The strange comeback of Bashar al-Assad

In the Middle East, governments that once gave Damascus the cold shoulder are once again approaching the murderous regime. It is a prime example of how human rights can be grossly violated and still get away with it.
Things are not looking bad for Bashar al-Assad. For the first time in ten years, the Jordanian King Abdullah II spoke to him again, occasion: the opening of the border between the two countries. The Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates, Abdullah bin Zayed, recently visited the Syrian capital and pledged more economic aid to the Assad regime. Khalid bin Ali Al Humaidan, the head of Saudi intelligence, met his Syrian counterpart Hussam Luka in Cairo as part of an Egyptian initiative to fully reinstate suspended Syria into the Arab League. Egypt is also trying to improve bilateral relations with Damascus. Ten years after Assad began brutally crushing the peaceful revolt at home, it looks like the tide has turned in his favor.

The international relations of the Assad regime

No war is better documented than that in Syria. Numerous crimes against humanity have been documented, including the use of chemical weapons. Given this, how was Assad able to make international friends again?
Some of the reasons are plain to see, such as diplomatic support from Russia and China in the UN Security Council, and the significant military support that Russia and Iran gave to Syria – and without which the Syrian army, which had already shrunk to half its original size in 2013, collapsed were. The failed interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya also played into the regime's hands because, although the circumstances were different, they were often cited as dissuasive examples when - even before the Syrian opposition demanded it - the question was whether a military Intervention is the right answer.

In this respect, it may be understandable why no military action was taken against Assad. It is more difficult to understand why there is a gradual diplomatic rapprochement with the regime today.

In my 2013 book The Wisdom of Syria's Waiting Game, I predicted that Bashar al-Assad would act like his father in a crisis: rejecting international calls for reform and waiting for critical governments to turn their attention to other issues. What, experience has shown, inevitably happens. The Syrian regime has only deviated from this pattern when its existence was threatened - for example when it lost the Soviet Union as a guarantor power in 1990 or in 1998 when Turkey threatened to invade after watching long enough as Damascus did to the Kurdish Workers' Party PKK supported and hosted.
At various times during the decade-long war it looked as if the regime had gambled too much, for example after more than 1,400 civilians died in a chemical weapons attack in August 2013. A taboo has clearly been broken here, so obviously that it has consequences far beyond Syria, as important norms of international law are being damaged.

"The lesser evil"?

Assad's fall seemed imminent, but he didn't just manage to sit out the crisis. Even though US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov agreed that Syria's chemical weapons arsenal would be destroyed, Assad even intensified the war - and continued to use chemical weapons.
Assad was able to overcome the crisis so successfully in part because his supporters managed to portray the regime as “the lesser evil”. However, this was only effective between 2013 and the defeat of the Islamic State, a time when the atrocities of the IS caused some to forget that the Syrian regime tortures and murders in equal measure - but much more systematically and on a larger scale.

If the Assad regime can convince others that it is amenable to reasoned arguments and interested in strategic dialogue, it can also ride out negative headlines.

The regime took advantage of the fact that the international community feared a collapse of the state and was therefore hesitant to take tougher action against Assad, despite the excessive use of force. He in turn protected himself and his entourage, but undermined the institutions. If the Assad regime can convince others, is amenable to reasonable arguments and is interested in strategic dialogue, then it can also sit out negative headlines.
However, this is only possible because of the unrestrained wishful thinking of some international actors, who assume that Assad will at some point engage in a constructive dialogue even without significant external pressure. They believe they have to choose between Assad and instability, or between Assad and "Islamic State" and that political change is only possible if Assad is involved.

Since 2011, the regime's diplomatic efforts have focused on the UN, a deliberately chosen public arena. In terms of foreign policy, Syria has always pursued several approaches at the same time.

