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Any Re-Engagement With Assad’s Syria Would Be Complicity With the Crime Against Humanity
The Democracies Must Assume Their Strategic Responsibility in the Region by Not Letting This Happen
Aleppo is Burning — Protesters outside the Russian Embassy in London — man making a V-sign still confident Assad’s regime can be overthrown ; November 5, 2016. Picture: Alisdare Hickson
For several months now, an ill wind has been blowing again in the Middle East: several states, certainly not democracies, have begun to re-establish their diplomatic ties with the worst criminal regime of the 21st century, that of Bashar al-Assad. The movement had certainly begun more than four years ago, on December 27, 2018, when the United Arab Emirates had reopened their embassy in Damascus. They were immediately followed by Bahrain, whose foreign minister had to declare, in a curious announcement, that diplomatic relations had never really been interrupted. This was also the case, three years later, of Jordan, which, in fact, had always had, since the beginning of Assad’s war against his people in 2011, a more than ambiguous position towards the Damascus regime. Unsurprisingly, some dress it up in the color of a so-called pragmatism to advance their broader agenda of rehabilitation of the regime. Syria’s readmission to the World Health Organization’s executive board and to Interpol was a step in the same direction. At the time, however, rehabilitation seemed limited, as no other state had followed suit and all attempts to readmit Syria to the Arab League had failed.
But this movement to whitewash crimes was expected to increase in early 2023 with the announcement of the resumption of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Damascus in April. The same should happen with Tunis, which made a similar announcement around the same time. With Egypt, things had actually been clearer for a long time, with Sissi having never hidden his de facto support for Assad, and diplomatic relations having been formally restored as soon as Morsi was overthrown in 2013. However, these relations are expected to gain in intensity after the Syrian foreign minister’s visit to Cairo in April 2023 as well. This readmission is the position of Algeria, the most consistent supporter of the Syrian criminal regime in the region, which is not unrelated to its close ties with Moscow, for a long time—and it had already sought to bring Damascus back to the Arab League at the 2022 summit, but this had been a diplomatic slap in the face for Algiers. Iraq and Oman continue also to press for this.
For the moment, only Kuwait—where the Syrian embassy is not formally closed—, Qatar and Morocco, as well as Yemen, are opposed to Syria’s readmission to the Arab League. However, some states, including Egypt and of course Morocco, may also fear the consequences of resuming intense relations with a country whose leaders and their supporters are largely under sanctions. But the United States has sent few signals in this regard, and pressure from states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates could end up breaking down increasingly flimsy dikes.
The earthquake that shook Turkey and Syria in early February 2023 was also an opportunity for Assad to push his rehabilitation attempts again and, with Moscow’s help, to reactivate his army of propagandists towards Western countries. Despite their fundamental disagreements, the resumption of more regular contacts between Damascus and Ankara, particularly under the aegis of Moscow, are also being exploited in this sense. The siphoning of international aid to the regime, a well-documented practice, the immensity of the crimes against humanity committed and the holding of several trials against regime officials mean that, fortunately, the capitals of democratic countries are holding fast to their position: those responsible for the regime will have to answer for their crimes. France reiterated this pledge at a March meeting of the UN Security Council. But the Allies cannot minimize the risks of this new offensive by the regime’s supporters. As a direct consequence of the Western renunciations, it should be countered in a much firmer manner not only for reasons of principle, but also in the name of their strategic interests.
In the Middle East, ideology versus strategy
It is often convenient to describe the oppositions of Middle Eastern countries using the simplistic view: a Sunni axis against a Shiite alliance, or a pole dominated by Iran against a grouping around the large Gulf countries, mainly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are deemed closer to the West. Many also see these divisions as the main factor in the war in Yemen or the internal conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon, and even in Bahrain. Sectarian fault lines have often been analyzed as self-fulfilling prophecies. However, these divisions, while they may sometimes have had a certain significance, are first and foremost instrumentalized for reasons linked to political power struggles and the game of certain major powers. Without coming back to this, it is clear that the attempts to rehabilitate the Assad regime are shattering this image.
As is often the case, religious ideologies are often a reflection of political ideologies that know how to play them. Religious beliefs may be firmly entrenched in the hearts of people in some countries and may serve as a lever for the powers that be, but it is more than doubtful that most leaders in the Middle East act on religious grounds. Most often, religion on their side corresponds to its primary ideological function: to make people believe in order to better try to dominate. The same is true of the claim to “secularism” of some regimes, whatever that word may mean here. The regimes governed by the Baath Party, from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to Assad’s Syria, are not secular regimes at all. The spread of this belief in the West, which is supposed to present them as bulwarks against Islamist extremism, does not stand up to scientific analysis.
