There was a time in the not-so-distant past when Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad was ostracized from the world community and looked down upon as a man who would literally do anything – starve, shell, bomb, torture and gas – to stay in the presidential palace. The Assad government’s war strategy boiled down to a flawless approach, where towns were reduced to rubble in order to push rebel units (many of them extremist-oriented) out of urban neighborhoods. A 2019 study published by the Global Public Policy Institute found that Syrian government forces were using chemical weapons hundreds of times during the war.
Horrific as these incidents were, there was a speculation in U.S. foreign policy circles that Assad would eventually have to leave the city. When Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, she remarked that he was only a case long before the dictator has to pack his belongings and leave the country.
Reality, however, has a funny way of fitting into the picture. American policymakers at the time did not know how far Assad’s outside supporters, Russia and Iran, were going to ensure the survival of his client in Damascus. Heavy Russian bombing, in addition to Iranian ground troops and the deployment of Tehran-sponsored Shiite militia units, parked in what remains of the anti-Assad opposition on a piece of land in the northwest. Assad, who many believed would be killed or forced into exile, won the brutal civil war in his country.
Syria’s neighbors have long sensed that the facts on the ground have changed. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar were all fierce opponents of the Syrian dictator. Now everything came to the end with the reality staring them in the face: Assad is one of the most vilified human beings on the planet, but he’s not going anywhere. Bottom line: if you can’t beat him, you might as well talk to him.
This week Jordan announcement that its largest crossing point with Syria was fully functioning. United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus almost three years ago and could allow the Syrian government to access money previously out of reach due to US sanctions. Last year, Oman became the first Arab-majority country to escort an ambassador to Syria. Saudi Arabia was one of the main supporters of Assad’s ouster; now, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, he sends officials to Damascus to talk about a possible re-establishment of links. Lebanon, in the midst of the banking and oil crisis, trotted towards Syria earlier this month implore Assad’s government to allow Egyptian gas imports through its territory. There is a feeling in the wider Middle East, especially among the Gulf states, that Assad can always be brought back to the region. And if all else fails, a renewed commitment would dilute some of the influence Iran has gained over Assad since the start of the civil war.
Rethinking is not exclusive to the Middle East. In Europe, which has teamed up with the United States to impose comprehensive sanctions against the Syrian government for its barbaric behavior during the war, a detente with Assad is seeping into the minds of some policymakers. While France, Germany and the UK won’t normalize relations with Damascus anytime soon, smaller nations like Greece, Serbia, Hungary, Cyprus and Poland are re-establishing diplomatic presence or talking about the need. of partner with Syria with the aim of stemming irregular migratory flows to Europe.
Back in Washington, however, US policymakers are still reluctant to accept the cold and hard facts on the ground. Senior American officials responsible for the Syrian file warn any country that tries to normalize its ties with Damascus think twice and consider the economic consequences that would result. US policy in Syria remains frozen, even if that is the definition of illusion: keep the pressure on the Syrian government until Assad genuinely participates in end-of-conflict negotiations with his opponents, a process that will ultimately produce fully fair and transparent elections and possible expulsion. Of course, if Bashar al-Assad was unwilling to consider the idea earlier in the war when his regime seemed dangerously close to extinction, it is inconceivable that he would do so when his forces control about 70 percent from the country.
To be clear, this is not an argument for full and unconditional U.S. diplomatic normalization with Assad, who would be highly unpopular in Washington, DC In practice, such a brutal policy change is simply not. not possible – Bashar al-Assad will forever be seen as a war criminal deserving more of a trial in The Hague than even a token sum of US awareness.
Yet the United States interacts with a number of unsavory and downright mean individuals on a daily basis. The Middle East is full of them, from the Egyptian Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the royal families pulling the strings in the Gulf. U.S. officials don’t do it because they want to, but because it is sometimes necessary to defend fundamental U.S. security interests. Bashar al-Assad may be even more ruthless than your typical Middle Eastern autocrat, but the basic premise still stands.
At present, the Syrian policy of the Biden administration is on hold. Nearly 1,000 American soldiers are stationed in eastern Syria in an almost permanent stasis, US sanctions continue to deter reconstruction initiatives and the diplomatic process adopted by Washington is dead on the table. A thorough review of the policy is warranted, with the First Order planting two feet on planet Earth.
Daniel R. DePetris is a member of Defense Priorities and Foreign Affairs Columnist at News week.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.