The Syrian earthquake is not a free pass for Assad
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It is a certain kind of dictator who uses a deadly earthquake to rehabilitate himself with the international community while posing for pictures in a disaster zone with his wife. Then again, President Bashar al-Assad also took a victory lap around Aleppo last summer with his family, as though on a cultural day trip, despite his own forces having dropped barrel bombs on the city for years.
Assad, a pariah for the past decade, has reason to feel confident again. He’s received condolence calls from allies such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin but also from those who had shunned him, such as Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The UAE’s foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan has returned for a third visit, after breaking the ice in November 2021. Syrian officials are back on international media, calling for an end to western sanctions and claiming they are hampering relief efforts. In fact these sanctions contain exemptions for humanitarian aid, which have continued to flow to Damascus through the UN in recent years.
More than 60 aircraft carrying international aid have now landed in Syrian government-held areas, including Aleppo — mostly from friendly countries such as Iran, Iraq and the UAE. But Saudi Arabia, which has previously been reluctant to rekindle ties with Damascus, has sent a plane carrying 35 tonnes of aid to Aleppo, the first of several. Every effort should be made to help the Syrian people affected by the earthquake, whether in government or opposition-held territories. But this must not lead to Assad being welcomed back into the international community: rewarding impunity will only breed future instability.
Since Barack Obama’s infamous 2013 U-turn on his red line over chemical weapons, followed by Russia’s full-on military intervention to prop up Assad, the US approach has been to cauterise the Syrian wound. Toppling Assad is too costly, but withdrawing American troops from the north-west would hand him a victory. As the influx of refugees into Europe abated and the threat of terrorism was contained, the status quo, though disastrous for Syrian civilians, was accepted by all. The diplomatic momentum created by the earthquake will make this difficult to maintain.
Beyond sending humanitarian aid and tweaking sanctions to allow some financial transactions, the US is unlikely to envisage a wholesale change of policy towards Syria. A state department spokesman told me that “now is not the time for the regime to leverage natural disaster to their benefit”. But this is precisely what Damascus is doing — alongside its allies Russia and Iran — and the US should not simply cede the ground.
Before the earthquake, Assad’s grip over the territory under his control looked untenable, with the economy collapsing, day-long power cuts and Iran doubling the price of its oil supplies to Syria and demanding prior payment. Now, Assad looks set to benefit directly from international aid destined to Syrians. Repeated investigations have shown that regime officials, including some under sanctions, siphon off aid. The government skims funds by manipulating the exchange rate. Assad is also positioning himself as a solution to the wicked problems he has created — by making the minor concession of allowing aid to enter rebel-held north-western Syria through more than one border crossing, for three months. Russia has repeatedly vetoed UN resolutions to expand aid delivery to the north-west. Assad will now expect a reward.
In 1990, when George HW Bush built his coalition against Saddam Hussein to liberate Kuwait, he was eager for Arab participation, and Syria got on board. The unspoken, unwritten quid pro quo was that Hafez al-Assad would gain full control of nearby Lebanon, 15 years into a bloody civil war in which Syria was also an actor. After Kuwait was liberated, Bush declared a new world order. The US extracted further concessions from Damascus such as help with the release of American hostages still held in Lebanon. At the time, it looked like a good deal. But the Lebanese paid the price, living under a 15-year Syrian occupation that entrenched corruption, sectarianism and the stranglehold of Hizbollah. It has now all come crashing down in a spectacular way.
The UAE and Jordan are among those arguing that ostracising Assad for 12 years has led nowhere. They are not wrong. But with more than a half million dead, millions displaced and fleeing abroad, and thousands still missing in Assad’s dungeons, there is no return to the way things were. The price to be exacted from Assad should be high, verifiable, and any concessions to him reversible. Syrians should neither be forgotten nor offered as a sacrifice in hasty compromises because the region and the west have been worn out by his intransigence.
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