The rights to life, liberty and the exercise of personal agency have been enshrined in American thought and culture since 1776. The commitment to defending these basic human freedoms at home and abroad is one of our defining qualities as Americans. 

However, we must not let a government’s harsh treatment of its citizens prevent us from cooperating with that regime to secure the most basic of these sacred rights.

Consider the Syrian Civil War. When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used deadly force to police protests, many U.S. citizens vehemently condemned him and saw it as grounds to intervene and depose him. Barack Obama made any policy for intervention dependent on Assad stepping down from power. In 2015, Obama said, “Realism dictates that compromise will be required to…stamp out ISIL. But realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad… so that the Syrian people can begin to rebuild.” 

Do Assad’s crimes really supersede those of the Islamic State? Why do human rights violations only seem to be a problem for countries such as Syria and Russia? And why are we treating the right to life itself, endangered by ISIS, as less important than the right to electoral freedoms that Assad threatens?

Based on available information, the most aggressive steps the U.S. has taken have been appeasing and enabling the Turks and the Gulf monarchies (both of which have equally troubling records with human rights) and arming so-called “moderate” rebel groups that are either too sympathetic or too weak to refuse cooperation with the Syrian al-Qaeda branch. Yes, you read that correctly. To defend the civil liberties of Syrians, we’ve partnered with foreign meddlers and local supporters of jihadism.

Just to be clear, aren’t we still at war with radical extremism? Last I checked, we are still bombing al-Qaeda in Yemen. So why are we arming weak or radicalized rebels who ultimately wind up surrendering their arms and information to Syria’s branch of the same organization? It’s practically gift-dropping our armory into their possession! Have we, as a nation, learned nothing from the war in Afghanistan? Even if they oppose Assad, it is ridiculous to claim jihadist sympathizers are superior alternatives to the overtly secular Assad regime, and hypocritical of us to enable them. We cannot forget that they are our enemies. Either we really don’t care about human rights, we only apply disgust to human rights violators selectively or our knee-jerk reaction to human rights violations is too weak to effectively justify foreign policy.

Nonsense, you say? Of course we care about defeating the bad guys and upholding righteous values?  Besides the Syrian Kurdish militia, which only has strength in the north, the only nations powerful and committed enough to quashing radical Islamists in Syria are Russia, Syria and Iran. Tell me, then, if we really wanted to target the enemies of human rights -- those who train children as murderers, take women as slaves and throw gay men off rooftops -- shouldn’t we cooperate with the teams that have beaten jihadists in Palmyra and Aleppo?

Imagine a combined military effort between Russia and the U.S., assisting Assad. It would take months rather than years to defeat ISIS. 

“Never,” say the omniscient Americans, “we can’t work with Russia, they’re oppressive, they’re not democratic!” As if the Islamist rebels we’re assisting, the Turks and the Saudis are so much more considerate of human rights. “They grab land illegally!” As if ISIS and al-Qaeda totally have a right to their territory, right? If we want to be taken seriously in our mission for global peace, we have to get rid of these biases and think about the situation critically.

To triumph over violent extremism, it’s critical that we cooperate with similarly capable and motivated partners. We don’t live in the Cold War era; claiming the Russians and their allies are bad people who we can’t trust won’t cut it anymore. If we are to achieve peace, we must abandon our hypocrisy about the defense of rights and seek common ground with so-called rivals such as Vladimir Putin and Assad.

Contact contributor Michael Robinson at michael.robinson12@richmond.edu.

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