Assad the outcast sold to the west as the key to peace in the Middle East | Bashar al-Assad
For almost a decade, he was an outcast who struggled to secure a meeting abroad or even assert himself with his visitors. Largely alone in his palace, save for trusted aides, Bashar al-Assad presided over a broken state some friends of which demanded a humiliating price for their protection, and were not afraid to show it.
During regular trips to Syria, Vladimir Putin organized meetings at Russian bases, forcing Assad to follow him to receptions. Iran has too easily imposed its will, often dictating military conditions, or sidelining the Syrian leader from decisions that have shaped the course of his country.
But with the din of war and insurgency fading and a tired region recalibrating after 10 grueling years, an unlikely dynamic is emerging: Assad the outcast is in demand. Enemies who stood against him as Syria crumbled increasingly see Damascus as the key to reassembling a torn region. The savagery that saw half a million people killed when authorities stopped counting in 2015 no longer appears to be the obstacle it was. Nor is it Assad’s central role in a disaster that uprooted half of the country’s population and infected the body politic of Europe and beyond.
Instead of being the epicenter of the Middle East’s demise, Syria has become a focal point of plans to restore post-Arab Spring stability. Over the past 12 months, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have sent officials to the Syrian capital to meet with its spy bosses. Egypt and Qatar also made overtures. Jordan, meanwhile, implored the United States to help with Syria’s reintegration and suggested it was best placed to help.
Earlier this month, Washington put on its own play that will add to Assad’s resurgence. In an attempt to resolve Lebanon’s energy crisis, the US Embassy in Beirut announced a plan to send Egyptian natural gas via Jordan and Syria. The proposal gave Assad a vested interest in finding a solution for Lebanon – a turn of events that many in the Lebanese capital say will once again bring the country under Syrian rule.
“At the very least, the two economic crises [Lebanon and Syria] are now integrated, ”said a European diplomat. “So much for sovereign solutions. Does the United States really understand what they have been doing here? All these years of talk about state building. And then in the end, you hand the mess over to Bashar who played a leading role in the murder of both countries. “
Assad was unusually quick to agree to the deal, which would see Syria take some of the Egyptian gas for its own needs, as it did when an Iranian-supplied diesel tanker destined for Lebanon was unloaded. in mid-September in its port of Baniyas. To mark the occasion, he invited Lebanese ministers to the border where – straight from Putin’s playbook – his officials displayed only the Syrian flag.
“The Lebanese ministers should have stood up and left,” said Mirna Khalifa, a Beirut-based researcher. “But beggars cannot choose. And now we have been forced to go begging at Bashar again.
Visiting Washington in August, King Abdullah of Jordan urged members of Congress on the need to re-engage Assad. The plan appeared to be aimed at restoring Jordan’s intermediary role under the Biden administration – and offloading the financial burden of large numbers of Syrians still on Jordanian soil, many of whom are refugees.
“Jordan could conduct an initial engagement with the regime to secure engagement before wider contacts are initiated,” said a briefing note prepared by Abdullah.
Malik al-Abdeh, an observer on Syria close to the Syrian opposition, said: “What the regime is desperately seeking to achieve is to end US and European sanctions and restore diplomatic relations with the countries. Arabs and the West. King Abdullah seems to put them on the table and say “let’s give them to Assad in exchange for limited behavior change.”
“Assad will not engage in a transactional relationship as described in the document. Instead, he will likely exploit the channels open to him to undermine the influence of Western / Arab states.”
Another dynamic has helped draw Assad into the fold: the rise of Saudi Arabian heir to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman, and his attempting to overhaul the kingdom – far from a rigid theological regime where Clerics compete with rulers for power, for an Arab nationalist police state – of the type Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi would instinctively recognize.
An influential aide to a regional leader said Assad feels emboldened by the new focus. “The Saudis have sent their spy chief, and the Emiratis want to do business with him. And now the Americans and the Jordanians. It has become unmanageable. He insists that he will not compromise on Syria and that all Americans must leave Deir Azzour. He even demanded that he have a say in where they retreat.
In the northeastern Syrian town of Qamishli, where the country’s Kurds dominate local affairs, Assad’s constant resurgence has not gone unnoticed. Here he is seen as a Pyrrhic winner of a war of attrition more than a strategist; his survival due to Syria’s historic role in the region and the way the modern state was built by his late father, Hafez al-Assad.
“Hafez made sure that if one arm of his regime fell, there would be earthquakes elsewhere. This is what happened, ”said Ako Abdullah, a communications technician. “The consequences have become too heavy for everyone and people have lost patience. “
A second Syrian in Qamishli, an anti-Assad merchant who called himself Abu Laith, said the world was beginning to forget the decade of Syria’s destruction. “They left Afghanistan, and now us,” he said. “Soon Bashar will be back at the UN and the sanctions will be lifted. He will control Lebanon again. History should be a teacher.
Toby Cadman, a British lawyer working on war crimes prosecutions who focused on Syria, warned against re-engagement with Assad. “This is not a regime with which we should consider re-establishing diplomatic relations. The recent rapprochement of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar is something that we must approach with great concern.
“There can be no peace, stability or reconciliation without a process aimed at justice and accountability. We have let down the Syrian people over the past decade. Let us not cover the cracks of instability and injustice with a final act of surrender. “