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.
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, 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?
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 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 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, “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, which was supposed to create a Syrian political transition process towards internationally supervised elections.
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.