Is there, anywhere in the world, a dictator with bloodier hands than Bashar Assad? The competition is intense, I realize. But over the past dozen years, since protesters first took to the streets of Damascus to demand basic freedoms, Assad has been slaughtering his fellow Syrians at a steady clip. Estimates of the death toll now reach half a million.
Of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million, more than 10 million have either fled abroad—more than a million to Europe—or been displaced within the country. Aleppo and other ancient cities have been reduced to rubble.
To pay his bills, Assad is known to be deeply involved in drug trafficking—in particular, Captagon, an amphetamine—throughout much of the Middle East.
And, of course, Assad remains a client—“satrap” might be the more precise term—of the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose forces, in league with those of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, have helped keep him in power.
He is now being rewarded for all this. The Arab League has announced that Syria’s membership, suspended in 2001, will be restored and that Assad will attend its next summit in Saudi Arabia on May 19. Will there be handshakes, hugs and backslapping?
The Arab League has 22 members. Some are moderate, many are not. None can be called a democracy. Some are rich (thanks to oil and gas), most are poor. All are majority-Muslim, and most are majority-Sunni. Over 400 million people live in the nations of the Arab League, though not all are Arabs. Minorities—e.g., Kurds, Druze, Coptic Christians, Maronites—do not enjoy anything close to equal rights.
In February, earthquakes struck northern Syria and Turkey, killing thousands and destroying the homes of thousands more. Assad benefited as Arab and other leaders who had shut him out suddenly reached out with offers of aid. Iran began shipping weapons in the guise of earthquake relief.
Assad today controls about 60 percent of Syria. Islamist rebels rule an area in the northwest, Turks and their proxies hold territory in the far northwest, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (Kurdish-dominated with Arab and Assyrian members) have an enclave in the northeast.
A small contingent of elite U.S. troops assists the SDF. Their primary mission is to prevent Islamic State from re-taking cities and villages.
“While ISIS is significantly degraded in Iraq and Syria, the group does maintain the capability to conduct operations in the region,” U.S. Army Gen. Erik Kurilla, who heads Central Command, told reporters late last year. “And we know the group has the desire to strike outside the region.”
Assad’s readmission to polite Arab society follows a détente—brokered by Beijing—between Saudi Arabia, the most important Arab nation, and Iran’s ruling mullahs. Ebrahim Raisi visited Damascus this month, the first visit by an Iranian president to Syria since 2010. He signed 15 “cooperation documents.”
Consider them window dressing. Jonathan Spyer, director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, recently reported that within Syria the Tehran regime “maintains its own bases, weaponry and areas of control into which Mr. Assad’s forces cannot enter without its approval.”
Tehran also has been establishing Shi’ite communities in villages from which Syrian Sunnis have fled. “Iran and the regime don’t want any Sunnis between Damascus and Homs and the Lebanese border,” one senior Lebanese leader told The Guardian. “This represents a historic shift in populations.”
The new populations include Shiites from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries who have fought in Tehran-backed militias. Does that sound like settler-colonialism? Don’t expect a debate on this question at the United Nations.
Bringing Assad back into the Arab League “sends a signal that no matter how horrendous your war crimes, eventually you can be rehabilitated if you’re sufficiently ruthless and patient,” observed Mark Dubowitz, my Foundation for Defense of Democracies colleague.
More broadly, it reinforces and even legitimizes the imperialist ambitions of Iran’s rulers, who run Lebanon through their well-armed proxy, Hezbollah, are working hard to subjugate Iraqis and back Houthi rebels in Yemen—though their new deal with Riyadh is supposed to end the fighting there. We shall see.
Tehran also funds, arms and instructs the various Arab terrorist groups attacking Israel. The most recent offensive, led by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, was not a success. By the time a ceasefire went into effect last weekend, six leaders of the Gaza-based group had been killed in precision strikes. Israel also continues to bomb Iranian bases in Syria to prevent that country from becoming another platform for missile and terrorist attacks.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the Biden administration doesn’t intend to recognize the Assad regime and “does not support others normalizing.” Maybe, but Ambassador Barbara Leaf, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, has sent a different message: “We advise our friends and partners in the region that they should get something in return for this engagement with Assad.”
A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers last week introduced a bill to bar the U.S. government from recognizing Assad as Syria’s president and enhance Washington’s ability to impose sanctions.
The bill would expand the Caesar Act which imposed sanctions on Syria four years ago. The law is named for a Syrian military defector code-named Caesar who smuggled 53,275 photographs out of Syria documenting the extensive torture in Assad’s prisons.
Reuters, which first reported on the bill, called it “a warning to other countries normalizing relations with Assad.” Perhaps, but in the Middle East and elsewhere, American warnings are not taken as seriously as they once were. Who deserves the blame for that is a question we’ll leave for another day.
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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