Bashar Is Back
Newsweek|October 22, 2021
In a triumph over the U.S., Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, a long-time political pariah, is now reclaiming a place on the world stage
By Tom O’Connor

TEN YEARS AGO, IT APPEARED TO BE THE beginning of the end for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. His government’s brutal crackdowns on peaceful protests in 2011 had given birth to an insurgency backed by foreign foes—the U.S. among them. Atrocities mounted, including use of chemical weapons against civilians, mass murders, and torture, over the course of the decade-long civil war that followed. Estimates suggest that more than 600,000 people have died and millions more have been displaced, making the Syrian civil war one of the deadliest, most disruptive conflicts of the 21st century.

One by one, countries severed ties with Assad and his government, including the U.S., which imposed economic sanctions in 2011 and shuttered its embassy for good in 2012. Even the Arab League, an influential organization of fellow regional nations, banished Assad in the fall of 2011 in hopes of welcoming the growing armed opposition to his rule—a strategy it had used with dissidents in Libya, where longtime leader Muammar el-Qaddafi was slaughtered by NATO-backed rebels just as foreign governments and the United Nations were preparing to take action in Syria as well.

Assad, in short, became an international pariah.

But now it’s the twilight of 2021, and the Syrian president has not only survived but appears poised to make a stunning comeback on the world stage. A decade after his actions helped set the civil war in motion, Assad stands strong over a largely broken country that has few other options for leadership. And with the help of longtime allies Iran and Russia, he has managed to retake much of Syria from the hands of the rebels and jihadis that tried to oust him.

Now, recognizing reality, many of the countries that cut him off 10 years ago have begun to welcome him back, despite ongoing U.S. opposition to his rule. Telling signs: Just last month Jordan reopened its border with Syria, and the Arab League is widely expected to reinstate its membership shortly.

“Assad will stay in power,” former Ambassador Robert Ford, the last U.S. envoy to Syria, tells Newsweek. “There’s no way to imagine that the Syrian opposition now through force of arms is going to be able to compel him to step down. There isn’t a viable alternative.”

For Ford, who witnessed the developments that led to the civil war firsthand, dodging angry mobs in Damascus in the fall of 2011 and the al-Qaeda-linked bombs that rocked the capital city the following winter, it’s a tough outcome to watch. “Syria is a shattered country economically, it’s shattered socially, too,” he says. “Half the country’s been displaced [and] more than a fourth of the population has fled the country. It’s not going to get better for average Syrians inside Syria, and it’s not going to get better for Syrian refugees. It’s just tragic.”

With a change in leadership unlikely, the emphasis will now shift to how other countries deal with Damascus, says Mona Yacoubian, a former State Department analyst who today serves as a senior adviser on Syria at the United States Institute of Peace. “Given stalwart Russian and Iranian backing, Assad is likely to maintain his hold on power for at least the medium term,” Yacoubian tells Newsweek. “Many countries in the region have come to understand this, and we are starting to see more prominent efforts to accommodate this reality.”

As rapprochement between Syria and other Arab nations moves forward, what is not yet clear is just what shape those efforts will take and, critically, how the U.S. will respond—developments that are likely to affect the balance of power in the region and beyond.

Out of the Cold, Back in the Fold

WHAT’S DRIVING THE COUNTRIES THAT SHUNNED ASSAD TO MOVE toward normalizing relations, given that the conditions that led to him being ostracized haven’t fundamentally changed? Experts say the desire for regional stability appears to be stronger than the concerns over Assad’s leadership or the allegations of mass human rights abuses that have accompanied it.

“As the region contends with crisis and chaos, deepening economic challenges, the COVID pandemic, and widespread humanitarian suffering, governments in the region are more interested in de-escalating conflicts and addressing these persistent and destabilizing challenges,” Yacoubian says.

Among the examples she cites of the shift in regional sentiment toward Assad is the recent improvement in relations between Syria and Jordan, a major U.S. partner in the Middle East. In addition to reopening the border in September, Jordan’s King Abdullah II symbolically took a call from Assad earlier this month, the first such communication between the two leaders in a decade. Also noteworthy: the recent decision by the Biden administration to alleviate some of the harsher sanctions against Assad encoded in the Caesar Act, a 2019 law that restricts foreign companies from engaging in business activities that support Damascus. The changes allowed delivery of Egyptian gas and Jordanian fuel to energy-starved Lebanon through Syria.

Other signs of tensions easing in the region: The UAE and Bahrain have already reopened their Damascus embassies, and INTERPOL this month readmitted Syria to the global law enforcement body for the first time since banishing the country in 2012.

The motives for bringing Syria back into the fold among various Arab states were elucidated in a report earlier this year by David Schenker, who served as assistant State Department Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs until January and is now a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“A range of parochial motivations appear to be driving this embrace,” Schenker wrote in his report, which he shared with Newsweek. “For the UAE, reintegrating Assad and rebuilding Syria holds the promise of ending Turkey’s deployment in Idlib, where the Emirati adversary has stationed troops to prevent additional refugee flows. Jordan seems driven primarily by a desire to help its economy, repatriate refugees, reestablish consistent trade and restore overland transportation through Syria en route to Turkey and Europe. In this regard, Washington’s Caesar Act restrictions continue to irritate Amman.”

Larger regional concerns have also swayed the likes of Egypt and Israel, which hope to limit the entrenchment of another non-Arab power: Iran. “More broadly, Egyptian officials seemingly subscribe to the dubious idea that Syria’s reentry into the league would gradually accentuate its ‘Arabism’ and thereby move Damascus away from Persian Iran,” Schenker says in the report. “Other regional states likely share similar views; even some Israeli national security figures improbably assess that Russia may limit Iranian encroachment in postwar Syria under Assad.”

All of these developments, though, are at odds with the official U.S. stance on Assad and Syria. Diplomatic ties between Washington and Damascus remain severed, and their respective embassies closed, with no clear path to reconciliation.

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