The return of the dictator Bashar al-Assad to the world stage

For a long time, Syria's ruler was ostracized for his crimes in the region. Only Iran and Russia still received him. But the earthquake in his country has opened many doors for him again. A mistake in dealing with dictators, which also led to the Ukraine war, is being repeated.

The Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma have rarely traveled in the past ten years. It was either Moscow or Tehran to meet the two important allies. Otherwise there were no invitations for the President. No one wanted anything to do with the "butcher of Syria". After all, he bears responsibility for countless heinous crimes committed by his regime during the course of the Syrian civil war. But this negative attitude seems to be changing now.
Assad flew to Oman on a state visit in February, and last week to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). At home in Damascus, Assad recently had more guests than he had in a long time. He received ministers from Bahrain, Jordan, Armenia and even Turkey - countries that had once left no stone unturned to overthrow the ruler. But after all attempts had failed, they are now increasingly trying to come to terms with Assad.
If the rich Gulf states have their way, Syria could soon even become a member of the Arab League again after the country was expelled in 2011. Assad also benefited from the earthquake disaster, which killed thousands of his compatriots.
Dozens of nations had sent aid to Syria, including to areas controlled by the regime. This necessarily reopened channels of communication to Damascus, and even the director of the World Health Organization and the UN emergency aid coordinator visited Assad. That would have been unthinkable just a short time ago.
The dictator immediately took advantage of the spotlight and demanded the lifting of all sanctions against his country. Although Washington and Brussels rejected this, they at least eased the flow of money for humanitarian purposes.
So Assad is increasingly becoming acceptable again, which is a problem for the West in particular. The moral indignation about the murder, torture and poison gas attacks by the Syrian regime was just as great as it is today about the Russian crimes in Ukraine. Only the reaction to the Syrian civil war was completely different at the time.
The USA had intervened half-heartedly and hesitantly in the conflict and had not adequately armed the opposition, which was divided into many factions, in the fight against the dictatorship. Then-President Barack Obama did not even cross his "red line" when the Assad regime used poison gas to kill around 1,000 people in the Ghouta region.
And Europe? Watched idly until the time when the Islamic State (IS) started its murderous campaign against the Yazidi minority, the flight movements to Europe reached their peak in 2015 and then terrorist attacks were also carried out in Europe. Only then did they join the USA's fight against the terrorist militia - most actively France and Great Britain. The geopolitical course was set at that time, which also contributed to the fact that Vladimir Putin was able to risk an invasion of Ukraine - because the severe consequences for the West were hardly foreseeable.

A country as a testing ground for regimes

Syria today is a geopolitical mess. "Twelve years after the 2011 uprising, it is still a failed state," writes the Soufan Center, a renowned think tank on global security policy based in New York. "Syria remains a theater where several key regional and global players, including Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel and the United States, have competing goals."
So Russia is constantly bombing the last remaining rebel territory; Militias loyal to Iran repeatedly attack the US military, which then immediately strikes back, most recently at the weekend. Israel regularly attacks the militia's supplies, and rockets hit Aleppo airport on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Turkey is fighting the Kurds it hates in northern Syria, who are supported by the Pentagon and tolerated by Russia.
"It is particularly noteworthy that Russia used the Syrian conflict to test its tactics and the tolerance of the international community for brutal attacks on civilian targets," analyzes the Soufan Center. Syria turned into a testing ground, but not just for Russia. Iran and Turkey were also testing how far they could go in pursuing their foreign policy goals through military means.
All three states quickly realized that no matter how ruthlessly they acted in Syria, there were no serious consequences from the international community. At worst there were sanctions, but these were not sufficient leverage to divert Iran, Turkey or Russia from foreign policy goals.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) brought Shia militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan into the country. Their experienced fighters were a crucial factor in defeating the Syrian opposition. The IRGC and its allies continuously infiltrated Syria's military and security apparatus and today guarantee the internal political stability of the Assad regime.
Turkey, in turn, allowed tens of thousands of radical Islamists to enter Syria and supplied them with weapons. Ankara later built up its own mercenary army from Syrian rebel units, with which three illegal campaigns against the Syrian Kurds have been conducted to date. Today, Turkey occupies large areas of Syria along the border and maintains numerous bases there.
There is evidence that Russia has been targeting hospitals, schools, markets and civilian residential areas in Syria for years. Today Moscow guarantees air supremacy for the Syrian army. More Russian military bases are to be built soon for this purpose. "We think expanding Russia's presence in Syria is a good thing," Assad said during a visit to Moscow in mid-March. "Russia's military presence should not be based on anything temporary."
The military interventions in Syria were successful – and, as is well known, one does not move away from successful models. Iran exported its militia strategy to Yemen. In this way, Tehran was able to keep the Houthis in power and even enable them to stand up to the apparently overpowering enemy Saudi Arabia.
Turkey applied its Syrian war model with mercenaries in Libya and was able to save the government in Tripoli from defeat by rebel general Chalifa Haftar. In Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey helped the Azerbaijani troops conquer long-awaited territories.
Russia is active in various African countries. The notorious Wagner mercenaries who fought in Syria and committed serious war crimes there are often deployed. Russia is now using its terror tactics in Ukraine to wear down the civilian population. In liberated areas, Ukrainians discovered Russian torture centers and mass graves. Russian missiles and drones regularly destroy critical infrastructure in Ukrainian cities.
In Syria, unlike Iran, Turkey and Russia, the West has failed to advance its interests in a timely and decisive manner. Europe and Germany in particular have repeatedly relied on negotiations to resolve conflicts with Turkey, Russia and Iran. They did not want to use force to put countries in their place.
Where such a diplomatic approach can lead to the cold power politics of authoritarian states is proving to be particularly frightening in Syria as well as in Ukraine - and to the advantage of dictator Assad.
- By Alfred Hackensberger / Correspondent for War and Crisis Zones / Primary source: German welt.
Translation: Geostrategic Studies Team

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