Western leaders’ fixation on Assad has backfired

Obsessive focus on particular Middle Eastern figures has only made them stronger

"Assad must go," is the constant refrain from US president Barack Obama, French president François Hollande, British prime minister David Cameron and a host of other politicians and pundits.

Fearing the collapse of the Syrian army and state institutions, Russia and Iran say Assad must stay until Syria's war ends and, perhaps, beyond if that is the will of the Syrian people expressed in free and fair elections.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon recently accused the camp demanding the ousting of Assad of creating a barrier to peacemaking. "It is totally unfair and unreasonable that the fate of one person takes the whole political negotiation progress hostage," Ban said.

The "Assad must go" refrain did not emerge after the 2011 Arab Spring unrest in Syria, but well before. He and his father Hafez al-Assad, who was president from 1970-2000, have consistently irked the US and its allies because they have taken an independent line, courted Russia and fought Israel.


The US blamed the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri on Bashar al-Assad who, whether innocent or not, was compelled as a consequence of the murder to withdraw Syrian troops from Lebanon, a move Washington hoped would topple or weaken him.

CIA coup

This fixation with Assad mirrors earlier western obsessions with other independent-minded regional leaders.

The first was the democratically elected Iranian prime minister Mohamed Mossadegh, who launched land reform, social security and rent controls and took over his country's oil sector, which had been under British control for 40 years.

Mossadegh was toppled by a 1953 coup mounted by the CIA on behalf of Britain’s MI6 after which foreign oil companies regained their assets.

Iranians argue that if the highly popular Mossadegh had remained in power and continued his liberal policies, there would have been no 1979 “Islamic Revolution” that overthrew the shah, the West’s ally, and put Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in charge, providing another new hate figure for the West.

Another three leaders associated with the anti-colonial struggle were among the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement: India's Jawaharlal Nehru, Yugoslavia's Josip Broz Tito and Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The western obsession with Nasser, whose Young Officers movement ousted British allied King Farouk in 1952 and nationalised the Suez Canal, prompted Britain, France and Israel to mount the disastrous Suez war in 1956 with the object of toppling him.

He survived and became the enduring hero of the Arab world. His portrait was carried by Egyptians demonstrating in Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprising and his son Khaled was mobbed when he went to the square.

Backed by the West and its Arab allies during Iraq's 1980-88 war with Iran but soon thereafter regarded as hostile, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was ousted after the 2003 invasion and occupation by the US.

While he was vice-president, the British-owned Iraq Petroleum Company was fully nationalised and the revenues largely devoted to building the country's education and health sectors.

Oil sector

Libya’s leader Col

Muammar Gadafy

was an ardent Nasserite who removed the pro-western King Idris in 1969 and began the nationalisation of Libya’s oil sector during the 1970s.

Gadafy adopted a populist system of governance, interfered in the internal affairs of Middle Eastern and African countries, and supplied arms to the IRA.

An unstable eccentric,he did eventually end interference and came to terms with the West before being overthrown and killed in 2011.

If the western powers had accepted the decolonisation and nationalisation process as inevitable and attempted to cultivate Nasser, Hussein, Gadafy and Hafez al-Assad, these leaders would not have turned to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The Middle East might then have developed more economically and been less fraught with violence and war.

Instead, the western powers undermined and ousted independent secular nationalists and supported loyal authoritarian rulers in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Turkey who bought goods and arms, served western interests and ultimately fostered al-Qaeda's Jabhat al-Nusra, Islamic State and other jihadist groups that are now a global threat.