Analysis

Bashar al-Assad’s Unlikely Comeback

Regional governments that once shunned Damascus are mending fences with a murderous regime—showing human rights abusers everywhere how to commit atrocities with impunity.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is seen during an interview in Damascus, Syria, on Feb. 11, 2016. JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images
By , head of the Middle East and North Africa division at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin and the author of The Wisdom of Syria's Waiting Game: Foreign Policy Under the Assads.

Things are looking up for Bashar al-Assad. Jordan’s King Abdullah II spoke to him for the first time in 10 years after reopening the border with Syria; United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed recently visited the Syrian capital Damascus and agreed to increase economic cooperation with Assad’s regime; Saudi intelligence chief Khalid bin Ali Al Humaidan met with his Syrian counterpart Hussam Luka in Cairo as part of an Egyptian effort to restore Syria’s place in the Arab League; and Egypt has been making friendly overtures of its own. Ten years after Assad started violently crushing a peaceful uprising, the tide appears to have turned.

With the best-documented war in history, confirmed crimes against humanity, and proven use of chemical weapons in breach of international conventions, how did Assad find his way back into the world’s good graces?

There are the obvious factors, including Russia and China’s diplomatic cover in the United Nations Security Council and the massive military support provided by Russia and Iran, without which the Syrian Army, which was reduced to half its size by 2013, would have collapsed. The regime was also helped by the failure of interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, even though these episodes happened under different conditions. Such precedents were invoked to dismiss intervention as an option even before the Syrian opposition demanded it.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad photographed during an interview in Damascus on February 11, 2016.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad photographed during an interview in Damascus on February 11, 2016.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is seen during an interview in Damascus, Syria, on Feb. 11, 2016. JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images

Things are looking up for Bashar al-Assad. Jordan’s King Abdullah II spoke to him for the first time in 10 years after reopening the border with Syria; United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed recently visited the Syrian capital Damascus and agreed to increase economic cooperation with Assad’s regime; Saudi intelligence chief Khalid bin Ali Al Humaidan met with his Syrian counterpart Hussam Luka in Cairo as part of an Egyptian effort to restore Syria’s place in the Arab League; and Egypt has been making friendly overtures of its own. Ten years after Assad started violently crushing a peaceful uprising, the tide appears to have turned.

With the best-documented war in history, confirmed crimes against humanity, and proven use of chemical weapons in breach of international conventions, how did Assad find his way back into the world’s good graces?

There are the obvious factors, including Russia and China’s diplomatic cover in the United Nations Security Council and the massive military support provided by Russia and Iran, without which the Syrian Army, which was reduced to half its size by 2013, would have collapsed. The regime was also helped by the failure of interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, even though these episodes happened under different conditions. Such precedents were invoked to dismiss intervention as an option even before the Syrian opposition demanded it.

Given those precedents, military inaction against Assad may be understandable. But the creeping diplomatic rapprochement is harder to explain—or justify.


Trucks enter Syria through the Nassib/Jaber border post with Jordan on the day of its reopening, on September 29, 2021.
Trucks enter Syria through the Nassib/Jaber border post with Jordan on the day of its reopening, on September 29, 2021.

Trucks enter Syria from Jordan through the Naseeb-Jaber border post on the day of its reopening on Sept. 29. LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images

In my 2013 book The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game, I predicted that, faced with a crisis, Bashar al-Assad would act as his father did—resist international demands for change and instead wait for others to change their priorities, which, in the Assads’ experience, they inevitably do. The only deviations from this pattern have occurred when the regime has been faced with an existential crisis, as in 1990 when it lost the Soviet Union as a patron, or in 1998 when, fed up with the sanctuary and support the regime was providing to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, Turkey threatened intervention.

There were times during Syria’s decade-long war when it looked like the regime had overplayed its hand. It seemed the chemical attack in August 2013, which killed over 1,400 civilians, might change the equation. After all, once the world was watching, there was a declared “red line,” and this breach of international norms had consequences beyond Syria.

