The Attempted Rehabilitation of Bashar al-Assad

It’s the season for diplomacy in the Middle East, even for the most distasteful of leaders. Joe Biden paid a visit to Saudi Arabia in July, against his own inclinations, because of the need to lower oil prices. American and European diplomats still scramble hopelessly to reach a new nuclear deal with Iran. 

Barely beneath these movements towards diplomatic rehabilitation, however, is an especially unsavory element: the possible reintegration, by stealth, of this century’s most significant mass murderer, and the coming in from the cold of one of the world’s most justifiably pariah states. 

This decade, intensifying in recent months, the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has weaseled his way back onto the international circuit. After years of diplomatic boycott, Assad began a campaign of foreign visits and efforts in 2020 to re-join institutions that had suspended Syria’s membership while he was in power, because of his human rights abuses and war crimes. 

Most recently, Assad has been seen in Tehran and the United Arab Emirates, with his most recent visit to Moscow, the Syrian dictatorship’s closest ally, a year. In Tehran, Assad met with President Ebrahim Raisi and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, with state media from both countries trumpeting incipient improvements in bilateral relations. 

Once upon a time, the United Arab Emirates called for Assad to go. Now it is one of his strongest supporters. From 2016 onwards, the UAE has sent steadily more diplomats and officials to Damascus, advocated for Assad to be readmitted to international institutions, and lobbied the Arab world to recognize Assad and to give his regime money. 

In the UAE this year, Assad met the then-deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, Mohammed bin Zayed, who is now president. The two discussed, euphemistically, political and humanitarian support for Syria – in other words, the provision of both economic and political capital to allow the Assad regime to take its place once more among the recognized Arab nations. 

The Emirates have led the campaign to have Syria’s suspension from the Arab League lifted; they have attempted to start investment forums and to create reconstruction funds from which the regime can draw. 

The UAE authorities went some way to push pro-Assad propaganda around this visit, and to boost their government’s efforts to rehabilitate him. They claim that Assad and his ‘wise leadership,’ no less, must be accepted back into the diplomatic fold – partly as a fait accompli; but also because they believe Syria must be Per official statements going back to 2016, this is part of an Emirati strategy to wean Assad off his Iranian allies, whose proxy forces are not only entrenched within Syria, but which are integral for the survival of the regime. Meanwhile, the Emiratis in their state media say they can engage Iran directly and distinctly from Assad. rebuilt under Assad’s rule. 

In parallel, the UAE has courted Russia amid its invasion of Ukraine, with MBZ glad-handing Putin in Moscow last week. They consider Iran less important in Syria than Russia, based on the fact that Tehran has fewer direct forces committed to the country, and less sway among pro-regime militias. Thus Russia must be courted, whereas Iran can be dealt with less elaborately. This is hardly a strategy that is guaranteed success. 

Turkey has also participated in the spectacle. Allies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been spotted in Damascus, and there was talk of an Assad–Erdogan meeting in the course of separate visits to Uzbekistan. 

Turkish diplomatic sources and analysts insist that Erdogan will never normalize with Assad. But with the balance within Syria in chronic flux – especially as Russian forces withdraw following the invasion of Ukraine – there is an increased demand from all parties to Syria’s conflict to secure their own interests. Earlier this month, Erdogan himself declared his willingness to meet with Assad, and that such a meeting would happen ‘when the time is right.’ 

Turkey wishes to control the north of Syria, across from much of the country’s southern border, and has long heralded an offensive into Kurdish-occupied regions. Assad wishes to co-opt the Kurdish areas controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and to bring them into his shaky alliance system – one the UAE hopes to stabilize with cash and diplomacy. 

Turkey needs Syrian stability so Erdogan can deport millions of Syrian refugees from Turkey before his next election in 2023. 

But this stability cannot come through dealing with Assad. 

Assad is dependent on military help from outsiders. And Syria’s economy is shattered – with chronic shortages, high prices and a broken labor market – so Assad uses diplomacy to chase foreign funds. 

His strategy to acquire legitimacy may soon break cover and become even more overt. While Assad was in the UAE, it was fancifully alleged he would cross the border into Saudi Arabia to discuss the crisis in Lebanon. Another rumor has it that he might make his return to the diplomatic arena with trips to Qatar and former Soviet countries. 

Assad says that he is not going anywhere, so, the reasoning now goes, why not come to some arrangement? Pressure is growing for Syria’s neighbors to include Assad in their own flurries of diplomacy. 

But Syria’s civil war is ongoing, with continual exchanges of fire on the supposedly frozen front lines. New and old atrocities of the regime’s prison system are exposed almost monthly. 

Hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have disappeared into the regime’s prison archipelago. In May, a rumor spread that many were due to be released. Thousands of families, clutching photographs of their missing, petitioned for their return. The amnesty freed, at most, a few hundred. The rest languish in jail – many of the missing must be dead by now. Estimates of Syria’s prison population are hard to verify, but in one prison alone, the notorious Sednaya, Amnesty has estimated that the regime has executed 13,000 prisoners. 

The official UN count of the dead in Syria’s civil war topped out at half a million, but most reasonable observers think the toll is more than double that. The UN Office for the High Commissioner on Human Rights estimated civilian casualties at over 300,000. The regime has also used chemical weapons on civilians – not once or twice, as some still think, but according to work done by the Global Public Policy Institute, up to 349 times during the course of the war. The vast majority of all civilian casualties in the war (90 percent, according to monitors like the Syrian Network for Human Rights) occurred at the hands of the Assad regime and its Russian allies. 

Set morality aside for a moment. In economic terms, regime-held Syria is a basket-case. The trade in captagon, an unregulated stimulant smuggled across the region, is estimated to top $5 billion per year. Analysts increasingly conclude that the Assad regime supports and profits from Syria’s transformation into a major drug exporter. 

Giving the Assad regime legitimacy it does not deserve and has not earned would do little good and contribute nothing to regional stability. The regime has not changed since it was rightly boycotted and isolated internationally for perpetrating atrocities. It has killed innumerable people. It continues to kill dozens of civilians weekly in territory not under regime control. It is corrupt to its core. 

The Assad regime has never justified any normalization by the Arab world or anyone else, let alone its full return from the cold. It does not do so now. 

This piece was originally published in Haaretz.

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