Making Peace With Assad’s State of Barbarism

As Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron signal they're not after regime change in Damascus, both leaders should remember there's a price to keeping Assad in power.


President Donald Trump’s trip to Britain went from a state visit, to a quick stopover landing under the cover of night, to being postponed till next year. But he got the royal treatment in Paris instead, a guest of France’s new president Emmanuel Macron for the Bastille Day celebrations.

President Donald Trump’s trip to Britain went from a state visit, to a quick stopover landing under the cover of night, to being postponed till next year. But he got the royal treatment in Paris instead, a guest of France’s new president Emmanuel Macron for the Bastille Day celebrations.

Undoubtedly on the agenda, after the holiday’s annual military parade, is Syria — once under French mandate and a country that Paris continues to see as an entry point for its influence in the Middle East.

But endless unanswered questions have been raised since Macron’s inauguration about what will drive his Middle East policy: values or realpolitik? The same, of course, might be said about Trump. The U.S. president bombed President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in April because Assad was killing “beautiful babies,” but his secretary of state has also indicated that the Trump administration was ready to let Russia decide Assad’s fate — a way of saying Assad could stay in power.

Macron, for his part, warned that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be a red line for France. But he also recently told Le Figaro that Assad was an enemy of the Syrian people, not of France — appearing to imply that he was unconcerned about the devastation wrought on the country by Assad, only about the repercussions of the conflict in France.

How France and the United States envision the resolution of the conflict in Syria today will help determine how sustainable the peace will be or whether it will contain within the seeds of further devastation. Tragedies, personal or national, tend to announce themselves long before they arrive.

Twenty-five years ago, French sociologist Michel Seurat penned a series of essays that brought to light what he described as “l’Etat de barbarie,” the state of barbarism, inherent in the Assads’ rule. He detailed their savagery in repressing the Islamist uprising of the early 1980s, with summary executions of dozens of villagers, hundreds of prisoners shot to death in their cells, and indiscriminate shelling of whole towns.

“The crumbling of the political legitimacy of the regime translates on the ground to a reactivation of forms of legitimacy that precede political structures,” he wrote. In other words, the solidarity of ethnic and sectarian groups, rather than sociopolitical organizations, held sway. President Hafez al-Assad’s political vision had devolved to consisting solely of “tying the destiny of the Alawite community to his own destiny.” 

Seurat would pay the ultimate price for his work. He was kidnapped in Beirut in 1985, at the height of the civil war, by the Islamic Jihad, a group with ties to Syria and Iran. He was executed in captivity, his body only found and repatriated to France in 2005. As both Trump and Macron broach the possibility of reconciling themselves to Assad’s reign in Damascus, his writings remain a cautionary tale about the costs of that approach.   

Bashar al-Assad himself was once the guest of a French president for Bastille Day. Nicolas Sarkozy, eager to do the opposite of everything his predecessor had done, rolled out the red carpet in 2008 for the Syrian leader, who had been transformed into an international pariah by Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush.

But Sarkozy’s solicitousness marked a reversion to an earlier pattern. If the Holy Grail for international diplomats is the achievement of regional peace in the Middle East, peace between Syria and Israel has long been identified as a first step toward it. As Henry Kissinger once said, “You can’t make war in the Middle East without Egypt, and you can’t make peace without Syria.” That one sentence sent endless diplomats and officials on the road to Damascus in a vain quest to persuade Bashar’s father, President Hafez al-Assad, to sign on the dotted line of various peace accords. The signature never came.

At first, there was more hope in Bashar, a British-educated ophthalmologist with a pretty wife, who kept making the right noises about peace and promising domestic reforms — promises that sounded good enough that everyone kept coming back, hoping the next visit would seal the deal.

Assad’s isolation began when his regime was accused of ordering the assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in a massive truck bomb on Beirut’s seaside corniche on Feb. 14, 2005. Huge protests ensued in Lebanon, calling for an end to the 30-year Syrian occupation of that country. With Bush and Chirac, a close friend of Hariri, leading the charge, the international community ostracized Assad and forced his 15,000 troops into a humiliating retreat out of the country that the Assad family considered a part of Syria.

Sarkozy’s 2008 invitation to the “well behaved autocrat,” as Le Monde described him then, ended five years of painful isolation for Assad. It was a period during which his political obituary was being drafted and people close to the regime in Damascus would joke to you in hushed tones about who should turn off the lights on the way out of the country.

What motivated Sarkozy was the belief that unlike his predecessor, he could forge a different relationship with Assad, and that his persona and cunning could persuade the ruler of Damascus to change his ways. (The same self-confidence might be said to have motivated Secretary of State John Kerry, who was one of the last to withdraw his faith in Assad after his forces started shooting protesters in 2011.)

One can speculate about an alternative course of events if Sarkozy had not rehabilitated Assad in 2008, one where perhaps the pressure had not let up and Assad would have had to deliver on his vague promises to reform. Or possibly popular dissent would have swelled up sooner than it did in 2011, but would not have earned the same ruthless response from a leader already cowed into submission. In these scenarios Syria could have remained a country intact. We will never know.

