Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Don’t Normalize Syria

Pretending barbarism like Assad’s is normal will help make it so.
November 8, 2021
Don’t Normalize Syria
Syrians wave national flags and carry a portrait of their president as they celebrate in the streets of the capital Damascus, a day after an election set to give the current President Bashar al-Assad a fourth term, on May 27, 2021. (Photo by LOUAI BESHARA / AFP) (Photo by LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images)

What happens when the free world ignores the misdeeds of vicious autocracies, as is now happening in the case of Syria? History provides a guide.

In 1935, fascist Italy attempted to extend its dominion over Ethiopia. Western opinion was divided over how to respond, if at all, to Mussolini’s brazen aggression, especially given that Italy was still a potential counterbalance against Germany (the so-called Pact of Steel between Hitler and Mussolini wasn’t signed until 1939) and East Africa was hardly a central theater in the great competition unfolding between democracy and dictatorship.

Winston Churchill, for one, called for vigorous resistance to Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia by the liberal powers of the day. His position invited opposition from skeptics who suggested that Italy’s loathsome behavior had no bearing on British interests, or the global order writ large. “It’s not the thing we object to,” Churchill clarified, “it’s the kind of thing.” Wink at Italian aggression in Ethiopia today, he intimated, and provoke more and greater aggression tomorrow––from Italy and others.

Just so with the growing legitimization of the Syrian regime today. As Damascus and its allies continue to smother the opposition, Bashar Assad has moved to repair the diplomatic and economic relations that he sundered during his savage crackdown against the country’s Sunni majority in the wake of pro-democracy protests more than a decade ago.

Just a few years ago, Assad’s program of reputation laundering would have scarcely been imaginable. But with the deteriorating condition of world order, an array of nations seem favorably inclined to grant Assad’s wishes.

In a remarkable turn of events, the blood-stained rulers in Damascus have already begun to reclaim their place on the world stage, and regional powers are leading the way. The UAE and Bahrain have already reopened their embassies in Damascus. Jordan has reopened its border with Syria, and the Arab League is expected to reinstate its membership in the near future. Crucially, the Chinese Communist Party has extolled Assad’s consolidation of power, citing his support for the China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Others will certainly follow. Even INTERPOL has readmitted Syria to the global law enforcement club after banishing the country in 2012.

Treating Syria like any other country is as much a moral disgrace as it is strategic folly––at least for those states that imagine themselves belonging to a decent international order.

The Assad dynasty has forgone even the semblance of a civilized power. It is responsible for igniting a conflict that has uprooted 13 million Syrians—more than 6 million displaced within the country and about as many refugees forced abroad––fostering instability from the Levant to the heart of the European Union. More than a half million Syrians have been killed in the government’s barbarous campaign, assisted by the wretched forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Putin’s Russia, to destroy the democratic revolution. Chemical warfare has been unleashed against civilian populations across Syria (despite Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention).

Widespread recognition for such a ghastly regime would mark a crucial and depressing turning point in the world order. In one fell swoop, the world would signal that the gravest crimes against humanity will go unpunished and the most squalid regimes will find a welcome reception in the international arena.

As with Italy during the Abyssinian Crisis, the leniency offered by the civilized world to the Butcher of Damascus will be abused by strongmen and tyrants around the world. The more legitimacy granted to Assad, the less pressure the United States and its allies can exert on China, Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, and other such regimes to respect the rights of their people and abide by the norms and rules of the international system.

The legitimation of Assad’s regime would not, of course, be without precedent. The historical record is littered with catastrophic bargains to resuscitate rogue regimes, to say nothing of spirited efforts to disregard international outlaws. Appeasement failed spectacularly with Nazi Germany. Neither bargaining nor strategic patience reaped dividends with North Korea. De-linking non-proliferation issues from other malign behaviors didn’t work and isn’t working with Iran. China has shown no signs of becoming a “responsible stakeholder.” None of these attempts has turned out well for the cause of human rights, but they have usually encouraged forces keen to undermine international order.

Any normalization with Assad will make a farce of the Biden administration’s avowed desire to put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy. It will also erode the West’s (already diminished) strategic position in the Middle East. It will lend precious legitimacy to a government that has plumbed––and continues to plumb––the depths of barbarism.

None of this should be deemed remotely tolerable. The Assad regime is a vicious stain on the history of humanity and on those who had and have the ability to prevent, mitigate, or end it. In its character and behavior, it is the kind of thing civilized nations ought to object to—starting with the United States.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.