Taming Syria’s Rogue Man – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


Western powers have realized that removing Syrian Bashar al-Assad from his throne is more costly than assumed when the peaceful uprising began in 2011. After half a million deaths, the vast majority is in the hands of forces loyal to the Assad Regime, tens of thousands of authentic photos documenting the industrial-scale torture in Assad’s dungeons and the displacement of half the country’s population, a volte-face seems to be taking hold in Western political circles.

Assad’s intransigence throughout the conflict is paying off and Western countries are lowering their expectations – perhaps a change in behavior is enough for now. The conversation has recently focused on a more-for-more approach, a strategy in which small concessions, offered incrementally on the condition of reciprocity, are intended to lead to a mutually beneficial relationship that bridges the gap between Western goals in Syria and those pursued by the leadership of Damascus. In December 2021, the UN special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, said he had meetings in several Arab countries as well as with the Americans and Europeans and he believes that “there is a serious opportunity to discuss the possibility of implementing a step-by-step approach.

Currently, most countries opposed to Assad want him to accept UN Resolution 2254, which, among other things, calls for fair elections, a new constitution and credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance. However, Assad has refused to budge as the level of pressure placed on him is considerably lower than what is needed to force him to accept the terms of Resolution 2254, which will ultimately push him out of power and potentially into jail. Given the agonizing political stalemate, a new approach to resolving the Syrian conflict is indeed warranted. But could a policy of more for more work with Assad?

Taming a Master of Deception

Although Assad’s allies have considerable influence over him, he is not a mere puppet as those who despise him often depict. He is a master of deception. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example, Assad’s intelligence agencies facilitated the passage of jihadists through the country’s western border regions. In an attempt to limit US regional ambitions, Assad has helped turn the situation into a quagmire for the US and its allies while misleadingly attributing the transit of foreign fighters to the inability to control such borders. porous and analogous to the difficulty the United States faces when trying to control the flow of migrants from Mexico.

Moreover, in the first year of civil unrest against his rule, Assad responded to two of the main demands of the protesters: the lifting of the emergency laws in force since 1963 and the abolition of article eight of the constitution. , which states that “the ruling party in society and the state is the Baath Party. In the years that followed, arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial executions of dissidents grew exponentially, with the share of parliamentary seats held by the Ba’ath Party increasing ever since.

In 2013, after two years of extreme repression, the Assad regime, according to all reliable sources, began using chemical weapons to kill its own people. After allegedly handing over its entire stockpile of nerve agents under the auspices of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, his regime has repeatedly launched chemical attacks, crossing the Obama administration’s “red line” against the use of chemical weapons.

Assad would be difficult to tame as his history attests. Therefore, Western policymakers should proceed with caution with him. And while a more-for-more approach is worth trying, four principles should be applied when attempting to implement it.

Concessions

To ensure that political goals are achieved in a sustainable way, and given Assad’s history of deception, his concessions must be verifiable and counter-concessions must be easily reversed. For example, the lifting of the Caesar Act, which is part of American legislation, in exchange for the to promise to release all detainees alive is neither verifiable nor easily reversible. A more ideal scenario would involve, as a starting point, gaining access to Assad’s prisons. Once the names of all living prisoners are verified, granting them amnesty can be done in exchange for the lifting of sanctions on financial transactions. These sanctions can be reimposed if Assad chooses to re-arrest released detainees

No free lunches

In November 2021, a group of companies from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced a ten-year loan investment to build a solar power plant near Damascus following the visit of the UAE Foreign Minister to Syria – the first of its kind since the conflict began. Similar steps have been taken that benefit Assad without any discernible concessions in return. For example, his regime was also allowed to host the Arab Energy Conference in 2024. Giving concessions without receiving any feedback makes the more-for-more approach look like unconditional normalization.

Take an all-in-one approach

Western countries do not see Syria as important enough to justify making significant concessions to Assad’s allies in exchange for an end to the conflict. However, there are inexpensive but effective policy changes that can increase Western influence in Damascus. These changes include the adoption of a coherent, active and coordinated internal policy. Another policy improvement is the more effective use of existing toolkits, such as sanctions.

Do it with a grand strategy in mind

The main risk in taking the more-for-more approach when it comes to Assad is to use him as a springboard for a face-saving end to the conflict. A resolution that does not address the root causes – authoritarianism, brutality, bigotry, inequality and corruption – is a recipe for perpetual instability.

In neighboring Lebanon, for example, much of the current socio-political fragility is rooted in the Taif Accord. Although the deal ended the civil war in 1990, it did so simply by changing the sectarian power-sharing system and satisfying most of the country’s warlords while doing very little to address the issues. more important. A lasting deal that improves regional stability and ends human suffering is a deal between or for the people, not the rival warlords suppressing it.

More for more can be used to relaunch the deadlocked political process. However, it alone cannot bring about a lasting and just solution to the conflict. Assad must go. He must finally accept UNSCR 2254 and be brought to justice. Any political action that does not keep this in mind in the long term is not only unfair to Syrians and humanity as a whole, but will plant the seeds of the next conflict in the region – leaving Syrians and the rest of the world grapple with the consequences.

Dr. Karam Shaar is Research Director at the Operations & Policy Center (OPC) in Ghazi Aintab, Turkey, and a non-resident researcher at the Middle East Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @Karam__Shaar.

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