NEWSWEEK: Syria’s Bashar al-Assad Returns to World Stage in Defeat for US, Win for its Foes
BY TOM O’CONNOR ON 10/13/21 AT 5:00 AM EDT
Ten years ago, it appeared to be the beginning of the end for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. His government’s brutal crackdowns on peaceful protests in 2011 had given birth to an insurgency backed by foreign foes—the U.S. among them. Atrocities mounted, including use of chemical weapons against civilians, mass murders and torture, over the course of the decade-long civil war that followed. Estimates suggest that more than 600,000 people have died and millions more have been displaced, making the Syrian civil war one of the deadliest, most disruptive conflicts of the 21st century.
One by one, countries severed ties with Assad and his government, including the U.S., which imposed economic sanctions in 2011 and shuttered its embassy for good in 2012. Even the Arab League, an influential organization of fellow regional nations, banished Assad in the fall of 2011 in hopes of welcoming the growing armed opposition to his rule—a strategy it had used with dissidents in Libya, where longtime leader Muammar el-Qaddafi was slaughtered by NATO-backed rebels just as foreign governments and the United Nations were preparing to take action in Syria as well.
Assad, in short, became an international pariah.
But now it’s the twilight of 2021, and the Syrian president has not only survived but appears poised to make a stunning comeback on the world stage. A decade after his actions helped set the civil war in motion, Assad stands strong over a largely broken country that has few other options for leadership. And with the help of longtime allies Iran and Russia, he has managed to retake much of Syria from the hands of the rebels and jihadis that tried to oust him.
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. PHOTO-ILLUSTRATION BY GLUEKIT; SOURCE PHOTO BY ALEXEI DRUZHININ/TASS/GETTY
Now, recognizing reality, many of the countries that cut him off 10 years ago have begun to welcome him back, despite ongoing U.S. opposition to his rule. Telling signs: Just last month Jordan reopened its border with Syria, and the Arab League is widely expected to reinstate its membership shortly.
“Assad will stay in power,” former Ambassador Robert Ford, the last U.S. envoy to Syria, tells Newsweek. “There’s no way to imagine that the Syrian opposition now through force of arms is going to be able to compel him to step down. There isn’t a viable alternative.”
For Ford, who witnessed the developments that led to the civil war firsthand, dodging angry mobs in Damascus in the fall of 2011 and the al-Qaeda-linked bombs that rocked the capital city the following winter, it’s a tough outcome to watch. “Syria is a shattered country economically, it’s shattered socially, too,” he says. “Half the country’s been displaced [and] more than a fourth of the population has fled the country. It’s not going to get better for average Syrians inside Syria, and it’s not going to get better for Syrian refugees. It’s just tragic.”
With a change in leadership unlikely, the emphasis will now shift to how other countries deal with Damascus, says Mona Yacoubian, a former State Department analyst who today serves as senior adviser on Syria at the United States Institute of Peace. “Given stalwart Russian and Iranian backing, Assad is likely to maintain his hold on power for at least the medium term,” Yacoubian tells Newsweek. “Many countries in the region have come to understand this, and we are starting to see more prominent efforts to accommodate this reality.”
As rapprochement between Syria and other Arab nations moves forward, what is not yet clear is just what shape those efforts will take and, critically, how the U.S. will respond—developments that are likely to affect the balance of power in the region and beyond.
Out of the Cold, Back in the Fold
What’s driving the countries that shunned Assad to move toward normalizing relations, given that the conditions that led to him being ostracized haven’t fundamentally changed? Experts say the desire for regional stability appears to be stronger than the concerns over Assad’s leadership or the allegations of mass human rights abuses that have accompanied it.
“As the region contends with crisis and chaos, deepening economic challenges, the COVID pandemic and widespread humanitarian suffering, governments in the region are more interested in de-escalating conflicts and addressing these persistent and destabilizing challenges,” Yacoubian says.