The common expectation was that this might finally force Assad to step down. Yet, not only did Assad succeed in waiting out the crisis and spurning the obligations placed on him by the 2013 Kerry-Lavrov deal, which required the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons program, he escalated the war and continued to use chemical weapons.

The effectiveness of Assad’s waiting game can be explained only in part by the perception cultivated by his supporters that the regime represents the “lesser evil” in Syria. This notion could hold only from 2013 until the defeat of the Islamic State, whose spectacular atrocities made some forget that the Syrian regime was using the same techniques of torture and murder, albeit more systematically and on a much larger scale.

If the regime can present itself as a rational actor willing to engage in strategic dialogue, it can wait out the tide of negative attention.

The regime’s success has been in convincing international actors that it is interested only in ruling the country and that its violence is a necessary if heavy-handed way to preserve the state. If it can present itself as a rational actor willing to engage in strategic dialogue, it can wait out the tide of negative attention.

This of course only works because of the wishful thinking and will to believe of some international actors. They assume that Assad will engage constructively at some point without credible external pressure; that the choice is between Assad and instability, or Assad and the Islamic State; and that political transition can occur only through Assad’s cooperation.

Ever since 2011, the regime has made the U.N. the primary focus of its diplomacy. It chooses highly visible forums because it doesn’t trust its own personnel and restricts their travel. Syria’s foreign policy has always been multi-pronged.

To be taken seriously on the regional level, the Assads have developed different tools. Hafez al-Assad for many years cultivated relationships with nonstate actors from Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan, which he could activate to gain leverage in diplomacy. This continued with his son, Bashar. The transfer of jihadists to Iraq in 2003 and subsequent years, and the political assassinations in Lebanon from 2005 until today, are the best-documented examples.

Due to its wish to be accepted as a legitimate power crucial for regional stability, the regime paradoxically engages in destabilizing strategies—and it pays off. The strategy has worked in Lebanon, and even successive U.S. administrations have been willing to overlook the regime’s infiltration of jihadists into Iraq to target U.S. troops. Of Syria’s neighboring states, only Israel and, to a limited extent, Turkey have been able to defend themselves against these methods.


Protesters against Assad’s use of chemical weapons gather outside the U.S Capitol on September 9, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Protesters against Assad’s use of chemical weapons gather outside the U.S Capitol on September 9, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Protesters against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons gather outside the U.S Capitol in Washington on Sept. 9, 2013. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Like most authoritarian states, the regime was willing to tolerate an internal opposition as long as it remained small and divided and worked within acceptable parameters. Confronted with a revolutionary movement that was creative, neither infiltrated nor compromised by outside forces, and that held an authentic interest in political change and advocating for a peaceful alternative, the government turned aggressively against the opposition, seeing their popularity and credibility as a threat.

In 2011 and 2012, the Assad regime assassinated charismatic representatives of nonviolent resistance such as Ibrahim Qashoush or Ghiath Matar, while deliberately overlooking jihadists, who were able to use this reprieve to expand their influence.

Whatever alternatives to Assad may have existed, however democratic their vision, however well-meaning their activities, faced an orchestrated campaign to eliminate them or at least their reputation. This worked particularly well with Syria’s Civil Defense, the first responders better known as the “White Helmets.” All this was meant to create confusion and leave audiences with the impression that there were no good guys—to make diplomats, politicians, and others fearful that they might be sacrificing stability for a worse alternative.

There were mysterious terrorist acts in Syria and neighboring Turkey and Lebanon that were used to spook domestic and foreign audiences. In a number of terrorist attacks in the Turkish town of Reyhanli, those convicted had close ties to the Syrian regime.

In Lebanon, it was easier for the Assad regime to use its shady connections to scare the country it had occupied until 2005. In August 2012, the former Lebanese cabinet minister Michel Samaha was arrested over a plot to place more than 20 bombs during a visit by the Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai in northern Lebanon. This was meant to be portrayed as an Islamist attack against Christians: “This is what Bashar wants,” Samaha was quoted as saying.

