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The West Must Learn to Live With Assad

It seems like only yesterday that Bashar al-Assad, the butcher of Damascus, was planning his own eventual exile. Before Russian President Vladimir Putin sent in his military to bail Assad out, the Syrian dictator was living each day in a state of siege. Tens of thousands of Syrian troops were defecting. His core Alawite officers were in over their heads, extinguishing fire after fire in every corner of the country. And Assad himself could hear the explosions from his window. The mood at the time was best summed up by Saudi Arabia’s then-foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir: Assad could leave the easy way or the hard way, but he was going to leave [1].

The departure, of course, never came. In the three years and six months since Jubeir made those remarks, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Ankara, London, Washington, and every other foreign capital that threw money, weapons, supplies, and political support to the Syrian opposition have had to eat crow. Bashar al-Assad has not only survived but triumphed over his enemies. Sure, Syria is in ruins, with hundreds of thousands killed, entire cities caked in dust, half its population displaced [2], and nearly $400 billion in the hole. But the dictator is still sitting pretty in his palace. He can thank the Russians and Iranians for his happy position: without help from his two chief foreign backers, his head might very well be on a stick.

For the European and Arab governments that wagered on Assad’s defeat, the regime’s survival brings with it a whole new set of problems. The question is no longer how best to support the dictator’s overthrow. However distasteful it might be, Assad has won the civil war.

But how to deal with him?

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The official policy of the European Union and the Arab League remains the same: Assad will remain a pariah and will continue to be treated as an outlaw for as long as he refuses to negotiate with his political enemies or cooperate in the writing of a new constitution. The EU has informed the Assad regime repeatedly that no European money will be available for reconstruction if he doesn’t actively participate in good faith with the United Nations-led process. While the Arab League has been less direct, the possibility of Syria rejoining the organization remains low; indeed, because the League makes decisions on consensus, Riyadh can single-handedly prevent [3] Assad’s full political normalization.

Some governments, however, are getting antsy about the current policy. The United Arab Emirates, a country often in lockstep with the Saudis, reopened its embassy in Damascus last December. Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, told [4] the Washington Post this month that it makes no strategic sense for the Arab world to allow the Turks, Iranians, and Russians to dictate the rules of the game in Syria. Better to try bringing Assad back into the Arab tent, Gargash said, than allow Tehran to further entrench itself in the heart of the region. It’s a purely pragmatic position that is catching on in other Arab capitals. Recognizing that Assad’s victory is near-complete, Baghdad and Amman have reopened their border posts and reestablished critical trade routes that were shut down during the war.

The Europeans are just as confused. Britain, France, and Germany remain resistant to changing the current EU policy towards Syria, interpreting any loosening of the sanctions, export controls, and political isolation as a morally unconscionable capitulation to a war criminal. As one EU diplomat remarked [5], “The geopolitical situation is not right for us to take out our cheque books. It’s a matter of leverage and we can’t just give away the only leverage we have.”

The big European powers are simply not ready to sacrifice U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 [6], which was supposed to create a Syrian political transition process towards internationally supervised elections.

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There are others on the continent, however, who view UNSCR 2254 as a dead letter. Nationalist governments in Italy, Poland, Austria, and Hungary are more concerned about repatriating refugees back to Syria than pressuring Assad with more sanctions. The populist coalition government in Rome sees Assad as a possible solution to the refugee problem, even if he’s responsible for creating it in the first place.

The Brits and French may be aghast at the thought of normalizing Assad, especially after they spent years calling on him to resign. Yet none of this should obviate how the war has unfolded and where we are now. The regime has won the conflict, the purported moderates have lost, and Syrian officials have no incentive to compromise on power-sharing. While the regime would definitely love to unlock a Western money pipe, it’s also content to wait if reform of the system is required before the funds begin flowing.

When the civil war broke out and the Syrian military began using heavy artillery to bomb towns and cities into submission, maintaining unity against Assad was as easy as slicing bread. But now that Assad has outlasted his armed opponents, countries that once took the fall of Damascus for granted are confronted with the reality of working with a tyrant who they think should be sitting in The Hague answering for his crimes.

Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "The West Must Learn to Live With Assad"

#1 Comment By Sid Finster On March 12, 2019 @ 1:10 pm

Assad’s opponents are the ones who should be in The Hague.

#2 Comment By Stephen J. On March 12, 2019 @ 1:26 pm

There is evidence that the war against Syria was planned. “Assad” whether you approve of him or not was elected by the Syrian people. I believe Syria is a War Crime perpetrated by the West and its allies, and those responsible need to be put on trial.
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“Known and documented, Saudi Arabia has played a key strategic role in promoting and financing terrorism on behalf of Washington. Moreover, Saudi weapons purchases from the US and Canada are also being used to equip and arm various ‘opposition’ rebel groups in Syria including the ISIL and Al Nusrah.”
Prof Michel Chossudovsky
Global Research, March 02, 2016
Global Research 22 December 2015
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“A declassified secret US government document obtained by the conservative public interest law firm, Judicial Watch, shows that Western governments deliberately allied with al-Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups to topple Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad.”