Russia has been one of the few countries to back the Syrian government in the country’s civil war. Here, Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin lat a candle-lighting ceremony in 2020. ALEXEI DRUZHININ/TASS/GETTY
Among the examples she cites of the shift in regional sentiment toward Assad is the recent improvement in relations between Syria and Jordan, a major U.S. partner in the Middle East. In addition to reopening the border in September, Jordan’s King Abdullah II symbolically took a call from Assad earlier this month, the first such communication between the two leaders in a decade. Also noteworthy: the recent decision by the Biden administration to alleviate some of the harsher sanctions against Assad encoded in the Caesar Act, a 2019 law that restricts foreign companies from engaging in business activities that support Damascus. The changes allowed delivery of Egyptian gas and Jordanian fuel to energy-starved Lebanon through Syria.
Other signs of tensions easing in the region: The UAE and Bahrain have already reopened their Damascus embassies, and INTERPOL this month readmitted Syria to the global law enforcement body for the first time since banishing the country in 2012.
The motives for bringing Syria back into the fold among various Arab states were elucidated in a report earlier this year by David Schenker, who served as assistant State Department Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs until January, and is now a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“A range of parochial motivations appear to be driving this embrace,” Schenker wrote in his report, which he shared with Newsweek. “For the UAE, reintegrating Assad and rebuilding Syria holds the promise of ending Turkey’s deployment in Idlib, where the Emirati adversary has stationed troops to prevent additional refugee flows. Jordan seems driven primarily by a desire to help its economy, repatriate refugees, reestablish consistent trade and restore overland transportation through Syria en route to Turkey and Europe. In this regard, Washington’s Caesar Act restrictions continue to irritate Amman.”
Syrian kids are seen at a makeshift camp at Syria – Turkey border in northern Idlib on April 2, 2020, three years after a suspected chemical attack was conducted in Khan Shaykhun. MUHAMMED ABDULLAH/ANADOLU AGENCY/GETTY
Larger regional concerns have also swayed the likes of Egypt and Israel, which hope to limit the entrenchment of another non-Arab power: Iran. “More broadly, Egyptian officials seemingly subscribe to the dubious idea that Syria’s reentry into the league would gradually accentuate its ‘Arabism’ and thereby move Damascus away from Persian Iran,” Schenker says in the report. “Other regional states likely share similar views; even some Israeli national security figures improbably assess that Russia may limit Iranian encroachment in postwar Syria under Assad.”
All of these developments, though, are at odds with the official U.S. stance on Assad and Syria. Diplomatic ties between Washington and Damascus remain severed, and their respective embassies closed, with no clear path to reconciliation.
Still, unofficially at least, there appear to be changes afoot. “The Biden administration has said that it will not normalize relations with Assad, but does not appear any longer to be dissuading Arab partners from doing so,” Schenker tells Newsweek. “Caesar Act sanctions, if applied, may prevent Arab states from resuming ‘normal’ relations, including trade, with Assad’s Syria. But the increasingly senior engagements are undermining the isolation of the Assad regime and what’s left of the Trump-era policy of pressuring the regime” to implement a 2015 United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire and a political settlement to end Syria’s ongoing civil war.
“Until now, this policy has prevented the Assad regime from achieving a full victory,” Schenker says. “As Arab states move to reembrace Assad, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain the sanctions.”
A US military convoy takes part in joint patrol with Turkish troops in the Syrian village of al-Hashisha on the outskirts of Tal Abyad town along the border with Turkish troops, on September 8, 2019. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/GETTY
Meanwhile, Syria continues to maintain a diplomatic presence in the U.S. in the form of the country’s permanent mission to the United Nations in New York City. Aliaa Ali, who serves as third secretary at the mission, tells Newsweek her government hopes that the recent decision by the Biden administration to allow energy shipments to Lebanon will “reflect positively on the Syrian people, and be a stepping stone for the United States of America to rescind its wrong policies and approaches in the region.”
