I am neither a supporter of Bashar al-Assad, nor am I sympathetic towards any of the autocratic dictators in the Middle East. However, someone needs to take the blame for what has happened in Syria, and while assigning this blame, we need to remind ourselves of the elementary distinction between constant and variable factors.Bashar al-Assad has been ruling in Syria since 2000. Before that his father, Hafez al-Assad,ruled over Syria for another 30 years. Syria was not a democratic state under their rule, but it was at least a functioning state. The Syrian crisis that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and has made millions of refugees dates back only to 2011. Therefore, although I admit that Assad is guilty of being a tyrannical dictator, using heavy handed tactics and forcefully suppressing protests in Syria, he cannot be held solely culpable for all the carnage that engulfed Syria in recent years.The change or the variable that was added to the Syrian equation in the form of militancy in 2011 has primarily been responsible.Now, if the Syrian militants are Islamic jihadists, then why did the Western powers nurture them when the latter are ostensibly fighting a war against terrorism (jihadism) at the same time? And if they are the so-called ‘moderate rebels,’ then what difference does it make whether their objectives are enforcing Sharia or bringing democracy to Syria? The goals of the Syrian opposition, whatever its composition may be, are irrelevant in the context of preventing a humanitarian disaster that has reduced a whole a country of 22 million people to rubble; in other words, the first priority of the self-styled ‘humanitarian interventionists’ in Syria should have been to prevent the violence and mass population displacements, irrespective of the objectives for which the Syrian militants may have been fighting.It can be very easy to mislead people by changing labels while keeping the content the same. Call the Syrian opposition secular and nationalist ‘rebels,’ and they would become legitimate in the eyes of the audience of the Western media. Call the same armed militants ‘jihadists or terrorists,’ and they would become illegitimate. How do people expect armed thugs, whether they are Islamic jihadists or secular rebels, to bring about democratic reforms in Syria or Libya? And I squarely hold the powers that funded, trained, armed and internationally legitimised the Syrian and Libyan militants for primarily being responsible for creating a humanitarian catastrophe in those hapless Arab countries.It will now take decades to restore even a semblance of security and stability to Libya and Syria. Remember that the ongoing proxy war in Afghanistan had its origins in the 1980s. More than three and a half decades later, Afghanistan is still gripped with anarchy, lawlessness and an unrelenting Taliban insurgencyFor all of the last six years of the Syrian civil war, the focal point of the Western policy in Syria has been that ‘Assad must go!’ But what difference would it make to the lives of millions of ordinary Syrians even if the regime is replaced now when the whole country lies in ruins? Qaddafi was ousted from power in September 2011; six years later, Tripoli is being ruled by Misrata militia, Benghazi is under the control of a warlord, Khalifa Haftar, and a myriad of heavily armed militant groups are having a field day all over Libya.It will now take decades to restore even a semblance of security and stability to Libya and Syria. Remember that the ongoing proxy war in Afghanistan was has its origins in the 1980s. More than three and a half decades later, Afghanistan is still gripped by perpetual anarchy, lawlessness and an unrelenting Taliban insurgency.Notwithstanding, in political science, the devil always lies in the definitions of the terms that we employ. For instance, how does one define a terrorist or a militant? What is the difference between a murderous terrorist and a rebel with legitimate grievances?In order to understand this, we need to identify the core of a militant, that what essential feature distinguishes him from the rest. A militant is basically a violent, armed individual who carries out subversive activities against the state. That being understood, now we need to examine the concept of violence. Is it violence per se that is wrong, or does some kind of justifiable violence exist?I take the view, on empirical grounds, that all kinds of violence are essentially wrong, because the ends for which such violence is often employed are seldom right and elusive at best. Although democracy and liberal ideals are cherished goals but such goals can only be accomplished through peaceful means. Expecting violent militants to bring about democratic reforms is quite preposterous.The Western media and its neoliberal audience, however, take a different view. According to them, there are two kinds of violence: justifiable and unjustifiable. When a militant resorts to violence for secular and nationalist goals, such as ‘bringing democracy’ to Libya and Syria, the misguided neoliberals enthusiastically exhort such forms of violence; however, if such militants later turn out to be Islamic jihadists, like the Misrata militia and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya or the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front in Syria, the credulous neoliberals, who were duped by the mainstream narrative, promptly make a volte-face and label them as ‘terrorists.’The goals for which Islamic insurgents have been fighting in the insurgency-wracked regions are irrelevant for the debate at hand; it can be argued, however, that if some of the closest Western allies in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, have already enforced so-called Islamic law as part of their conservative legal systems and when beheadings, amputation of limbs and flogging of criminals are a routine in Saudi Arabia, then what is the basis for Washington’s declaration of war against Islamic insurgents in the Middle East?Regardless, excluding religion, all the diverse and remote regions of Asia and Africa that have been beset by militancy share a few similarities: firstly, the weak writ of respective states in their faraway rural and tribal areas; secondly, the marginalisation of different ethnic groups; and thirdly, intentional or unintentional weaponisation of certain militant groups that were used as proxies at some point in time in history to advance the agendas of their regional and global patrons. When religious extremism blends with militancy, it can give birth to strands as deadly as the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabab in Somalia.Finally, to answer the central theme of this write-up in a nutshell, a ‘military intervention’ is basically a euphemism for war with all of its attendant death and destruction. That is why it must be avoided at any cost. And though far from a palatable option, dictatorships can be tolerated in the short-term for the sake of peace and stability until a suitable and peaceful alternative is found to dismantle them. The writer is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and Middle East regions, neocolonialism and petro-imperialismPublished in Daily Times, January 2nd 2018.