But today it’s worth pondering the trajectory on which Macron’s approach is placing Syria and the region. What France wants from Syria is no longer peace with Israel, or even a rejection of its alliance with Iran. Assad, in any case, can deliver neither of those things. Macron’s focus is understandably on counterterrorism and stemming the flow of jihadis from Syria into Europe.

In his much-scrutinized and wide-ranging interview with Le Figaro, Macron made two key points on Syria. The first one was the statement about Assad not being the enemy of France. The other was a clarification of his position on Assad’s future. Having once said that there was no solution to the conflict in Syria with Assad in power, he clarified, “I never said that the destitution of Bashar al-Assad was a prerequisite for everything, because no one has introduced to me his legitimate successor.”

But as France well knows, there’s also a price for keeping Assad in power. In 1981, agents suspected of working for the Syrian secret service assassinated Louis Delamare, the French ambassador in Lebanon, in broad daylight in Beirut. In 1983, the two attacks against the U.S. Marines and French paratroopers in Beirut were blamed on the Islamic Jihad (an early version of Hezbollah), which was tied to Iran and Syria. In the mid-1980s, Paris suffered a string of terrorist attacks that killed dozens and were linked directly or indirectly to groups with ties to Syria.

This may seem like ancient history, but the Assad regime has also made veiled threats against the West far more recently. Assad’s cousin, businessman Rami Makhlouf, warned in a New York Times interview: “Nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid anything happens to this regime. … They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone.”

It was another version of a favorite Syrian threat: We can help bring peace to the region, but ignore us at your own peril because we can cause havoc.

At the beginning of the uprising, Syria’s Grand Mufti threatened to send suicide bombers to Europe if Syria came under attack. There is nothing to indicate that the Syrian regime has any connection whatsoever to any of the attacks that recently occurred in Europe, but what dozens of French, Syrian, and Lebanese intellectuals point out in an open letter to Macron is that Assad helps create the environment in which radical groups and jihadis can thrive. Rehabilitating Assad only once again delays a sustainable solution to a problem that has now reached the shores of Europe.

Just as troublesome is Macron’s second statement about legitimacy and Assad’s future. Despite past statements from world leaders, including François Hollande and Barack Obama, that there is no place for Assad in Syria’s future, none of the communiqués that emerged from peace talks in Syria ever stated that Assad’s departure was a precondition to a solution. So while Macron’s words alarmed many in the opposition, it does not necessarily contradict the current approach in Syrian peace talks.

The first Geneva communiqué in 2012 did mention that a new government should be formed by “mutual consent,” which indirectly excludes the possibility that Assad could participate because the opposition would reject it. But today, six years into the war, few truly believe that Assad will simply depart. Whatever the outcome, it will include a transition in which Assad is probably involved.

One does have to wonder about this legitimacy that Macron speaks of. Does Assad still have it, after unleashing every type of violence against his own people? Is he still legitimately a president who can be relied upon to cooperate on counterterrorism, when he is barely in control of his own country and is wholly dependent on the fighting power of Iran and Russia?

As for Macron’s question — Where is Assad’s natural successor? — ask any Syrian opposed to Assad’s rule and he or she will have the answer for you: Assad has killed, jailed, or exiled anyone who could rise as a potential replacement. It’s a ruthlessly efficient modus operandi that the Assads have used before, including in Lebanon, where they stand accused of having steadily assassinated over decades every progressive politician and intellectual figure.

Within rebel-held areas in Syria, there are probably possible future leaders, the product of years of civil resistance, who are little known today to the outside world but could surface once the guns fall silent. If the West wants a ready-made, English-speaking successor who could lead a transition government, a few names have already been making the rounds. There’s Abdullah Dardari, a former Syrian finance minister who has been leading the planning for Syrian reconstruction at the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, though he could be seen as too close to Assad for some in the opposition. Another name is Ayman Asfari, a Syrian-born British oil businessman and outspoken critic of Assad who is the founder of the Asfari Foundation, which provides humanitarian aid and promotes civil society. A third name is Riad Hijab, a former prime minister who defected in 2012 and is the current head of the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee.

If a compromise is to be found for a transition with Assad, it may well have to involve such figures. The key is to make sure a transition is truly inclusive, even with a technocratic leader. After more than 40 years of Assad rule in Syria, it may be hard to imagine anyone else presiding over the country. But imagination is precisely what is required in this situation — that and building up military leverage on the ground that the West can use at the negotiating table.

Change the dates and some names and Seurat’s essays and descriptions could be about today’s events in Syria. And yet unlike Saddam Hussein or Muammar al-Qaddafi, the Assads have always managed to come out on top. France, the United States, and others always seem to revert to courting the Assads, and hoping that this time their promises of cooperation are not a double-edged sword. Perhaps Macron should read Seurat’s writings to understand the kind of adversary he faces.

So, values or realpolitik? Sometimes, realpolitik without values is simply the denial of reality.

Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

Kim Ghattas is a BBC correspondent covering international affairs and a senior visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is the author of "The Secretary: A Journey With Hillary Clinton From Beirut to the Heart of American Power." Twitter: @BBCKimGhattas

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