Ali characterizes these developments as a triumph for Syria and a loss for the U.S., saying that they “would not have taken place without the victory of the Syrian state, the failure of the American administrations to achieve their goals and the realization of the majority of regional and international countries that no results can be reached regarding policies or drawing strategic paths in the region unless coordinating with Damascus.”
But the presence of unsanctioned foreign troops on Syrian soil remains a sticking point with Damascus—about 900 U.S. troops remain in the country, even after the Biden administration’s military exit from Afghanistan and stated goal of ending “forever wars.” Bouthaina Shaaban, one of Assad’s top advisers, tells Newsweek that “we cannot talk about a final Syrian victory unless the entire Syrian land is liberated, as we still have parts of our country occupied by American and Turkish powers.”
The Syrian Perspective
Shaaban’s tenure in the Syrian government dates back to the days of Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, who assumed the presidency in 1971, beginning a half a century of dynastic rule that continues to this day. Relations with the West were mostly strained under the elder Assad, a traditional adherent to the Baathist ideology, which blends socialism and Arab nationalism. His son, Bashar, was an aspiring ophthalmologist studying in the United Kingdom when his older brother’s death made him the heir apparent. He initially ushered in a new era, more cosmopolitan on its face, when he assumed the presidency after his father’s death in 2000.
Undated picture shows Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and his wife Anisseh posing for a family picture with his children (Bashar is in the top row, second from the left). LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/GETTY
U.S.-Syria relations frayed throughout the first decade of the 21st century, however, and ultimately collapsed with the onset of the civil war in 2011. As for any U.S.-Syrian ties today, Shaaban tells Newsweek “we cannot talk about any new intentions until we see the U.S. withdrawing its troops from Syria.”
But she does see value in other nations building bridges with Syria, and maintains that many countries have come to support the Syrian government throughout the course of the conflict. She believes these actions are consistent with a worldwide decline in U.S. power and influence.
“The lack of confidence and the lack of credibility of U.S. policies during different administrations over the last decades, besides its continuous violation of international law and of international agencies, and its efforts to create conflicts in many countries, all these led to the deterioration of the position and role of the U.S. in the world,” Shaaban says. “Not only countries who have different points of views with the U.S., but even allies of the U.S. started to lose confidence in U.S. policies.”
She characterizes the Syrian conflict thus far as a win over the West and what it tried to prove to the world.
“The first message the war on Syria has proven is that all Western propaganda about this war was groundless,” Shaaban says. “Western media portrayed what happened in Syria as an uprising against the president of Syria and the war as a civil war. A reality check proves that no president can remain in power if his people are against him, especially as terrorism was supported and financed by so many countries in the world.”
Syrian senior presidential advisor Buthaina Shaaban answers journalists’ questions on Syrian peace talks at the United Nations on January 29, 2014 in Geneva. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/GETTY
Shabaan’s message resonates in Syria beyond government halls, and its ramifications are global. One Syrian observer who has personally experienced and closely followed the events of the war tells Newsweek that the coalescing of U.S. foes in Syria means that countries like Russia, Iran and China may seek to block U.S. actions elsewhere too.
“The message is clear, the U.S. can be defeated, or at least stopped, as in Syria today,” says the observer, who asked to remain anonymous due to the country’s sensitive security situation. “From now on, U.S. foes won’t let what happened in Iraq and Libya happen again. The U.S. is not weaker, militarily or economically, but its enemies are getting stronger and so is their will to work together.”
This observer recognizes the uprising against Assad was launched by Syrians, but says the campaign to save him also had indigenous roots. “You can win a war against any regime in the world, but you can never win war against people,” the observer says. “It was the Syrian people who rose against Assad, but it was also the Syrian people who defended him.”
Syrians on both sides of the civil war didn’t work alone. Just as volunteers from a multitude of countries joined the rebellion against the Syrian government over the course of the conflict, so foreign fighters also intervened on its behalf.
