Analysis: The risks of rehabilitating Al-Assad

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 17 Jan 2023

The costs of reconciliation with the Al-Assad regime without a reformed Syria will weigh on the region for generations.

The risks of rehabilitating Al-Assad
Turkish officials in Moscow for talks with Syrian leaders


When the series of anti-government uprisings swept the Arab world toppling despots like dominoes reached Syria, the rule of Bashar Al-Assad and his authoritarian Baath Party seemed to be coming to a close.

Twelve years on, however, Al-Assad has defied predictions of his fall and has survived international isolation and the temporary loss of two-thirds of Syria’s territory to claw his way back into the spotlight and reinforce his hold on power.

A debate is even now raging on whether Al-Assad should be given the chance of re-integrating his regime with the rest of the region and whether normalisation with Damascus can continue despite the continuing plight of the Syrian people.

The debate has drawn global and regional attention, with stakeholders from many spheres, ranging from Al-Assad’s friends and supporters in Iran and Russia to sceptical Arab powerhouses in the region, trying to weigh in on the outcome of any possible reconciliation in their respective domains.

Anti-Assad factions in Syria are united in their opposition to rehabilitating the regime, with some instead girding themselves for long-term resistance amid fears that the move could risk reviving the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group in Syria.

News has been circulating in recent weeks that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking a rapprochement with Al-Assad as part of his bid to give Turkey’s “zero problems” strategy another go, while jettisoning his own ambitions to play a leadership role in the region.

Erdogan is working closely with Russia, which has been a dominant military force in Syria since 2015 and has been helping to maintain the Assad regime in power. The war in Ukraine has pushed Turkey closer to Russia, and since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February the countries have increased their political and economic cooperation.

The Turkish, Syrian, and Russian foreign ministers were widely reported to be meeting this week in the highest-level talks between Ankara and Damascus since the Syrian conflict began in 2011 and signalling a further thaw in ties.

Erdogan has also floated the idea of a meeting being in the works with Al-Assad after talks between the Syrian and Turkish defence ministers and chiefs of intelligence on 28 December in Moscow. “We will come together as leaders according to the developments” that take place, Erdogan said.

Turkey has been the main backer of the opposition groups in Syria for more than a decade, and its recent move to publicly recognise his rule over Syria and work to rebuild diplomatic, security, and trade ties with Damascus marks a strategic shift in Ankara’s regional policies.

In return, Erdogan is setting preconditions for a deal with Al-Assad that will prioritise Turkey’s security and contribute to gaining the best possible negotiating position for the country, thus boosting Erdogan’s position before the presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey that are slated to take place possibly in May.

Among Erdogan’s key demands are security arrangements for the Kurdish-controlled north of Syria that Turkey claims is being used by the Kurdish separatist group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to launch attacks against security forces inside Turkey.

Erdogan wants to secure a promise from Al-Assad to dismantle the de facto Kurdish autonomous administration in northern and eastern Syria, especially its military wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and allow Turkey to establish a 30 km security zone along the border inside the enclave.

Ankara also favours Syrian government forces taking control of another area that is currently under the control of Turkey-backed opposition factions and other rebels, including an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group, as part of any future peace agreement in Syria.

Erdogan has repeatedly warned of a Turkish ground offensive in northern Syria aimed at pushing back the YPG, something which threatens to escalate tensions in a region where US troops are present to support, arm, and train US-friendly Syrians in fighting IS.

Another key demand is to send back millions of Syrians who took refuge in Turkey following the crackdown on the 2011 uprising that has now killed hundreds of thousands of people, displaced millions, and drawn in regional and world powers.

Erdogan’s overture is receiving clear support from Russian President Vladimir Putin and also the nod from the Iranian leadership that wants to see Assad’s relations with the rest of the region repaired. In addition, Al-Assad’s rehabilitation is backed by the UAE, which is boosting its regional partnerships through active diplomacy.

Nevertheless, Ankara’s outreach to Assad has given rise to many objections, reservations, and doubts, calling into question Erdogan’s attempt to overcome Turkey’s problems with its neighbours before its domestic elections.

Syrian opposition groups, most of them based in Turkey, have reacted cautiously to Erdogan’s gestures, but mass demonstrations also erupted in the rebel-held northwest of Syria after Turkish officials unveiled plans to reconnect with the Al-Assad regime.

