Assad and Legitimacy Without Victory

The Assad regime has been in peril since the beginning of the Syrian revolution.

Cities, towns and entire governorates have been free of its authority for more than half a decade. It has lost control of great tracts of the country. And many people in areas no longer within its compass would do everything they could to avoid being ruled over by the regime ever again. They would fight back. Their recapture may be impossible, or at the very least inordinately costly.

The Assad government, despite its stated aspiration to re-conquer the rest of the country, has no real chance of doing so. It lacks the manpower, the internal organisation, and cannot muster enough support among the Syrian population, either within the country or abroad.

It cannot win. All it has to do, however, is to survive, to cling on to a toehold with the help of its allies. This would allow it to be bestowed with a new recognition by an international community focused only on fighting the Islamic State group and happy to ignore Assad’s barbarity.

This development has not been inevitable. It is still not impossible to reverse. And it must be acknowledged that allowing things to get to this stage has been an act of immorality and a marked abdication of duty by the wider world.

The regime has directly caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the expulsion of millions. It is responsible for the use of chemical weapons and the committing of many individual war crimes. It has depopulated entire neighbourhoods and whole cities.

But punishment looks far off – and justice further still.

With Donald Trump in the White House, the United States edges closer each day to supporting Assad in Syria officially. Trump’s professed desire to get closer to Russia has a lot to do with this. He expressed his opposition to the idea of removing Assad even before entering public office.

It is difficult to imagine his personal views having changed, or of his administration diverging significantly from them.

If the United States actively takes the side of Assad and names him and Russia as ‘coalition partners’ in Syria, it will be Trump’s doing.

Tacit support of the regime goes back further. The Obama administration vetoed the only serious chance it offered to oust Assad. It failed to punish those chemical war crimes which shocked the world and which occurred under Obama’s watch.

This month, the Twitter account of Operation Inherent Resolve described destroying an IS vehicle near Palmyra – a regime battlefield where no official American allies were present – as something which ‘supported partner forces’.

Though a spokesman later clarified the statement – and the tweet was deleted – it was close to the truth.

Assad and his Russian allies are inching closer to attaining the status of partner forces, possibly even becoming officially included within the international coalition. The new leader of the United States lacks what little opposition his predecessor had to the regime’s continued existence.

At the same time, other nations are increasingly voicing the opinion that deposing Assad should no longer be the main objective in Syria.

Turkey, once a fierce opponent of his regime, no longer requires – and therefore no longer expects – the departure of Assad. This has something to do with the notable coming together of Turkey and Russia. After the Turkish military shot down a Russian aircraft, it was histrionically suggested that the two could be at war within days. Now those nations appear to be cultivating an ever-closer relationship, and this means a reassessment on Turkey’s part of its antipathy towards Russia’s Syrian ally.

Britain’s government, meanwhile, has no attention for anything except its withdrawal from the European Union. And the new isolationist tone which is rampant in this country suggests that, even if this were not the case, the removal of Syria’s dictator would not be of high priority.

Members of Parliament rejected David Cameron’s attempt to sanction the regime militarily for its gassing of civilians. After that particular precedent was established, it seems nothing could shock or provoke Britain’s government or its people into action.

Other European countries seem similarly inclined. France’s presidential election is imminent. Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the far-right Front National, is actively pro-Assad. Her centrist opponent Emmanuel Macron suggests that seeing the overthrow of Assad as a prerequisite to peace was a mistake. François Fillon, the centre-right candidate, acknowledges that Assad is ‘a dictator and a manipulator’, but any serious opposition he could present to Syria’s dictator would be lessened by his desire to foster closer ties with Russia.

As one, France’s presidential candidates exude an unwillingness to act. Politically, no doubt, this is the line to take. It is logical to restate, and promise to put into action, what could be seen to be the popular will on this and other issues.

France is also a medium-sized power and to that extent its potential heads of state are acting understandably; they see that the wind is changing. And in any case, there is nothing they could do in the face of American opposition. But this still represents a moral about-turn following the willingness of successive French presidents to support action, either in theory or in practice, to remove dictatorships and to support those who would replace dictators.

This attitude is common across Europe, and among many other allies of the United States who would otherwise strike less conciliatory poses.

The regime cannot recapture all of Syria. It is capable of beating IS only sporadically and with massive outside help. Defeating Syria’s rebels would be even harder, and that has been essentially all the regime has tried to do since the revolution first broke out in 2011.

But this evidence is insufficient to challenge the new reality of American policy.

Assad could soon be the beneficiary of unwillingness on the part of foreign states to support and to promote freedom and democracy. He could win recognition without victory – without even the hope of victory. But to his supporters and tacit allies, this truth simply does not matter.

This deeply regrettable development represents a sad denouement, one that raises the possibility of a very dark future indeed.

This piece was originally published at The New Arab.