Le Pen’s dangerous dichotomy: ‘Assad or ISIS’ puts lives in danger
Marine Le Pen is predicted to advance to the final round of the French presidential elections. After Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the populist candidate cannot be ruled out from taking the most important political position in France. Le Pen’s Syria strategy, one of her most important foreign policy planks, risks leading towards a host of evolving threats for France and its citizens.
Le Pen recently made clear in her outlook that France must decide between Bashar al-Assad and ISIS with the ‘lesser evil’ of the Assad regime being the only viable solution in the protracted Syrian civil war. Le Pen would re-establish ties with the Assad regime, which would represent a complete reversal from the current French policy-orientation that advocates for the removal of Assad from power and accuses him of war crimes. This false choice risks inflaming further hostility towards France and the West and continuing the cycles of violent extremism.
The constructed ‘decision’ of either Assad or ISIS is the same line that Moscow has used through-out the civil war. It is probably no coincidence that Le Pen is firmly part of the group of far-right leaders including Nigel Farage and Geert Wilders who show admiration and implicit support for Vladimir Putin. With some of Russia’s most significant overseas military facilities situated on the Mediterranean at Tartus and Latakia in Syria, Russia has supported Assad for decades. Russian air power has turned the long civil war in the regime’s favour by unleashing an extensive bombing campaign against Syrian rebels using the subterfuge of pursuing ISIS. It also leaves France out in the cold, with the US and other Western countries turning against Assad in quickly shifting geopolitical dynamics. Outside any geopolitical ramifications, however, Le Pen’s dichotomy creates galvanising effects on terrorist recruitment and ideology that are real and dangerous.
Even before the reported chemical weapons attack in Idlib, Le Pen’s support for Assad could easily be perceived as French backing of a tyrant who brutally suppresses dissent and who is purported to have used chemical weapons against his own people by many actors across the political spectrum. This would provide perfect material to recruit, organise and energise radical extremists in Europe and across the Middle East and North Africa to target France and the West.
With ISIS being pushed back in Syria and Iraq, the need for Le Pen to side with Assad and provoking deep hostility towards France is questionable. Many Syrians join ISIS as the terrorist group represent their best shot to inflict harm against regime forces and avenge the murder of their families. Many foreign fighters join ISIS because of the perceived injustices against Muslims across the world in a system backed by Western governments. Assad will continue to crush any dissent as the regime re-establishes control over more territory in Syria, which will lead disillusioned and desperate individuals to look for ways to lash out against him, and, of course, against his backers.
Le Pen’s dichotomy does not provide a useful framework to implement policy on the ground. There is a huge complexity of fighting forces in Syria. This includes rebel forces in the Syrian opposition currently backed by France, as well as Kurdish forces that France also recently started supporting. There are also militias backed by Turkey, groups supported by Sunni countries and also other extremist forces such as Al-Nusra Front that are distinct from both ISIS and the regime, many of which are actively engaged against each-other. France turning their backs on the Syrian opposition and embracing their sworn enemy Assad would be conceived as deep treachery by many Muslim groups for years to come. It also ignores the political uncertainties surrounding Kurdish relations with the central governments in Syria, Iraq and Turkey as ISIS is further degraded.
Even when ISIS is eventually destroyed, the reasons that led many Sunnis across Iraq and Syria to originally embrace the group against Shia backed Damascus and Baghdad would remain. A Kurdish commander fighting against ISIS noted that ‘Daesh will not finish quickly. Their territory will be defeated, but here [pointing to his head] they will stay. We have to solve the reason why Daesh have come. If we don’t, another will come. Al-Qaida finished, then Daesh came. Daesh finished, another comes’. The anger and resentment that can be exploited across the Islamic world will multiply when such a clear link can be drawn between the French government and what radical propaganda describes as infidels (kuffars) and tyrannical (tawagheet) puppet regimes slaughtering Muslim brethren. Le Pen’s statements that Assad is the only ‘politically realistic solution’ represent a blunt policy position that creates enemies and solves no problems. A false choice between Assad and ISIS gifts radical extremists the tools to promote terrorism across the world.
Nicholas Ross is a graduate of the Master of International Relations at the University of Melbourne. He completed an exchange program at Sciences Po - Paris Institute of Political Studies in 2015.