The grotesque rehabilitation of Bashar al-Assad’s regime – Syria’s criminal president has been cordially invited to this week’s Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia – makes sense to cynical Arab governments. They hope to reduce Damascus’s dependence on Iran, encourage refugees to return, halt state-sponsored drug rackets and cash in on reconstruction.
But from a human perspective, their decision is utterly shameful. More than 300,000 civilians have died since Assad turned his guns on Syria’s 2011 Arab spring pro-democracy uprising. About 14 million people, half Syria’s population, have fled their homes. Most who remain are short of food. Then came February’s earthquakes.
The conflict is far from over. Hundreds more civilians have been killed and injured in Syrian government and Russian air strikes, cluster bomb and rocket attacks on displacement camps in north-western Idlib, in Dar’a and Hama, and in northern Aleppo, according to the UN Human Rights Council’s latest report. “These and other attacks may amount to war crimes,” it said.
“Arbitrary arrests and torture, enforced disappearances and deaths in detention continue,” the UN warned. “Returnees saw their homes looted or property confiscated… It’s abundantly clear Syria is still not a safe place to return to.” Islamist militia were also guilty of egregious abuses, it said.
War crimes and crimes against humanity, including use of chemical weapons, are well-documented in Syria. Yet there is no prospect of Assad facing justice. Fellow tyrant Vladimir Putin was swiftly indicted by the International criminal court over Ukraine. So why not the butcher of Damascus? It’s an inexplicable omission. Instead, Assad is to be feted, forgiven and rewarded by authoritarian Gulf plutocrats who seemingly care more about oil prices, palaces and Premier League soccer clubs than the lives, wellbeing and human rights of fellow Arabs.
It’s not only the neighbours. In Syria, there’s plenty of shame to share. The US and allies bottled a direct intervention in 2013 that could have stopped the slaughter. That let in Iran and the Russians, and ensured Assad’s survival. Western sanctions aimed at toppling the regime hurt civilians instead.
Looking for an upside, analysts suggest Assad’s return to the Arab fold, coupled with the Chinese-brokered rapprochement between his ally, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, may spawn a homegrown Middle East security order. Widening detente could potentially pacify Yemen, stabilise Lebanon and relieve Jordan’s and Turkey’s refugee burden.
This proposition should be handled with care. Latest developments accelerate the sidelining of America in a region it once dominated, and leave western policy in tatters. Israel’s own, unedifying attempts at “normalisation” – by building alliances with Gulf autocracies to counter Iran and confederates such as Hezbollah – are imperilled if not confounded. China’s leverage will grow. Beijing’s amoral outlook resonates in the Gulf.
Is a new era of Arab-Persian amity and unity a plausible prospect or mere wishful thinking? Assad’s Syria will remain deeply unstable whatever happens – divided between the partially Turkish-occupied north-west, where jihadists roam free; the Kurdish-governed north-east, viscerally hostile to Damascus; and the mostly regime-controlled centre and south. Its people remain at constant risk.
This evolution, marking a break with the western-led, post-1945 world order, is part of an eastwards power shift
“Syria today is a multi-ring circus where armed forces from Turkey, the US, Russia and Iran engage in clandestine conflict with no obvious objective,” Charles Glass, the veteran American correspondent, reported from Damascus. The Israel Defence Forces may also be added to that list.
The Arab League’s unconditional invitation ignores this febrile reality. Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, reiterated the western view, based on a 2015 UN resolution, that a peaceful transition involving free elections and Assad’s defenestration was the “only viable solution to ending the conflict”. Sounds good – except it’s more wishful thinking.
Iran-Saudi detente should be treated sceptically, too. Iran’s internationally ostracised, domestically reviled mullahs are out for what they can get. Their disruptive behaviour will not change. For its part, Riyadh wants to avoid being drawn into a full-on fight with Tehran – if Israel were to attack Iran’s nuclear sites. It no longer trusts the US to defend it.
The Saudis also look askance at anti-hijab and economic protests that have rocked Iran for months. Lacking democratic legitimacy themselves, they fear insurrection. Iran-Saudi detente is designed to bolster the rulers. It will do nothing in either country to advance justice and equality for the ruled. In any case, the idea that entrenched historical and religious rivalries can be successfully suppressed for long seems highly fanciful.
It’s striking nonetheless that these developments are taking place independently of, and in opposition to the US, the Saudis’ long-time protector, to Europe – and to post-imperial Britain, reduced to has-been hanger-on. This evolution, marking a significant break with the western-led, post-1945 world order, is part of an eastwards power shift.
Alongside the Syria disaster, the western powers’ failure to make the Iran nuclear deal stick has further undermined regional credibility. As always, Iraq provides a toxic legacy. And then there’s their longest-running failure of all – the unfulfilled promise of Palestinian statehood.
Palestinian civilian suffering has intensified as Israel, unchecked by Arab governments or the west, has lurched to the extreme right. The West Bank has seen more than 100 killings by security forces this year. One outrage among many: last weekend, an EU-funded Palestinian primary school was torn down; 58 more are threatened with demolition.
Meanwhile, renewed Gaza-related violence is claiming more innocent lives, predominantly Palestinian. Yet many western politicians, media and commentators behave as if this isn’t happening. This is what normalisation truly means in the Middle East. The killing of civilians has become routine.
Arab leaders are no better. For them too, self-interest and narcissism blind them to a common humanity. Assad’s victims, Iran’s women protesters and oppressed Palestinians can expect no help from that quarter, either.