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Syria’s Dictator Returns to the Normal Nations Club

Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian butcher and tyrant, has waited out the world, which has grown tired of ostracizing him.
April 20, 2023
Syria’s Dictator Returns to the Normal Nations Club
TOPSHOT - Syrians wave national flags and carry a large 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. - The election held yesterday in government-held areas was the second presidential vote in Syria since the start in 2011 of a war that has left over 388,000 dead. (Photo by LOUAI BESHARA / AFP) (Photo by LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images)

The murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, once an international pariah thought to be doomed to collapse, is on the verge of rejoining the league of normal states, despite its continued monstrosity. The U.S.-led campaign aimed at keeping Syria off the list of civilized nations looks doomed to fail. However noble the intention, denying Assad’s regime a legitimate place in the order of nations cannot be achieved by suasion alone. It requires an element that has long been lacking in the West’s conduct toward the regime in Damascus: power.

The last of the Arab uprisings came to Syria in March 2011. Its width and depth made observers around the world believe this revolt would succeed in ways that eluded others before it. Regime change seemed assured after President Barack Obama called for Assad to step aside—but the dictator reckoned he could cling to power by assaulting the Sunni rebellion without mercy and calling the American bluff.

In the ensuing years, Assad assailed the uprising with appalling violence, generating a vicious civil war. In these circumstances, the Islamic State managed to carve out a caliphate that was ultimately laid to ruin by American airpower and Kurdish ground forces. But the main parties to war were the minority Alawite regime and its powerful foreign patrons. A catastrophic refugee crisis was the result, while Iran and Russia extended their reach across the Levant. Without significant backing, the Syrian democratic opposition lost ground to the forces of terror on one side and the forces of tyranny on the other. The enormous asymmetry of force became the defining truth and tragedy of the Syrian struggle.

At the time, proponents of a robust U.S. intervention warned of the terrible things that would follow from the decision not to intervene: vast human suffering, to be sure, but also the descent into a world where hostile regimes, no longer deterred by American power, would be tempted to harass and attack their neighbors. The survival of Assad, and the eventual restoration of his regime to international respect, would send an unmistakable signal to rogues everywhere that the American-led international order was now leaderless.

The regime in Damascus has begun, and may soon complete, its own rehabilitation. In June 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) appointed Syria to its executive board. Interpol readmitted Syria to its network in October of that year. A slew of Arab states, after keeping a safe distance from the Syrian ordeal, have already reopened their embassies in the Syrian capital.

As the Syrian writer Marwan Safar Jalani has observed, it is beyond the pale for a regime that deliberately targets hospitals to sit on the executive board of the WHO. There is also something perverse about a regime that has been known to torture and track its dissidents at home and abroad through intelligence services regaining access to Interpol’s databases. The disgrace of giving Syria’s rulers legitimacy in these ways has encouraged other states and organizations to make their own accommodations with a dangerous dynasty that sustains itself through brute force.

Now, the last surviving Baathist dictatorship is on the cusp of full rapprochement with the Arab world. Last week, Saudi Arabia convened a summit of regional powers to open the door for Syria to rejoin the Arab League. Delegates from nine Arab nations gathered in the kingdom to discuss what it will take to bring Syria back into the fold. Ministers from the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—along with those of Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan, indicated varying levels of support for the Saudi scheme. And this week, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, was received by Assad in Syria’s presidential palace.

This is an ominous development for the Middle East and the world at large. Nothing about the regime in Damascus, which has plumbed the depths of barbarity in the course of this war, entitles it to a shred of international legitimacy. But the lamentable decisions of the WHO, Interpol, and the Arab League follow seamlessly from the previous decision—embraced by nearly every Western government—to let Syria rot and crash.

Balzac once described the statesman as a “monster of self-possession.” This claim was made about leaders in bourgeois democracies, but it applies equally to the despot of Damascus, who is a ruler of supreme cunning. In his unhesitatingly cruel response to the Syrian rebellion, Assad courted the wrath of the civilized world without ever appearing to fear it. By taking the measure of his enemies, foreign and domestic, he survived while demonstrating a salient lesson: With enough force, the world can bend to any dictator’s will.

Even after a dozen years, the West hasn’t come to terms with its failure of nerve. Refusing to wield the big stick, it has opted again and again to address the Syrian issue through the dubious ambit of law. In the world’s first trial prosecuting state-sponsored torture in Syria, a German court recently convicted a former Syrian intelligence officer of crimes against humanity. However laudable this lone stab for justice, however, it seems destined to be an outlier given the larger momentum—from Arab dictatorships and authoritarian powers across Eurasia—to restore the blood-drenched Syrian dynasty to eminence.

This is proof, if any were needed, that the tools of law and moral suasion alone are inadequate against the daunting political and strategic challenges posed by powerful authoritarian regimes. If liberal principles will not be advanced by a range of means, including economic largesse (or leverage) and military power, they will not be advanced well, or at all.

Few officials in Washington or London (to say nothing of other Western capitals) ever came to grips with the grave geopolitical test presented in Syria—a kind of replay of the Spanish Civil War, in which a host of brigand powers assaulted the liberal order. Seven decades later, proclaiming there was no military solution on offer in Syria—a theory thoroughly disproved by the successful interventions of Moscow and Tehran—the Obama administration appealed to the United Nations Security Council. While Ambassador Samantha Power unleashed a torrent of moral abuse at the Russian ambassador, Assad and his allies wielded poison gas and cluster bombs with abandon.

The sight of Assad’s government being accorded diplomatic prestige will show despotic powers everywhere that immunity is possible even after committing the gravest crimes against humanity. It will also dash the hopes of dissidents and democrats throughout the region who have believed in and labored for the emergence of a viable alternative to tyranny.

The Syria of Assad will not be “normalized” by the act of Bahrain dispatching its grubby ambassador to Damascus, or because the tyrant is feted by the eminences of the United Arab Emirates. In truth, this foul regime was normalized long ago, when the Obama administration, eager to “engage” Iran, provided the Islamic Republic’s chief client a diplomatic lifeline. It was normalized when Obama told the Syrian dictator to “step aside” but meekly allowed Assad to decline the invitation. (Instituting a no-fly zone and arming the Free Syrian Army would almost certainly have reduced the carnage and weakened Assad’s “axis of resistance.”) It was normalized when Assad, warned against employing his chemical arsenal, dropped chlorine-packed barrel bombs on civilians and emerged unscathed from this act of depravity.

By openly defying an American president and turning Syria into a wreck, Assad won an incredible prize that the architects and apologists of U.S. inaction still refuse to acknowledge. The civilized world has recoiled in anger and disgust at Russian war crimes in Ukraine—but sat idly by while Russia, Syria, and Iran perpetrated, and perfected, the same war crimes for more than a decade. The West evidently didn’t learn any lessons from the Syrian catastrophe, but the world’s cruelest despots plainly did. With the Assad regime’s restoration to political and diplomatic normality now at hand, a new era of authoritarian power and prestige beckons.

Brian Stewart

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