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Assad's Rehabilitation: Crafting a Western Response

Assad's Rehabilitation: Crafting a Western Response
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

It was no secret to Western governments that Syria’s return to the Arab League under Assad’s leadership had been in the works for months. What caught them off guard was the speed at which the process accelerated on the eve of the Arab League summit in Jeddah, spurred by Saudi Arabia. Equally surprising was that Assad scored this diplomatic victory without making any concessions. Syria’s return to the Arab fold is completely devoid of any meaningful conditions or contingencies.

A High-Risk Rehabilitation

The unconditional nature of Syria's reinstatement presents a grave ethical dilemma. How can we, in the 21st century, accept the rehabilitation of a regime responsible for monstrous crimes rarely witnessed in contemporary history? Lest we forget the mass killing of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, the displacement of millions more, and the utter destruction of an entire country...all on Assad’s watch. And what consequences will this have on the respect for international humanitarian law and the fight against impunity? Suffice it to say that Arab leaders have shouldered a weighty responsibility when deciding to welcome back Assad.

Proponents of rehabilitating the Assad regime argue that maintaining isolation would have yielded little change and only prolonged the current impasse. They contend that the negative consequences of this stalemate - the presence of millions of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, the risk of terrorism, the transformation of Syria into a narco-state, not to mention Iran’s hold over Damascus - disproportionately burden the Arab world.

For seasoned observers of Syrian politics, there is an unmistakable sense of "déjà vu all over again." Disentangling the Assad regime from the clutches of Iranian control (and Turkish influence) has long been a preoccupation for the Arab world and even certain Western actors. However, history has shown that this aspiration has consistently proven elusive. Damascus has also adeptly leaned on its ability to destabilize neighboring regions as a tactic to garner support from oil-rich monarchies, and in particular financial backing. This approach aligns with the traditional playbook of both Assad senior and junior. In the past, the Syrian regime’s primary form of leverage was the threat of terrorism. Today, it’s Captagon, a very harmful synthetic drug that is mass-produced in Syria and exported throughout the region, with corrosive effects being felt the most by civil societies in Jordan and Gulf nations.

Policy Options for Western Decision-Makers 

As the Arab world moves towards diplomatic normalization with the Assad regime, how should Western powers respond? We see three options.

The natural inclination of American and European leaders - representing the first option - is to maintain the status quo, effectively doing nothing and continuing their current approach of largely disregarding the Syrian crisis. Thus far, this is what the Biden administration has done, following in the footsteps of the Obama administration. 

But this option has one major drawback. It runs the risk of driving a wedge between Western powers and the Arab states who are leading the effort to reconcile with Damascus. The latter were quick to suggest that Western inaction had forced their hand. To successfully secure concessions from Assad following his rehabilitation, Arab states will need to go beyond increasing humanitarian aid and invest in the country’s "reconstruction." They will inevitably turn to the West - as they already have - to get sanctions lifted. Pressure will mount on European nations, since the U.S. Congress, through its Foreign Affairs Committee, has already expressed its intention not just to maintain but also possibly tighten the Caesar Act, the cornerstone of the sanctions regime against Syria.

A second option would be to follow the lead of Arab states and consider reengaging with the Assad regime. In fact, some European countries like Hungary, Greece and Italy have long advocated for this approach. But the cost in terms of defending and upholding Europe's core values would be extraordinary. One thing is for sure however. The debate surrounding the lifting of sanctions and reopening of embassies in Damascus will be reignited throughout Europe. 

The security argument will undoubtedly be raised by many, if not all. It centers on the idea that the process of rehabilitating Assad's regime in Arab states will make it more tempting for the United States to withdraw its remaining troops from northeastern Syria. In a similar vein, Turkey will also eventually reach an agreement with the regime, which will expand Assad’s control over Syrian territory. In this scenario, the United States and its allies would no longer have autonomous control over the terrorist threat which they are currently able to manage through their military presence on a fraction of Syrian territory. The conclusion of this line of reasoning is to advocate for rapprochement with the Assad regime based on security considerations.

We would argue that this argument also presents serious flaws. It would be irresponsible for Washington (and Paris) to relinquish the fight against the jihadist core entrenched in northeastern Syria - and unwise to abandon their Kurdish allies. Experience shows that security cooperation with the Assad regime has always been a fool's errand. The priority for Western leaders should be to stabilize northeast Syria and establish its autonomy from Damascus. Former US Special Envoy for Syria, Joel Rayburn, adds that the same reasoning should apply to the northwest (which includes the bastion of opposition in Idlib province), a larger and more populous region than Lebanon that remains outside the control of the Assad regime. 

A Strategy of Cooperation in Combating the Captagon Trade

A third option remains: renewed Western engagement in addressing the Syrian crisis, while upholding the isolation of the Assad regime and forging collaboration with Arab nations that chose to go down a different path.

On a principled level, the United States, Europe, and Arab nations all converge in their support for the political settlement framework outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 2254. But this is wishful thinking since that the Assad regime has consistently disregarded UN-mediated negotiation and has even less reason to do so today. Daniel Gerlach is therefore right to suggest that an alternative common starting point in terms of principles could be based on the aspirations of Syrian society, as expressed in initiatives like the Code of Conduct for Syrian Coexistence

On a practical level, the fight against Captagon seems to be a logical foundation on which to build a strategy of cooperation with Syria's neighbors. Curbing the illicit drug trade is a top priority for those Arab states that have sought reconciliation with Assad. However, it is highly doubtful that significant and lasting measures will be obtained from the Syrian regime on this front. The trafficking of Captagon represents a significant part of the Syrian budget and fills the pockets of Assad’s cronies. A Euro-American coalition could provide substantial support to Jordan and Gulf countries, among others, to ensure that Syria ceases to be a narco-state. Cooperation between Western and Arab laboratories and specialized law enforcement agencies would facilitate the identification and tracking of illicit trade routes. Intelligence sharing, such as satellite imagery, would prove highly beneficial. Providing capacity building assistance to the most affected states in areas such as law enforcement, customs, judiciary, intelligence, and even military operations (targeted strikes on identified facilities) could also make a difference. 

The Stabilization of Northern Syria 

Could such a project alone encapsulate Western reengagement in the resolution of the Syrian crisis? Probably not. As we have already touched on, the priority for Western powers should be to stabilize the northeast (and perhaps the northwest) for counterterrorism purposes. It should also encompass the fight against impunity, alongside other concerns such as the "safe" return of refugees. On this last point as well, there is little chance that the Assad regime will change its stance. The government has openly acknowledged that its interest does not involve reintegrating Sunni exiles, who could potentially harbor hostility towards the regime, back into the national community. Nevertheless, there could be complementarity between the Arab priority of combating Captagon and the Western priority of stabilizing northern Syria. Western powers that commit to supporting their Arab partners on the Captagon issue would be justified in expecting reciprocal support on northern Syria.

Reestablishing cooperation between Europe, the United States, and their Arab partners becomes increasingly necessary as we prepare for the next shockwave on Syria. Turkey, in its quest to alleviate the burden of Syrian refugees on its territory, is also attempting to reengage with Damascus. But a collision between Turkey and the Syrian regime cannot be ruled out either. In either case, the risk of further destabilization in northern Syria looms large. It is worth noting that Turkey is also affected by Captagon trafficking. According to experts, the Syrian regime seems intent on expanding into the promising "Turkish market". A regional strategy involving Turkey and other local and external actors, must be devised to combat the drug trade effectively. 



Copyright Image : AFP

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