promises from regime representatives that their lives would be spared were never heard from again.

The regime’s behavior in other areas it has reconquered has been no less atrocious. Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the regime’s demolition of entire neighborhoods in Hama and Damascus that were in opposition to it. Thousands of homes were razed by the regime in areas it reconquered, in a horrendous display of mass punishment. Such punitive actions on the part of the regime on areas it had reconquered, and where all opposition to it had been extinguished, pretty much makes a complete mockery of Sachs’ assertions that the Syrian people have nothing to worry about if they only just surrendered themselves to Assad’s rule.

Sachs goes on to make another outlandish assertion, that political change from within Syria will more likely to lead to regime change than an armed conflict would. Sachs cites two examples; Myanmar, and Poland in 1989.

Oh dear, where do I begin. Sachs seems to deem the ongoing genocide in Myanmar against the minority Muslim Rohingya community to be irrelevant to the point he is trying to make. Poland in 1989 benefited from the reformist tendencies of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who by that time wasn’t prepared to keep propping Eastern European client dictatorships with the USSR’s military might. If the Poles had tried in 1979 what they did in 1989, their political awakening would have been crushed under the tracks of Soviet tanks. In three years of the worst conflict in the country’s history, the regime of Bashar Assad has not once displayed the slightest capacity or capability for reforming itself.

There is no Gorbachev to be found within Assad. The post-war occupations of Japan and Germany transformed those societies because there was a vision in place for their reformation. Assad is a man who has proven himself utterly incapable of formulating any sort of vision to move the country beyond its current troubles. His approach to every problem has been to resort to increasingly horrendous levels of violence. Sachs actually thinks Assad is capable of allowing the sort of political awakening that happened in Poland? This is a man who today flings barrel bombs on Syrian cities like a monkey would throw feces around its cage. No, for the foreseeable future, in Syria, the only way to remove a bloody dictator is to kill him or have him die of old age.

In proposing ways of ending the conflict, Sachs puts the onus on the USA to change its policy towards the Assad regime, making only passing reference to Iran and Hizbollah’s massive aid to the Assad tyranny. Sachs, like so many Lefists, has got it so very backwards. If America cut off what little aid it sends to rebel groups, it would have no affect whatsoever on the conflict. And yet if Iran and Hizbollah withdrew their support for Assad, the regime would collapse within a matter of months.

What Jeffrey Sachs is calling for is appeasement, and it is the habit of appeasers to sanitize and whitewash the true intentions of those they hope to appease. Why fight Assad, the argument goes, all he wants is to preserve his rule.

Yes, why fight Hitler? All he wants is the Sudetenland. If Jeffrey Sachs had been around in 1938, Munich would have been exactly the kind of deal he would have written in favor of.