Assad is a murderous dictator, but he’s the lesser of two evils in Syria

Bashar Assad has hung on in power four years after the start of the war (AP)

The war in Syria is now four years old, an unhappy landmark it reached yesterday. During this period between 215,000 and 300,000 have been killed, more than 4.5 million people internally displaced and more than 3,300,000 refugees forced to leave the country.

And then we come to the antiquities, the mosques, churches and ancient cities that have been destroyed, ruined either by shelling or by the desecration at the hands of Islamist militants.

All of this was avoidable; I’m afraid I’ve always been of the belief that, while Syria’s Ba’athist regime had an appalling human rights record and was hostile to the West, its overthrow would lead to something much worse. It was always clear that, once a military rebellion developed in the country, it was likely to be dominated by Islamists rather than the sort of multi-faith, pluralist groups that Western governments hoped and imagined. The British government, as well as the Americans, have been woefully naïve in encouraging and supporting the rebellion.

I visited Syria a few years back and it’s heartbreaking to think of a place of such antiquity being wrecked like this, much of the destruction funded by iconoclasts from the Gulf States. Syrians have been living in cities for 8,000 years and it really shows in the way they behave – civilisation is a layer or two deeper here even than southern Europe, let alone the north. But the country lacks the civil institutions necessary for the development of democracy, institutions which took centuries in Europe to build. Funding a revolution, therefore, strikes me as extreme recklessness on our part.

Remember the Foreign Office justifying its support for overthrowing Assad by saying that the Syrian National Coalition has “declared its commitment to democracy, ethnic and religious pluralism, and the rule of law, and it rejected discrimination and extremism”. I think the correct response to that might be “LOL”. Democracy – just what a religiously divided, heavily clannish society with weak civil institutions and a strong Islamist movement needs right now.

By recognising the opposition while our Gulf frenemies funded rebel groups, the Western governments put the Assad regime in a corner; added to this was our totally reckless overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya, a country which has now become “Scumbag Woodstock” and half-controlled by ISIS.

Watching Gaddafi getting beaten to death by a mob, what option did Assad and his cronies have but to fight to the bitter end, and do whatever it takes to win, including killing untold numbers of children?

Four years on, and Assad has survived through the support of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, three powers hostile to the West. But against him the rebellion is now dominated by the likes of ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, groups bent of persecuting minorities and establishing Islamic Law; so not really our friends either.

Now John Kerry has finally stated that we should talk to Assad, something that his predecessor, Hilary Clinton, should have done four years ago. In fact the US, Britain and the other Western countries should go further than that and recognise Assad as the legitimate president of the country. How else will this misery end? Western powers should give sanctuary to the leading moderate rebels, who the Ba’athists cannot be trusted to leave alone after the war; as for the Islamists, including the European fighters, let them face Syrian justice.

We’ve learned nothing from the Iraq disaster, namely that however bad a regime is in the Middle East, there is always something worse around the corner. Secular dictators are at the moment the lesser of two evils when compared to Islamists; in this region, best to go with the guy with the moustache rather than the guy with the beard.

But we’ve also learned nothing philosophically from Iraq. British foreign policy in volatile regions should be legitimist rather than idealistic; we should support order rather than violence and chaos, even if that order is arbitrary. If Blair’s policy in Iraq makes him a war criminal, then the Coalition’s actions against Syria, in attempting to overthrow the government there has been almost as bad.

Western powers could help to end this war, but then it would be too embarrassing for the Obama government, which has made an awful mess of its foreign policy (but that’s what you get when you vote in a community organiser based on “hope”). So the Syrians will have to wait until January 2017 for the misery to end.