Leader of the Al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham group that dominates the region’s rebel groups Abu Mohamed Al-Julani dismissed the Turkish move as a “dangerous deviation” and has said that his group is prepared for a long battle against Syrian government forces.

Significantly, the US has also announced that it is not supportive of countries re-establishing ties with Al-Assad. “We have made clear that we will not normalise and we do not support other countries normalising with the Al-Assad regime,” said US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price last Thursday.

The US, which severed relations with the Syrian government following the 2011 uprising, has authorised broad penalties against anyone, Syrian or foreign, who provides support for the regime’s military operations or knowingly does business with the Syrian government.

The Kurdish media outlet Basnews reported on Friday that Washington has been bolstering its cooperation with Assad’s opponents in areas of Syria under the control of its Kurdish allies.

It said the US has increased its supply of weapons and logistical supplies to Arab tribes in the Kurdish enclave in Syria in order to encourage them to join the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

Apart from the UAE, most Arab countries that endorsed an Arab League resolution to suspend Syria’s membership of the 22-member group in 2011 remain opposed to the Al-Assad regime’s rehabilitation.

Attempts to invite Al-Assad to an Arab League summit meeting in Algiers in November last year were torpedoed by several Arab countries that have been among the fiercest critics of the Syrian regime and fear that Assad’s rehabilitation will strengthen Iran’s hand in Syria.

Two regional heavyweights, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have called for a political solution to the Syrian crisis in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2245, which calls for support for “a Syrian-led political resolution,” and renewed support for the UN special representative for Syria.

In a joint statement on Thursday following a meeting of a joint policy coordinating committee, the two countries stressed the need for “maintaining Syria’s independence and its territorial integrity and the return of Syrian refugees and displaced persons” to their homes.

But while Erdogan seems to be desperate to change the course of his faltering policy in Syria, Al-Assad has showed signs of outmanoeuvring a Turkish leader who once called him a “terrorist” who had “killed close to a million of his own citizens,” adding that it would be “impossible” to make peace efforts with him.

In his first publicly reported remarks on the suggested meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Al-Assad said any talks should be based on the aim of ending the occupation of Syrian territory and halting support for what he called “terrorism,” a reference to Turkey’s presence in northern Syria and its support for the opposition.

The comments resonated in Ankara, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was quick to respond on Thursday that a meeting with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad was not scheduled for this week as had previously been reported but could take place early in February.

Much uncertainty remains regarding a quick fix to the Syrian-Turkish breakup and a possible collective normalisation with the Al-Assad regime. The current situation in Syria serves to confirm the apparent impossibility of the country reconnecting with the world without Assad offering meaningful concessions.

While the horrors of the brutal crackdown by the Al-Assad regime on protesters, such as torture, rape, extrajudicial killing, the dropping of barrel bombs, and the deaths of up to half a million people, still haunt Syria, Al-Assad has showed no signs of introducing reasonable political reforms or engaging in serious dialogue with his opponents.

With millions of Syrians still living in exile or displaced internally, the political and armed opposition to Al-Assad is still showing its resilience in mobilising against the regime. Significant areas are under opposition control in northern Syria, and winning them back will be a huge challenge for the regime.

In many parts of Syria, the regime has failed to win the hearts and minds of the local population, especially among the country’s Sunni Arab majority who have no illusions about the ability of the regime to change and remain opposed to the rule of Assad’s Alawite minority group.

Even the Druze, Syria’s fourth-largest religious and ethnic minority, are seeing their constituencies in eastern Syria witnessing declines in security and sometimes also a lack of a government presence.

The Syrian Kurds, an ethnic minority of about three million people who succeeded in establishing an autonomous enclave in northern Syria after the uprising began, are determined to enjoy federal rule in their areas as part of any future political settlement in Syria, something which the regime has rejected thus far.

Among the main hurdles to readmitting the Al-Assad regime into the regional system is Iran’s military and security presence and political influence in Syria. Iran’s increasing role in Syria has broken the regional order, and the main Arab powers and Israel will continue to press for decoupling Damascus from Tehran prior to any rehabilitation.

Erdogan aims by opening up to Al-Assad to manage his own domestic problems in Turkey, but such a policy shift without the broad support of the Syrian people and a common regional strategy amounts to appeasement of Al-Assad, and it will inevitably create more problems than it solves.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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