Behind this plan to exacerbate sectarian tensions and plunge Lebanon into a civil war was Ali Mamlouk, chief coordinator of the various Syrian intelligence services and special security advisor to Bashar. Had his plan succeeded, this would most likely have incited hatred against Syrian refugees in Lebanon. On top of that, the message to the Lebanese government and people was clear: If Syria goes down, so will you.

Meanwhile, the regime was drawing on Lebanese manpower, namely Hezbollah. The Syrian Arab Army was a mess by 2013, lacking discipline, order, or manpower. For blunt violence, the regime had the “shabiha” and special Tiger Forces, but for battlefield experience, it had to rely on the well-trained and hierarchical Hezbollah.

But hundreds of Hezbollah fighters dying in Syria created resentment in Lebanon, where Hezbollah had cultivated its image as a resistance to Israel. Many of its members and supporters did not see a point in killing and dying for Assad. Yet Assad did not even feel compelled to ease the internal Lebanese pressure on Hezbollah—furthered by popular discontent over the more than one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

There are millions of Syrians who have fled to Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Despite living in miserable conditions, hardly any have returned to Syria. Assad is aware of the burden these neighboring countries are shouldering and has tried to use it as leverage. He has used new offensives in Idlib, Syria, where two million to three million displaced people are stuck, to pressure Turkey, where growing domestic anti-refugee sentiment and demands for the government to solve the problem led to tangible repression of refugees after Erdogan’s ruling party suffered losses in the 2019 local elections. Such pressure also deepens Ankara’s rift with the EU.

Arab states’ creeping rapprochement with Assad is also exposing the limits of the United States’ complacent and misguided approach.

The influx of refugees to the EU has also contributed to the rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the Turkish president announced he’d “open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees” to Europe when criticized for the occupation of parts of northern Syria. Intensifying the chaos then allows the regime to present itself as the stable default.

For years now, the Assad regime has been participating in the U.N.-brokered Geneva peace process, a series of conferences starting in 2012 that aimed to end violence in Syria and find a solution to the conflict. The U.N.’s aim is to achieve a political transition, as agreed to by the U.N. Security Council. But this is an outcome that the regime is committed to avoiding. None of the negotiation rounds have delivered any tangible improvement for Syrian citizens.

The committee, which recently held its sixth round of talks, could not even reach an agreement on constitutional principles. Rather than a forum for the regime to negotiate, the Geneva process and its sub-elements have served more as theater and occasions for regime officials to go shop in Europe. Even the very patient U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen described the meeting as a “big disappointment.”

Arab states’ creeping rapprochement with Assad is also exposing the limits of the United States’ complacent and misguided approach. Since the start, diplomatic initiatives have floundered in the absence of a credible threat of force. The regime has been more than willing to participate in the charade as long as it remains free to continue its violent repression. By contrast, the only time it made some concessions was in September 2013, when it was briefly faced with the threat of intervention. (Airstrikes by the Trump administration in 2017-18 did not frighten Assad or pose a genuine threat to his rule.)


People walk in Damascus in front of a giant billboard of Assad on December 15, 2021.
People walk in Damascus in front of a giant billboard of Assad on December 15, 2021.

People walk in front of a giant billboard of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Syria, on Dec. 15. LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images

The regime has so far given no reason to assume that diplomacy alone will get it to change its behavior. Nor has it given any indication that it is willing to make concessions for a lasting peace. It could have offered or honored amnesties, but there isn’t one example of successful reconciliation from any province in Syria.

The local cease-fires strategy embraced by the U.N. under then-Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura delivered much of Syria to the regime without securing any lasting commitments, according to an Atlantic Council report. In areas retaken, the regime has been meticulously investigating any citizen suspected of being politically active, along with their family members. Those arrested have disappeared.