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“Under U.S. law it is illegal for any American to provide money or assistance to al-Qaeda, ISIS or other terrorist groups. If you or I gave money, weapons or support to al-Qaeda or ISIS, we would be thrown in jail. Yet the U.S. government has been violating this law for years, quietly supporting allies and partners of al-Qaeda, ISIL, Jabhat Fateh al Sham and other terrorist groups with money, weapons, and intelligence support, in their fight to overthrow the Syrian government.[i]… Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, December 8, 2016,Press Release.

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“Will The War Criminals Be Brought To Justice in 2019? Or Is Justice Dead and Buried”?

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#3 Comment By spite On March 12, 2019 @ 1:49 pm

“even if he’s responsible for creating it in the first place”

No he was not, the Syrian civil war was created and then extended for far longer than it should have been by the USA.

#4 Comment By Donald On March 12, 2019 @ 1:51 pm

“But now that Assad has outlasted his armed opponents, countries that once took the fall of Damascus for granted are confronted with the reality of working with a tyrant who they think should be sitting in The Hague answering for his crimes”

Oh cry me a river. Yes, Assad is a war criminal, but so are the Saudis and I don’t hear much about that. And every government in the Middle East, including Israel, would bomb civilian populations if faced with an insurgency likely to topple that government. On a smaller scale faced with a far smaller problem Israel leveled parts of Gaza. The US bombing of Mosul and Raqqa was at least as destructive as the Russian bombing of Aleppo.

Sisi in Egypt has thousands of political prisoners. What do you want to bet he would be like Assad if faced with a serious insurgency? The war in Syria was ong and bloody because of weapons and for that matter, fighters from the outside. Many of the weapons supplied illegally by the US ended in the hands of ISIS and Al Nusra. In the latter case that isn’t even a surprise, since Al Qaeda in Iraq was allied with our “ moderates”. Ben Rhodes in his recent book says he wondered why we kept Al Nusra on the terrorism list because of this fact.

For info on where our weapons ended up, here is a report funded by the EU.

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#5 Comment By Donald On March 12, 2019 @ 1:54 pm

To be clear, I agree that Assad is a war criminal. But the civil war was as bloody as it was in part because of our so called humanitarian intervention— that is, the weapons we and others supplied. The reality is we wanted to topple Assad and didnt care how many died in the process.

#6 Comment By StephenJ. On March 12, 2019 @ 1:59 pm

More info on the War against Syria by the West at links below.
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#7 Comment By Kent On March 12, 2019 @ 2:23 pm

We should all thank God for Assad’s victory against ISIS. He and his family have always been a bulwark against anti-Western Islamic radicals.

And thank God for our Russian and Iranian friends for helping him in his struggle against evil.

#8 Comment By WorkingClass On March 12, 2019 @ 2:52 pm

Imperial aggression was FINALLY blunted in Syria. This is cause for rejoicing among the common people of the world.

Blunted but not yet defeated. Americans, Turks and Israelis continue their unwanted, illegal presence and must be removed.

#9 Comment By Groucho On March 12, 2019 @ 3:11 pm

“Syria is in ruins, with hundreds of thousands killed, entire cities caked in dust, half its population displaced, and nearly $400 billion in the hole”

All true. But is it the fault of Assad who refused to acquiesce to his own overthrow by the Jihadist crazies that were trained funded and supported by the US and its NATO vassals? Interestingly the author seems to think it is in spite of his admission that;

“Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Ankara, London, Washington, and every other foreign capital that threw money, weapons, supplies, and political support to the Syrian opposition”.

Assad was supported by Russia and Iran because they saw the disasters created by previous American interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and they were determined to prevent a recurrence. His obvious distaste for accepting that “the dictator” Assad will remain in power would be a little more believable if he didn’t accept without comment that the noble Western democracies were in coalition with the Saudis and other medieval theocracies in the region.

#10 Comment By Janwaar Bibi On March 12, 2019 @ 3:37 pm

now that Assad has outlasted his armed opponents, countries that once took the fall of Damascus for granted are confronted with the reality of working with a tyrant who they think should be sitting in The Hague answering for his crimes.

How sad for these high-minded, moral Western countries who find themselves “compelled” to work with a tyrant.

Perhaps they can cheer themselves up by selling a few tens of billions of dollars of weapons more to the Saudis or by doing sword dances with the bone-breakers-for-journalists there. Or they could keep funneling billions of dollars of weapons to Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda and various other headchoppers to keep Bibi and co happy.

There are also opportunities to be had in Pakistan, which is always looking to buy more weapons to “fight terrorism” but which always end up being used against India like the F-16’s the nice, moral Americans keep selling them even during genocides like the 1971 genocide of Hindus in East Pakistan. Aasia Bibi was not available for comment.