The attempts to rehabilitate Assad take place in a new context, that of an ancient war against the ideals of freedom, law and democracy, or what could be called a counter-revolution to the Arab Spring movement that began in 2011, and the revolutions for life and liberty that have reappeared regularly in Iran since the Green Revolution of 2009, and of which the current movement is merely an extension in a context of further hardening of the police regime in Tehran. It should be noted, moreover, that this tendency to increased repression is not unique to this regime alone, even if it is undoubtedly, apart from the Syrian case, the most extreme form of it. It would be just as risky to see the Iranian counter-revolution as a primarily religious movement—which the designation “Mullah regime” tends to accredit in a simplifying manner—when it is essentially political. The context of the Russian war of extermination against Ukraine has undoubtedly also, through singular detours, reinforced the polarization of the world between dictatorial, if not totalitarian, tendencies and the desire for liberalization.
Until now, support for the Assad regime in the Middle East-North Africa region was essentially given by regimes with little or no ties to Iran or Moscow: Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Authority—Hamas was at the forefront of this rehabilitation movement, unconcerned about holding the Syrian regime accountable for mass crimes against the Palestinians. Jordan, with little capacity to articulate a foreign policy and at the forefront of the internal destabilization created by Assad’s war, is probably another case in point. We should also add Israel, which is showing short-sighted tolerance towards the Assad regime as long as Tel-Aviv is allowed to contain Iran. The Hebrew state is thus positioning itself in a short-term perspective, since it is certain that in the long term, keeping Assad in power will only benefit Tehran.
However, until the movement triggered by the Emirates, the other powers in the region were clearly hostile to the Syrian regime, both because they considered that it was a line that should not be crossed because of their relations with the Western democracies, because they clearly perceived the focus of threats generated by the regime, which was not seriously concerned with fighting the Islamic State, and of course because they saw a new gain for Tehran.
A Russian defeat in Ukraine would change the outlook considerably. Even if Moscow no longer has forces on the ground in Syria equivalent to what they were until about 2020, its defeat would remove a significant amount of support from Assad that Iran would probably not be able to provide alone. The prospects for possible regime change could begin to brighten—and that would be the prospect most feared by the region’s dictatorships. The temptation to step back into Syria gives them hope that they could somehow replace Moscow and Tehran in the control of this failed and mafia-ridden country, whose narco-trafficking poses a heavy risk to several countries in the area. They obviously do not care about the justice due to the hundreds of thousands of Syrian victims of Assad’s totalitarian regime and the punishment of the criminals. Even less do they care about the Syrian people who live in a situation of total misery. Basically, they want the regime to continue, but without Iran. Without even mentioning its total cynicism, this policy is based on a repeated illusion, especially on the side of Saudi Arabia, which is only repeating the belief that already animated Abu Dhabi as early as 2018.
This claim to be able to influence the destiny of this country as long as Assad remains at its head goes hand in hand with that of being able to benefit from a resumption of relations with Tehran. As much as we can see the Emirates, the central point for circumventing financial sanctions against Moscow, trying to play a singular game, Riyadh is breaking with what seemed its search for a new strategy in recent years. Indeed, the Kingdom still seemed anxious, a year or two ago, to differentiate itself well from the Emirates, even to regain some form of capacity for initiative while its deceptive liberalization was permanently damaged with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi on October 2, 2018. Its recent attempts to whitewash Syrian crimes are closing the prospect of renewed respectability. As with Abu Dhabi, they testify to the poverty of their strategic analysis, which has become an opportunistic short-termism with no future and no estimated gain. Iran and, if the West remains so undetermined to bring down Moscow, Russia would ultimately be the only winners.
Western non-politics as an open door to crime
The erratic policy of most Middle Eastern countries is largely the consequence of the total lack of policy of Western democracies. This is a shadow of and an extension of Obama’s 2013 non-decision after the chemical attacks in Ghouta, renewed at the time of Aleppo and afterwards. 2013 is, in some ways, not only the worst foreign policy mistake of the last ten years and the one that contains all the others, especially in Ukraine, but also the one whose disastrous effects have been the most lasting. This non-policy is, in a way, prolonged with the procrastination of the West in its resolve to bring down Moscow in a radical way. The absence of strategic vision, which should have led them to envisage a world in which Russia has lost all influence and leverage, is evident in Europe as much as in the Middle East. The invocations, repeated again recently, in favor of a “political solution”, even if coupled with a strong condemnation of the crimes against humanity committed by the regime and its allies, is becoming a kind of alchemist’s incantation that has no correspondence with reality.
The West remains on a moral position, certainly indispensable and the only legitimate one, according to which a re-engagement with the criminal regime of Assad is unthinkable. This is accompanied by a repeated demand for the regime’s crimes to be tried, even if many countries have not yet taken even the first step towards universal jurisdiction. But this moral position is not complemented by any political and especially military decision. They even allow a narco-state to prosper in the heart of the Middle East, controlled by Assad’s family and associates and the Iranian Hezbollah, which has turned captagon into a source of enrichment and a weapon, without really reacting with the necessary firmness.
