Walking through Aleppo in Syria last month, Bashar al-Assad did not look like a man shouldering the fate of a nation.
As he posed for photos with locals, who queued to meet him inspecting damage from the earthquake that had devastated parts of northern Syria, Assad appeared to show as much relief as concern for victims. The country’s grinning leader seemed to realise a moment had finally arrived.
Within days of the disaster, international aid chiefs were clamouring for an audience and asking the Syrian president for permission to reach even worse hit communities outside government control. Global bodies were once again deferring to Assad as the sovereign leader of a unified state.
Within days, so too were Syria’s neighbours, as foreign ministers from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt, and officials from other Arab states travelled to Damascus for an audience, under the pretext of offering condolences. The symbolism, however, fed a seismic shift of a different nature.
For the first time in more than a decade of war and chaos, throughout which Assad had been a pariah in the eyes of his regional rivals, he was now being courted as a solution to the crisis that had earned him the tag in the first place.
The man who had presided over the disintegration of his own country, the exile of half its population and an economic ruin almost unmatched anywhere in the world for the past 70 years, had clearly been granted a comeback. A 20 February state visit to Oman, complete with red carpets, motorcades and flag-lined streets, reinforced his return. Syria’s readmission to the Arab League will probably follow later this year, cementing Assad’s rehabilitation.
“This has been a long time coming,” said a regional intelligence figure, who refused to be identified. “The case could no longer be made that the region was safer with Syria encouraged to remain rogue.”
Just what Assad has been expected to forgo, or any political leverage his renewed friends may hold over him, remains unclear.
Senior UAE and Saudi Arabian officials are known to have pushed hard on two issues; separating Syria from Iranian influence and stopping the export of vast amounts of the drug Captagon, a trade name of the synthetic stimulant fenethylline hydrochloride, to neighbouring states.
In March last year, Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, and the UAE’s president, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, set the scene for the shift now taking place, inviting Assad for an informal visit to the UAE.
Both men spelled out what was expected of Assad, positioning him as a wayward leader who could be invited back into the fold, if he changed his ways.
One year on, little appears to have changed except in regional attitudes. A drug industry backed by Syria’s most important institutions continues to transform the country into a narco state, rivalling Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel for the scale of state involvement. With revenues from the widespread export of homemade pills nearing $6bn – a figure rivalling its gross domestic product – there seems little on the economic horizon that could prise Syrian leaders away from such a bonanza.
Last month, Emirati officials intercepted 4.5m Captagon pills hidden in cans of beans. The Italian authorities, meanwhile, ordered the arrest of a Syrian citizen, Taher al-Kayali, whom they accused of coordinating a shipment of 14 tonnes of the stimulant, destined for Libya and Saudi Arabia in 2020.
Italian police say they are certain the drugs came from Syria and could be linked to the Iranian-backed Shia militant group Hezbollah.
During a trip to Jordan last week, the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, was lobbied heavily by the country’s monarch, King Abdullah, to put more pressure on Assad to stop the Captagon trade, which regional and western intelligence officers believe is being orchestrated by his younger brother, Maher al-Assad, and facilitated mainly through the Syrian army’s 4th Division, which is under his direct control. Abdullah also emphasised the role of Iranian militias in the drug trade across southern Syria, which has posed formidable problems for Jordan’s border forces and now also offers a lucrative trade in Iraq.
Just how Assad might pivot from Iran, when it remains so central to his fortunes, remains a moot point. That demand was further clouded on Friday by a surprise detente between Riyadh and Tehran, which had been at odds throughout the post-Arab spring years in which Syria, Lebanon and Yemen have often been battlegrounds for wars fought by their proxies.
The fact that Assad has reached the point of rehabilitation is in no small part due to the backing he received from Iran, which has used the insurrection against him to consolidate a bridgehead in Syria through which it can deepen its support for the most important arm of its foreign policy – Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Prising the leader of two decades from the arms of Iran, in such a context, would be almost existential for one of his main guarantors. “It is not a risk he could take,” said the regional official. “The Emiratis and the Saudis haven’t thought this one through.”
Another demand made of Assad – serious negotiations with the Syrian opposition to reach a political solution and encourage the safe return of refugees – appears equally dubious.
Even during the darkest years of the war, in which Assad was twice saved from defeat by his backers, discussions with opposition groups were never taken seriously and any agreements between both sides were centred on which part of Syria defeated communities should be exiled to.
Repeated western- and Russian-backed gatherings in Geneva and Astana in Kazakhstan since 2013 failed to generate real momentum, and demands for political power-sharing have never taken root. Brutality and fear have been used to reinforce Assad’s police state, largely with impunity.
His foes were once centre stage at the UN demanding that he be held to account for his atrocities. The lesson he can take from the heated words then and the welcome he now feels is that he can sweat anyone out – without changing his ways.
Syria being restored to its rightful status as a historical centre of regional influence has been a mantra that Assad has stuck to for the 23 years he has been president and was a core belief of his father, Hafez al-Assad, whose death in June 2000 paved the way for the unlikely leader.
In almost always refusing to meaningfully negotiate, Assad has learned one of his father’s core lessons. In seeing the results of this intransigence, he would probably divine wisdom in the elder Assad’s views.
A European ambassador in the UAE said: “The Turks, Russians and Iranians are all impatient for influence and to them it doesn’t matter if Assad stays around in a weak country, much of which he can’t speak for. If they can’t influence malign behaviour, it doesn’t matter.
“To them, more important is reaping a reward from the ruins on their doorstep. I think the Gulf states now feel the same.”
Source: The Guardian