Time for the West to embrace Assad again?

That Washington lifted sanctions on Khartoum in 2017 offers further hope for the Syrian regime down the road.

It’s worth stepping back to consider just how far the Syrian regime has rebounded. Many thought the end was near in 2012. High-level figures, including the Syrian defence minister and President Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, were killed by a rebel-laid bomb in Damascus. In the months that followed, Damascus found itself facing opposition forces on three fronts. The end of the Assad regime seemed inevitable.

Only the naive would believe that today. Arab countries long opposed to the regime are now taking steps to bury the hatchet. So, what would the West gain from doing the same? What would such a move cost?

First, the deaths due to exposure of nine Syrian children at the Rubkan and other refugee camps in recent weeks might have been prevented had international aid agencies been on the ground. The United Nations and other organisations are blocked by the regime from assisting at Rubkan and dozens of other camps. Is the chance to save lives today, tomorrow and in the months and years ahead worth the price of making peace with Assad?

A post-war Syria devoid of major international investment in health and education would affect millions of traumatised Syrians more than regime leaders. Major organisations such as the United Nations, the European Union and others know that. A time will come when they push Western governments to re-engage with Damascus.

The Damascus charm offensive is in full swing. The head of the Scottish Catholic International Aid Front, for example, recently returned from Syria, telling ITV News and others that the international community had a responsibility to help rebuild the country.

Damascus has said little publicly about realigning with the international community. However, having worked for pro-government media outlets in the Syrian capital before the war and gained insight into the way the regime perceives the outside world, I can safely make a few assumptions: The regime would regard a return to the international fold as a major coup and it would also be willing to make cynical use of incidents such as the Rubkan camp deaths as leverage.

The propaganda effort that has proven extremely effective at convincing the Syrian people the government was battling terrorists at the height of the war remains a potent if under-appreciated weapon.

From the president downward, senior Syrian officials — bureaucrats and those on the front line — are convinced that the regime is the legitimate power in Syria and that Syria is a central cog in Middle East politics. That Iran has invested so heavily in the regime backs up those convictions.

Dealing with Syria means dealing with Iran. While US President Donald Trump has made clear his disinterest in working with Tehran, things could change if a Democratic candidate won the 2020 US presidential election. In that case, there may be attempts to solidify the Iran nuclear deal. By then, Damascus would hope that it could serve as a conduit between Washington and Tehran and, in so doing, elevate its own strategic importance.

Some commentators claim that Trump is leading the drive to rehabilitate Assad. “Trump likes Assad,” wrote a columnist in Britain’s Independent newspaper. “He thinks he is one of the ‘tough guys’ who managed to force their will over the international community.”

Even so, there is one major roadblock on the path to Assad’s return from exile: the international criminal courts system. Since the 1950s, governments have rarely managed to fully shrug off at least some responsibility for civilian deaths on the scale that occurred in Syria. Individuals associated with the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia and with the Khmer Rouge regime and the Cambodia genocide have felt the full force of international justice.

Luckily for Damascus, the United States is not a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Damascus might, therefore, look to Sudan as an example. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the ICC for war crimes and other offences but dozens of international humanitarian agencies openly operate there. That Washington lifted sanctions on Khartoum in 2017 offers further hope for the Syrian regime down the road.

The uncomfortable truth is that, more likely than not, Western governments will be working with Bashar Assad sooner rather than later.

Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.