Similarly, they allow the regime’s propaganda to flourish, even to the point of giving it credence by suspending, following the earthquake, the Caesar Act for 180 days, even though it did not concern food and medicine. They are also reluctant to act against the regime’s hijacking of massive aid. Moreover, this international aid has at best benefited the areas controlled by the regime and hardly at all the areas controlled by its opponents.
One sometimes has the impression that some of the Western leaders have copied their reasoning towards Damascus from their equally disastrous and short-sighted reasoning towards Moscow. In addition to the permanence of their obsession with so-called stability—to reason in these terms after the massive crimes of Assad and Putin is beyond all decency, but also beyond all intelligence—they still seem to be petrified by the same fear of a vacuum at the head of one or the other country. They are as if unable to think of a transition process and forfeit before imagining how they could help to organize it. In short, they continue to pretend to believe that diplomacy, obviously impossible in either case, could take the place of strategy.
It is this conceptual vacuum that dominates not only the attitude towards Syria, but also the policy towards the states of the region, from the Gulf States to those of North Africa, including Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. With regard to the former, the main Western democracies do not seem to have taken any serious steps to dissuade them either from renewing their ties with Damascus or from speaking with Tehran again. In the latter case, some even seem to discern, beyond all reason, a positive signal likely to reduce tensions or a contribution to “regional stability”. For Europe, which has been marginalized for a long time, this would mean an even more radical diminution of its role. For the United States, the acceptance by some of its supposed allies of an agreement engineered by Beijing would further accelerate its erasure from the Middle East—indeed, it would be the counterpart, for Western democracies, of what might happen in Europe if the People’s Republic of China were to impose itself as a player in a so-called peace resolution ending Russia’s war against Ukraine. This would be all the more improbable since, in the Syrian case, Beijing has supported 9 of the 16 Russian vetoes, including the one preventing the referral of the Assad regime’s crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court. For let there be no mistake: there is a direct connection between the restoration of diplomatic relations between Tehran, on the one hand, and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, on the other, and the movement for the normalization of Assad.
By failing to respond, the Western democracies, the United States, France and the United Kingdom, risk precipitating their own delegitimization not only in the region, but beyond. They are co-signing their act of disengagement, if not capitulation, to the worst crimes against humanity of the 21st century. They allow, in essence, to prosper not only a narco-state member of a mafia alliance, but above all a zone of emptiness and despair that heralds the threats of tomorrow. Delegating the management of the region to powers that are not only inconsiderate in terms of human rights, but also incapable of assuming the future of the country, is a policy of maximum insecurity.
Reconstructing after the Russian defeat: the right and the limit
It should probably be reiterated over and over again: the future of Syria will be determined by the fate of Ukraine and, more precisely, by the radical defeat of Russia that will have to follow. If Putin’s regime were to survive, not only will it not let go of Damascus, but any hope of countering Tehran’s Middle East endeavors as well will be dashed. Moreover, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Cairo and other countries in the area will be encouraged to continue to play the role of a Russia, admittedly weakened by its own losses, but whose regime will be maintained. They will still be able to sternly ironically comment on the inconsistency of the West, the fear of their leaders and their strategic inconsistency. They will have won both in terms of control and ideology. Impunity for the perpetrators of the worst crimes against humanity, Assad and Putin, will be the final nail in the coffin of the legitimacy of democracies.
If the Russian defeat is the prerequisite of everything, these same democracies will have to “finish the job” in Syria. There is no less reason to stop Assad than there was to stop Pablo Escobar and Slobodan Milošević. This should probably be even easier than for the former. The process will then have to extend to all regime officials and perpetrators of mass murder. Their names are widely known since most of the crimes and enforced disappearances have been documented. The evidence and information is even better known than for the abuses of the Nazi regime. The law will be the starting point for everything. It is, in a way, the limit that democracies must erect in front of a regime that had none.
Then the transition process can begin. It will certainly be long, difficult, not straight, perhaps sometimes a little desperate, and it will certainly not be a question of making the same mistakes as after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But the country is not comparable in size, nor in terms of political tradition, nor in terms of the maturity of the Syrian people after twelve years of oppression and a war that is anything but over.
But will the Western democracies have the intelligence not to close the future with their own fragility, their disdain and their strategic incompetence? Will they be able to transform their declared ambition for justice into action or will they let their cardinal principle fall into insignificance?
Obviously, the will or not to go all the way in the process of punishing the crimes of the Russian leaders in Ukraine will foreshadow the one to be accomplished in Syria. And beyond that it will reveal to us what the future of freedom will be.
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