Exactly ten years ago yesterday, the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad made a stunning offer to American negotiators: he would cut ties with Iran, cease support for Hizballah and Hamas, and stop threatening Israel—in exchange for the Golan Heights. But a mere two weeks later, his troops started shooting peaceful protestors in the city of Daraa, and Assad launched a bloody war against his own people that has not yet come to an end. Frederic Hof, who was an America mediator between Damascus and Jerusalem at the time, reflects:
The destruction of Syria has been senseless. A Syrian president seemingly committed to retrieving [lost] territory in exchange for Syria’s strategic reorientation threw it all away. And for what? . . . One possibility is that Assad deliberately used violence to cancel his conditional peace commitments and escape U.S. mediation. No one forced him to make those commitments; he offered them all during a 50-minute meeting. One wonders, however, if in the weeks following his promise of full strategic reorientation, Assad had second thoughts about Iran’s likely reaction and the domestic political implications of peace. In any event he has all but deeded to Israel the land he said he wanted returned to Syria.
Ten years on, Assad hopes the U.S. will reengage him diplomatically and lavish reconstruction funds on him and his entourage. The view here is that such hopes are illusory.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died. Countless Syrians have been maimed and traumatized, both physically and psychologically. Tens of thousands remain in regime torture chambers. All this to preserve a family business; a business that might have thrived and evolved politically into something more inclusive and representative if it had made pragmatic and humane choices a decade ago. But was it ever capable of doing so? Syria’s condition in 2021 suggests the answer: no.