Hafez al-Assad has long cultivated relationships with non-state actors from Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, which he could use to pressure his neighbors. His son Bashar continued this. The best-documented examples are the infiltration of jihadists into Iraq beginning in 2003 and a series of political assassinations in Lebanon since 2005.
Paradoxically, in order to be considered a legitimate force without which there can be no stability in the region, the Syrian regime relies on destabilization – and it works. It has had an impact in Lebanon, and several US presidents have overlooked the Syrian regime's role in the attacks on US troops by jihadists in Iraq. Of Syria's neighbors, only Israel and, to some extent, Turkey, have been able to oppose this.
Like most authoritarian states, the regime has tolerated internal opposition as long as it is weak, divided, and within permissible limits. However, a revolutionary movement that pursued new approaches, that was not subverted or compromised by outside forces, and that genuinely advocated political change and peaceful alternatives, posed a real threat to the government, and it was accordingly aggressive against it.
In 2011 and 2012, the regime assassinated charismatic leaders of the nonviolent opposition, such as Ibrahim Qashush and Ghiath Matar, while jihadists deliberately ignored it - and they used the delay to expand their influence.
Whatever the alternatives to Assad, no matter how democratic their goals, no matter how well-intentioned their commitment, they were all deliberately destroyed, either physically or in reputation. This was particularly successful with the Syrian civil defense, the first responders better known as the White Helmets. The aim was to make it appear that there were no 'good guys' in the conflict, that is to say, diplomats, politicians and others were persuaded that by betting on the opposition they could flippantly trade stability for an inferior solution.
The attacks in Syria, Turkey and Lebanon, which have never been fully clarified, were intended to scare people there and around the world. The court found out that those responsible for several attacks in the Turkish city of Reyhanlı had close contact with the Syrian regime.
In Lebanon, which was under Syrian occupation until 2005, the Assad regime found it easy to spread fear and terror through dark channels. In August 2012, former Lebanese minister Michel Samaha was arrested - charged and convicted of plotting to detonate over 20 bombs during a visit by Maronite Patriarch Béchara Pierre Raï to northern Lebanon. This was supposed to look like an Islamist attack against Christians, and Samaha himself is said to have confessed: "That's what Bashar wants".
Ali Mamlouk, coordinator of the Syrian intelligence services and Bashar's security adviser, was behind the wheel of this attempt to fuel the conflict between the sectarian groups and plunge Lebanon into civil war. Had the plan worked, there would almost certainly have been attacks on Syrian refugees in Lebanon and, a stark warning to the Lebanese and their government: if Syria goes under, you will be swept away.

Syrian Army Crisis

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime relied on Lebanese forces, specifically Hezbollah. The Syrian army has been in a deep crisis since 2013 - it lacked discipline, structure and combat effectiveness. For particularly brutal operations, there was the Shabiha and the special unit known as "Tiger Forces", led by Sohail Hassan. However, for combat experience it relied on the well-trained, highly hierarchical Hezbollah.
When hundreds of Hezbollah fighters died in Syria, it caused bitterness in Lebanon, where Hezbollah stands for the "resistance" against Israel. Many members and supporters of Hezbollah found it pointless to fight and die for Assad. He, on the other hand, saw no need to alleviate the pressure that Hezbollah was under in Lebanon - and which was made worse by the more than one million Syrian refugees in the country.
Millions of people have fled Syria to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Despite the miserable conditions they live in there, very few have returned to Syria. Assad knows how much of a burden this is on neighboring countries - and he is trying to use this as a bargaining chip. With a new offensive in Idlib, where two to three million people live, half of them internally displaced persons, he is trying to put pressure on Turkey, where dissatisfaction with the refugees is growing. After Erdoğan's party lost many votes in local elections in 2019, the government increased the pressure on the refugees. The consequence is that tensions between Turkey and the EU continue to increase.

The gradual rapprochement of the Arab states with Assad shows that the US Syria policy is complacent and misguided.

The influx of refugees into the EU has also strengthened right-wing populism and, when Europe criticized President Erdoğan for occupying parts of northern Syria, he said he would open the borders and send 3.6 million refugees to Europe. The mounting disarray is making it easier for the Syrian regime to portray itself as a factor in stability.

The Geneva Peace Negotiations

For years, the regime has taken part in the Geneva peace talks, a series of conferences to end the violence and bring about a political transitional solution. However, this is exactly what the regime wants to prevent at all costs, and so far no round of negotiations has noticeably improved the situation of Syrian citizens.
Recently, during the sixth round of talks, agreement could not even be reached on the basis for a new constitution for Syria. The regime does not negotiate; the talks serve him only as a staging, and they also allow Syrian officials to shop regularly in Europe. Even the extremely patient UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, has described the meetings as "a great disappointment".

