Appeasing Assad at Munich

The Arab nations are making certain not to let a good crisis go to waste. This month’s earthquake in Turkey and Syria has revealed that the region’s tyrannies have given up on confronting Syria. As their leaders have long hinted, they they want to court Bashar al-Assad again.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister gave the game away at last week’s Munich security conference: Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud said that the ‘maximalist goals’ of the past – i.e. that the Assad regime should fall – were no longer tenable. A new consensus was building, he confided:

[We are] going to have to go through a dialogue with the government in Damascus at some point, in a way that achieves at least the most important of the objectives especially as regards the humanitarian angle, the return of refugees, etc.

I wouldn’t credit the Saudi foreign minister with any new insight on Syria. Normalising relations with the Assad regime – giving it what it wants in terms of sanctions relief, funnelling more international cash into its corrupt Ponzi scheme of an economy – will not help Syrians most affected by the earthquake. The officials from Jordan and the UAE seen visiting affected areas are making no difference.

Those hurt and dispossessed by this disaster are disproportionately in the country’s north, areas outside of Assad’s control. And even if the regime did control those refugee-filled regions, such as Idlib, it has never shown any desire to help and house these people: only to kill them. Why would this leopard change its spots now? 

To give diplomatic cover to this criminal mafia – which pretends temporarily to be a government – is hardly canny or wise. The Assad regime is not only a corrupt state and an apparatus bent on mass murder; it is also the greatest exporter of illegal drugs in the world today. This is not something the regime has resorted to because of sanctions. This is a policy it carefully cultivated with Hezbollah in both Lebanon and Syria. Drugs are now the only growth sector in a moribund economy; so the state has become a drugs trafficker beyond compare. 

Similarly, the survival of Isis in Syria – not least in areas of the Syrian south which are theoretically ‘reconciled’ to the regime – indicates that the regime and Isis are not enemies but instead symbiotic. Propping up the Assad regime would not guarantee an Isis resurgence, but it would make one more likely. 

The Saudi foreign minister likely knows this. But he doesn’t care, nor do his fellow ministers in the Arab world, Turkey and beyond. They just want the Syrian civil war over – at least on paper. 

Why should they do the work America is unwilling to do it?, they argue. America abandoned alternative Syrian governments like they were going out of style in the past decade: first the democratic reformers, then the armed rebels, then the Maoist Kurdistan Workers’ Party and its Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) umbrella. If America cannot be bothered to try to bring peace to Syria, the Arab regimes think, why should we? Iran and Russia have won. Let’s give up and join the winning team.  

Munich conferences are historically synonymous with mistakes. In attempting to appease a contemporary genocidal dictator at Munich, the Arab world is on the brink of making another one that is just as immoral, lazy and dangerous.

A version of this piece was originally published in The Spectator.

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