#11 Comment By Mark Thomason On March 12, 2019 @ 3:42 pm

Having lost the war, their demand is still that they win it.

That isn’t going to last. It has been fought out.

#12 Comment By M. Orban On March 12, 2019 @ 3:58 pm

Yes.
Assad is a murderous tirant, but that is not the the worst thing.

#13 Comment By Brendan On March 12, 2019 @ 4:18 pm

As recently as 2006, Assad and his beautiful wife were considered reformers and celebrated in Europe. He protected religious minorities. He was considered a cooperative ally with the US, accepting terrorists through CIA renditions. Suddenly, he became a pariah. What happened?
In a word, Israel and the neocons. Damascus was seen as a stepping stone to regime change in Tehran. In the 2011 Arab Spring, Assad was accused of killing peaceful protesters. Many observers contest this scenario. The protesters were never peaceful, but fired on his troops. Then under this cover, the funding of a jihadi revolution by the Gulf States, Turkey and US. The country plunged into civil war.
Russia’s decisive intervention turned the tide. Ancient Christian communities were saved from the sword. False flag gas attacks, US Cruise missiles, ISIS and Al Queda did not prevail over Syria and Russia’s determined efforts to put the country back together. Assad and Putin deserve Nobel Peace prizes, not Western isolation.

#14 Comment By Stephen J. On March 12, 2019 @ 6:15 pm

Syria and a number of other countries have been devastated, destroyed, and reduced to rubble in many places by the Western war criminals and their allies in our midst. Millions are dead and displaced. They are totally evil. Never have so many war criminals, living among us, been allowed to go free, despite all the evidence.

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We need present day Nuremberg trials for these reprobates.
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The facts on their crimes and depredations are at link below.
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#15 Comment By Deserttrek On March 12, 2019 @ 6:45 pm

Lets see, his wife is in vogue, they are cool and then they don’t play ball and are bad

Everybody is bad

#16 Comment By Sara E Huizenga On March 12, 2019 @ 8:54 pm

How dare you publicly endorse a literal modern day HOLOCAUST.

#17 Comment By Bob K. On March 12, 2019 @ 10:04 pm

It’s not complicated. Assad’s father formed the Bathist political party and controlled the Syrian Army with his Alawite minorty. The Alawites are a syncretic shia minority in NW Syria and the Christian minorites who live in that area are their allies.

#18 Comment By Maria Berg On March 13, 2019 @ 4:38 am

What about new constitution of Saudi Arabia?

#19 Comment By S On March 13, 2019 @ 8:13 am

We must deal with unsubstantiated claims against Assad after dealing with the war criminals in Washington, London and Paris. Start using the Hague for prosecuting western war criminals to regain some semblance of credibility.

#20 Comment By Christian Chuba On March 13, 2019 @ 8:55 am

Whenever I heard Assad speak or quoted in print, every word out of his mouth started with ‘It depends on what the Syrian people want … ‘

Assad is neither a butcher or a tyrant. He could not have survived had he not had the support of the majority of the Syrian population in Syria. If you believe that 60 Russian military planes bailed him out or that foreign air forces can bail out unpopular leaders than just ask the Presidents of South Vietnam or the Saudi backed President of Yemen, Hadi who will never rule in Yemen again.

#21 Comment By SteveK9 On March 13, 2019 @ 9:08 am

The ‘problem’ is that Assad was the target of the usual ocean of propaganda and lies that anyone the US targets for removal (for reasons that have nothing to do with justice, and everything to do with Israel) is subject to, and now that the overthrow failed, how do you walk that back?

#22 Comment By Janice Kortkamp On March 13, 2019 @ 12:06 pm

TAC rivals The Onion with this insanity! I’ve spent months traveling around Syria during the war as a 100% independent and self funded citizen journalist and well over 7000 hours researching the country and conflict. President Assad is in power because the vast majority of Syrians support their President and Army against the US and allies terrorist proxy manufactured regime change attempt. Got to love (not really) the “experts” on Syria that refuse to acknowledge the most obvious and basic facts of the war and Syria itself. Secular, women empowering, safe,stable and successful before the US decided to bring freedom and democracy using the Muslim Brotherhood,ISIS and al Qaeda to do it. We attempted to destroy Syria because Israel wants Syria destroyed. So Israel can invade Lebanon again. So Israel can steal Syria’s Golan, so Israel has fewer strong nations to “deal” with in its ambitions for expansion and its daily crimes and atrocities against the Palestinians. The depraved despots of Riyadh are tools of empire and win the Government Most Like ISIS award. Give me a freaking break.

#23 Comment By Ed K On March 14, 2019 @ 7:51 am

I hope the writer of this article reads all the comments.TAC readers cannot be fooled by the so called “foreign policy analyst”. Assad is not a war criminal, the war criminal is the one who received the Noble peace prize as soon as he was in office.