Diplomatic Perspectives

The gradual rapprochement of the Arab states with Assad shows the limits of the restrained, often misguided Syria policy of the USA. From the start, all diplomatic efforts that were not accompanied by a credible military threat came to nothing. The Syrian regime is only too happy to participate in such a farce, allowing it to continue fighting and killing its opponents undisturbed. Only once was Syria willing to make certain concessions, namely in September 2013, when military intervention was briefly considered. (By contrast, the airstrikes ordered by President Trump in 2017-18 posed no real threat to Assad).
There is nothing to suggest that the regime will change its behavior through diplomacy alone, and there is currently no evidence that it will make any concessions for a lasting peace. For example, the regime could have granted amnesties or at least complied with the amnesties it had issued, but there are no examples of successful reconciliation in any province of the country.
The ceasefires negotiated for certain areas under the direction of Staffan de Mistura, then the UN special envoy for Syria, gave the regime control of large parts of the country - without it, as a report by the Atlantic Council shows had to make permanent concessions to do so. In areas that came back under regime control, citizens, including families, were screened for suspicious political activity, and many of those arrested remained missing.
The issue of the more than 100,000 “disappeared” is urgent and how the regime is dealing with it is significant. When relatives demanded to know what had become of their relatives, Russia put pressure on the regime. However, the Syrian government only sent a few hundred carelessly issued death certificates, mostly stating "natural causes" as the cause of death. This is typical of the regime: it works pro forma with the international community, but does not deliver.
How the regime treats the international community is shown by the fact that even aid deliveries are used as weapons. During the siege of East Aleppo (until 2016) and Ghouta (until 2018), the regime barely responded to UN demands to allow aid supplies to the affected areas. Few convoys were allowed, with inspectors at checkpoints often removing regime-approved items from trucks as well. People waiting for aid to be distributed were fired upon, and in one case an entire convoy was destroyed.
All of this should be a clear warning: any kind of diplomacy that caters to Assad's intransigent policies opens the door to human rights violations. Even if one considers which actors are currently trying to reach an understanding with Syria, this does not paint a hopeful picture, since these are states that have no interest in human rights.
The current thaw probably has other reasons. Syria's neighbors are looking for a way to deport refugees. Their safety is of no interest, and the residents assume that the regime will take them in.
However, as Lebanese politicians who wanted to normalize their country's relations with Damascus noted back in 2017, the regime sees things differently. It's happy to get rid of people it thinks are troublemakers. Why, according to the regime, should we resume them? As confirmed by the Lebanese authorities, Syria actually took in only 20 percent of those willing to return.
It is also possible that the states that are counting on a rapprochement today hope to benefit from Western funds for the reconstruction of Syria. However, it is unclear who should invest in Syria. Europe has so far adhered to funding reconstruction only when there are clear signs of serious, fundamental change. Unlike the West, China attaches little importance to such preconditions. However, while it has hinted at investing in Syria, it is unlikely to do so on a large scale. As is well known, the Assad regime is corrupt through and through, and under these conditions investments are unlikely to be attractive for China.

Autocratic Alliances

Despite all the signs of rapprochement and despite all the rhetoric, no government in Syria has so far made any serious financial commitments. The states that are banking on a rapprochement with Assad are autocratic across the board, and accordingly they sympathize with a dictator who is fighting a popular uprising. However, precisely because these countries are autocracies, they also understand the nature of the Syrian regime particularly well - and this makes them hesitant when it comes to putting money into the country.
Autocracies admire Assad, as he has written a new chapter in the manual 'How do I stay in power as an autocrat?' - Title: How to do just about anything and still go unpunished
If a dictator is in a tight spot, those who lose from his fall or who benefit from his retention of power support him. Iran sided with Assad to secure its position in the region, and Russia did so as Syria presented an opportunity to become a great power again. Now that Assad is firmly in the saddle again, the other potentates who, like him, have no interest in democratic reforms are joining them. The United Arab Emirates and other autocracies admire Assad, who has written a new chapter in the handbook 'How do I stay in power as an autocrat?' - Title: How to do just about anything and still go unpunished.
And the others have learned. Dissidents and members of the opposition are being murdered with increasing brazenness today. The most blatant case so far: the killing of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi henchmen in the consulate in Istanbul.
For democratic states that want a world order based on international law and generally accepted norms, Syria is a serious warning. Punishing those responsible for crimes against humanity should not be mere idealism, nor should the responsibility to protect victims be a matter of chance.
To believe that a regime that has never accepted offers, that has never made concessions, will change is neither realistic nor pragmatic; it's a kind of wishful thinking that leaves the perpetrators with impunity.
Assad's sit-out strategy is no longer purely defensive. Assad is waiting, and everyone knows he has blood on his hands. Similarly, other autocrats are considering what they can allow themselves to do with impunity. For the world, this means a future of increasing violence and dwindling stability.
- by Bente Scheller
- Foreign Policy

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