How Syria Waited Out Its Crisis and Lost Its Pariah Status

December 17, 2021 | Bente Scheller
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After slaughtering nearly half a million of his own people, driving untold numbers from their homes, and leaving much of his country impoverished, Bashar al-Assad still faces pockets of resistance—but, more importantly to him, he has begun the process of mending bridges with Arab rulers who have shunned him for most of the past decade. Recently his regime has had diplomatic breakthroughs with Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. And the West seems to have acquiesced to letting him remain in power. Bente Scheller tries to explain:

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 Islamic State; and that political transition can occur only through Assad’s cooperation.

But none of this is the case. Scheller continues:

To be taken seriously on the regional level, the Assads have developed different tools. Hafez al-Assad, [Bashar’s father], for many years cultivated relationships with Palestinian nonstate actors, [along with others from] 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.

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