Among those who mobilized with Iran’s backing to support Assad in Syria in 2013 was neighboring Iraq’s Hezbollah al-Nujaba Movement, part of a self-proclaimed, mostly Shiite Muslim “Axis of Resistance” that opposes the actions of Washington and its partners in the region. Nasr al-Shammary, the group’s deputy secretary-general and spokesperson, describes in detail images of beheadings and eviscerations carried out by al-Qaeda that would soon rebrand as the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), and says the decision to intervene was rooted in such atrocities, which were accompanied by threats to the region’s Shiite Muslims, a minority in Syria.
“You can imagine what would happen if these terrorist groups took control of Syria. God forbid!” Shammary tells Newsweek.
Much of the world at that time was focused on other grisly images, such as barrel bombs falling from government aircraft on Syrian cities and reports of the systematic torture and murder of thousands of Assad’s enemies in secret prisons throughout the country. Allegations of Syrian government war crimes involving such banned weapons also continued, including the use of nerve gas to kill 1,400 citizens of Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, in 2013. All told, the conflict has made Syria the world leader in creating refugees and asylum seekers, with more than 6.6 million having fled the country, and even more internally displaced, according to figures shared by the U.N.
Corpses of men and children killed by nerve gas after a suspected chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, in August 21, 2013. ERBIN NEWS/NURPHOTO/GETTY
And as the fighting intensified, Syrian jets and Russian allies in the air stood accused of bombing hospitals, schools and even religious institutions, ensuring nothing was sacred in such an unholy combat. The mounting reports prompted international investigations on behalf of the powers that still hoped to see Assad dethroned.
The opportunity presented itself for an ultimatum among a nation desperate for victory but war-weary all the same. After quietly funding an insurgency, the U.S. mapped out potential plans to bring the hammer down on Assad.
President Barack Obama had famously set a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, meaning that their use would cross an internal threshold that triggered a U.S. military response. He even sought congressional approval for U.S. intervention. The president backed down, however, amid an international deal to disarm Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.
A survivor of the Assad government’s suspected chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib district, receives treatment at an hospital in Idlib, Syria on April 05, 2017. CEM GENCO/ANADOLU AGENCY/GETTY
But reports of abuses persisted, as did the ruthlessness of ISIS and other hard-line groups that overpowered and consumed the ranks of the “moderate” Free Syrian Army. Washington was coming to realize that the Syrian opposition was doomed to self-destruction. The Pentagon saw a new protagonist in Syria’s indefatigable Kurdish community, which had always sought more autonomy from Assad’s Arab-oriented rule but now, like other minorities, faced a genocidal threat from jihadis.
Beyond the American Century
Shammary believes there are two causes for what he sees as the decline of U.S. power and influence. The first one, he says, is internal: “The United States today is no longer what it was before, and the main reason is the intransigent American policies that completely ignore the will of the peoples, their cultural heritage and their social fabric, the mistrust for the peoples in the region, the continuous abandonment of allies and the complete disregard of the interests of the countries of the region before American interests.”
Additionally, he argues, U.S. competitors have grown more capable and adaptable. “The second reason,” he says, “is the growing ability and strength of America’s competitors in the world—such as Russia, China and Iran—and the confidence of their allies in them and the positions of some of the mentioned countries that support and are loyal to these allies without any assumptions or interference in the values of peoples or their social fabric.”
And around the same time that the U.S. officially switched sides to back the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in October 2015, the skies over Syria were overwhelmed with the roar of Russian Air Force jets. “Assad was in some views a dictator, a monster, but he was Russia’s ally,” Evgeny Buzhinskiy, a retired lieutenant general of the Russian military who is now chairman of the executive board at the Russian International Affairs Council, tells Newsweek. “When Russia intervened in the year 2015, Assad was on the verge of collapse. Russia saved him.”