The issue of the more than 100,000 forcibly disappeared people is pressing and the regime’s way of addressing this significant matter is particularly relevant. When family members insisted on their right to know the whereabouts of their loved ones, Russia pressured the regime to disclose their fate. The regime’s response was a few hundred carelessly issued death certificates, many stating natural causes. This is characteristic of the regime’s approach: It will cooperate formally but not substantively.

The regime’s weaponization of aid also reveals its approach toward dealing with the international community. During the sieges of East Aleppo until 2016 and Ghouta until 2018, the regime did not even respond to U.N. demands for aid relief. It allowed only a limited number of convoys and arbitrarily removed items from the trucks that had been approved. Citizens waiting for the distribution of U.N. aid were bombarded; in one instance an entire convoy was destroyed.

This raises a red flag: Any diplomacy that adapts to Assad’s intransigence merely licenses further human rights violations. And there is even less reason for hope considering the actors driving the current push towards rapprochement. Human rights are not a concern for these states.

A more plausible reason for the thaw is that those mending fences, especially those neighboring Syria, want to create a pretext for forcing refugees back to the country. In so doing, these states are showing disregard for refugees’ safety; they are also assuming that the regime is willing to take the refugees back.

As Lebanese politicians trying to normalize relations with Damascus to facilitate the return of refugees learned in 2017, the regime is happy to be rid of citizens it considers troublesome. The regime is effectively saying: What makes you think we’ll take them back? Lebanese authorities confirm that only 20 percent of the refugees who have registered as willing to return to Syria were given a permit by the regime.

Another plausible reason for the rapprochement is that, by creating a wave of normalization, these states hope to benefit from a likely flow of Western reconstruction money. Yet it is unclear who would be willing to invest. Europe has so far abided by its commitment that reconstruction will be funded only after signs of a serious and substantial transition. Unlike Western states, China is less concerned with conditionality; but while it has made some tentative moves toward such investment, those moves are unlikely to take substantial form. Given the Assad regime’s known corruption, even China seems uncertain that it could benefit from such investment.

For all the talk of rapprochement, so far no government has put its money where its mouth is.

All the states trying to mend fences with Assad are autocracies, which gives them natural sympathy for a fellow dictatorship facing a popular revolt. Yet, ironically, because they are autocracies they have a better understanding of the regime’s character, which makes them reluctant to make any material investments in Syria.

Autocracies admire Assad because he has added a chapter to the autocrats’ guide to survival: how to get away with literally everything.

A dictator in distress can hope for the support of those who have something to lose if he falls or something to gain if he stays. Iran supported Assad, because it would have lost regional influence; Russia, because Syria provided an opportunity for it to regain great power status. Now that Assad is back on his feet, the forces of status quo are also returning to the fold. The UAE and other autocracies admire Assad because he has added a chapter to the autocrats’ guide to survival: how to get away with literally everything.

And others are learning. The impact of this education in impunity is evident in the ever-bolder assassination attempts on dissidents and opponents, the most outrageous instance of which was the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi assassins at the Kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.

For democratic states interested in a world order based on international law and norms, Syria should serve as a cautionary tale. Seeking accountability for crimes against humanity and invoking the responsibility to protect should be neither idealistic nor optional.

Expecting a regime that has no record of responding to incentives and making concessions to change is not realism or pragmatism. It is wishful thinking that enables impunity.

Assad’s waiting game is no longer a defensive strategy. He bides his time with bloody hands for all to see—while making other autocrats wonder what they can get away with, portending a more violent and less stable future for the world.

Correction, Dec. 16, 2021: An earlier version of this article misstated the year of the Kerry-Lavrov deal on chemical weapons.

Bente Scheller is head of the Middle East and North Africa division at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin. From 2012 to 2019, she was the director of the foundation's Middle East office in Beirut and from 2002 to 2004 she worked at the German Embassy in Damascus. She is the author of The Wisdom of Syria's Waiting Game: Foreign Policy Under the Assads. Twitter: @BenteScheller

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