Both Presidents Obama and Trump have warmed to the idea of American disengagement from the Middle East, an option that seems to have no small degree of public support. In an interview with Robert Nicholson, Frederic Hof argues that the Syrian civil war demonstrates precisely why such a policy is unfeasible:
If Syria followed Las Vegas rules—what happens there stays there—withdrawal from the Middle East might be a realistic [proposition]. But nothing that’s happened there has stayed inside the country. Friends and allies of the U.S. have been flooded with refugees. A 2015 mass migratory crisis—60 percent Syrian—washed over Western Europe and changed politics there in ways Russian President Vladimir Putin applauded.
Mass civilian homicide and the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime may have set new standards for ensuring the survival of brutal regimes around the world. And the U.S. intelligence community believes that Islamic State and al-Qaeda—both beneficiaries of Bashar al-Assad’s misrule—present security threats to the American homeland, as do Assad’s supporters Iran and Hizballah.
To Nicholson’s question about the often heard but highly debatable claim that Assad is the great protector of Syrian Christians, Hof responds:
Many Syrian Christians—including some of my closest Syrian friends—continue to support the Assad regime. Do they support mass murder? No. Do they support detention facilities featuring Nazi-like methods? No. Do they support starvation and medical deprivation sieges? No. Do they support chronic incompetence and pervasive corruption? No. But here is the key question: have they seen an attractive alternative to Assad? No.
Some regional powers took advantage of an uprising that was initially entirely non-sectarian and pro-Syria to support Islamists; these regional powers wanted stooges and employees. They ended up helping Assad enormously by all but erasing respectable alternatives to his rule, by helping Assad militarize the conflict, and by helping the dregs of Syrian society become the key actors on both sides. Assad has been the big beneficiary. His behavior has contradicted every element of the Christian Gospel. But it is understandable that many Syrian Christians, fearing jihadist alternatives, have continued to back the devil they know.