The beleaguered Syrian Arab Army, beset by death and defection, was reinvigorated by a great power partner that turned the tables in the skies and on the battlefield. And Russia, which had worked with China since 2011 to ensure Assad did not suffer the same fate as Qaddafi by vetoing international action in Syria, now coordinated closely with Tehran and its allies to keep a mutual friend in power.
“There was a division of labor,” Buzhinskiy says, “Russia acts from the sky, bombing and delivering missile strikes, and Iran is acting on the ground, in cooperation with the Syrian Armed Forces, simultaneously.”
Smoke rises after a warplane belonging to the Russian Armed Forces bombed a residential area in the Darat Izza neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on October 4, 2016. MAHMUD FAYSAL/ANADOLU AGENCY/GETTY
Buzhinskiy confirms that Moscow’s approach proved “a model” of sorts for successful intervention for Russia and its partners. This killer choreography not only kept Assad’s forces afloat, but, as Syrian Democratic Forces head of media operations Farhad Shami acknowledges, staved off desertions from the embattled Syrian Arab Army.
“Direct Russian and Iranian support were crucial to Assad’s survival in power,” Shami tells Newsweek. “Assad benefited greatly from Russian support in getting rid of his opponents and reducing their control over regions of Syria. And most importantly, it reduced the chances of defecting for many of those who complained about him, whether they were politicians or soldiers who are still now within the institutions of the system.”
Bashar supporters make their feeling clear outside the Syrian Embassy in Moscow, during early voting for president this year. SERGEI BOBYLEV/TASS/GETTY
But Shami warns that Assad has “not once and for all survived the fall and faces many dangers if he does not achieve a sufficient degree of openness to society and change his behavior and mentality.”
Losing Wars, Choosing Battles
U.S. support for the Syrian Democratic Forces continues, though it is limited to defeating the remnants of ISIS. As Russia stepped up its own presence across Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces’ political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council, opened a line to Moscow as well in the hopes that the U.S. and Russia could work together to secure an agreement between them and Damascus.
“We are pretty interested in direct talks with Assad, with the Syrian government,” Syrian Democratic Council co-chair Elham Ahmad told a small gathering of journalists in Washington earlier this month. “We asked our partners to play a positive role in getting us to find a solution between us and the Syrian government.”
An Anti-Assad Syrian demonstration held in Whitehall, Central London. IN PICTURES LTD./CORBIS/GETTY
Progress has been slow, however, and a lack of results has led to some second guessing at times, even among the U.S.-partnered force.
“From time to time, when we don’t see any physical or any real change, we try to recalculate our ideas,” Ahmad says, expressing hope that this visit to the U.S. capital may produce “something different” from prior experiences.
As for Ford, the former ambassador, he resigned from the State Department in 2014, frustrated by what he saw as a slow and misguided approach to the war in Syria. Today, he frequently discusses what went wrong for the U.S., but ultimately he emphasizes that the government in Washington was never in a primary position to steer the course of the conflict in Syria.
“For sure our credibility took a hit,” Ford says. “But I think what your readers really need to understand is that the Americans did not control the path of events in Syria. We did not expend the resources to change the course of events there, and even if we had vastly increased the number of resources, I’m not sure that we would have come out where we wanted to.”
He acknowledges the limitations of U.S. involvement in Syria, which he said falls far more readily within Tehran and Moscow’s sphere of influence than that of Washington.
“The Americans got involved in something that was much bigger than what the United States was about in the Middle East, and in a sense we ended up just being one player among many,” he says. “And when you’re one player among many, the single player does not control it, Iran does not control it, Russia by itself does not control it, even Assad himself does not control it, the Turks don’t. It’s a really complex interplay.”
And sometimes, he argues, it is best for the U.S. to stay out of the mix altogether, especially in countries where rivals have more interest, influence and the willingness to apply both.
Says Ford, “The Americans really do need to pick and choose their battles carefully.”