15 May 2023
Syria: The Rehabilitation of Assad
By Gwynne Dyer
There is no justice. Bashar al-Assad, the murderous Syrian dictator whose membership even the Arab League suspended twelve years ago, is off to Riyadh this week to celebrate his re-admission to the organisation. He will pay no price for his many crimes against humanity: the name of the game now is not retribution but ‘rehabilitation’.
There is no such word as ‘auto-genocide’, but that would describe what Assad has done to his own country over the past twelve years in order to stay in power. Half a million people were killed in the fighting or in his torture-chambers, and roughly half of Syria’s pre-war population of 21 million have been driven from their homes.
Some of those refugees are still in the country, mostly in parts that Assad’s army has not yet reconquered, but half are actually living in neighbouring countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Large parts of all Syria’s big cities have been reduced to rubble, and reconstruction has not even begun yet.
The economy is also in ruins, with three-quarters of the country’s residents needing (but mostly not getting) humanitarian aid even before last February’s big earthquakes in the northwest of the country made another million homeless. Germany was in better shape in 1945 than Syria is now.
This is all due to Assad’s ruthless and ultimately successful fight to crush the Syrian version of the ‘Arab Spring’. It began in 2011 with non-violent demands for democracy, but he deliberately militarised the struggle by turning his army loose on the protesters. Armed rebels are easier to fight than peaceful ones, and too many of the protesters fell for it.
Assad also released 6,000 Islamist militants from his jails, hoping that they would take over the armed resistance and turn it into a radical Islamist revolt. He believed that would drive all of Syria’s religious minorities and a significant portion of the Sunni Muslim majority into his arms, and it worked all too well.
By 2015 the home-grown Islamists and their new rivals, ‘Islamic State’, were on the brink of taking over Syria. Only Russian military intervention, in the form of copious air power, prevented it. And so the war trundled on, with Assad regaining cities and territory with Russian help, until it ended in an Assad military victory in late 2017.
Since then, Assad has controlled all of Syria except the northwestern province of Idlib, which is still ruled by jihadis and protected by Turkish troops, and the large bits of eastern Syria that are controlled by Kurds and their American allies. Yet there is still no peace treaty, little foreign aid is coming in, and most Syrians are still scrabbling for food.
So it makes good humanitarian sense to stop isolating the Syrian regime, because millions of ordinary people are suffering from that policy and there is nothing to be gained by continuing it. The major Western powers will continue the sanctions against Syria, because that plays well with their own domestic audiences, but the Arab world will end them.
The strategic decisions of the major Middle Eastern powers are rarely driven by humanitarian good sense, as witness the war in Yemen over the past eight years or the new one in Sudan, but there are enough strategic motives in play to make this decision possible.
Saudi Arabia and Iran, which backed opposite sides in the Syrian civil war, have now resumed diplomatic relations after a long gap thanks to Chinese mediation. The Chinese, eager to displace Western influence in the region, will want to consolidate that diplomatic triumph with a Syrian peace deal.
Russia sees Assad’s survival as its greatest military and diplomatic success, and President Vladimir Putin, bogged down in his foolish Ukrainian adventure, will seize the chance to celebrate Russia’s key role in defeating the jihadis.
The Western powers are so distracted by that same Ukrainian war that they will make no major effort to block or sabotage the deal. Nor should they: the sanctions don’t really serve anybody’s interests any more.
Most importantly, Turkey has lost its enthusiasm for regime change in Syria and is likely to expel most of the four million Syrian refugees it hosts no matter who emerges as the victor in its current election.
The very least the Arab League can do is make a deal with Assad that protects those refugees from victimisation when they are forcibly sent home. Whether it will even try to extract that commitment as its price for letting Assad rejoin the League remains to be seen, but we will find out more when the organisation’s summit opens on Thursday.
The war was an absolutely wretched performance by all the Syrian players and by all the foreigners too. The only good thing that can be said about it is that it’s finally over.
To shorten to 700 words omit paragraphs 10, 12 and 13. (“The strategic…possible”; and “Russia…more”)