In a clutch of recent interviews with international media, Bashar Al Assad, who, for two-and-a-half years has been waging a pitiless war against his own people, has become a devout convert to diplomacy. Only weeks ago, his regime was braced for a barrage of American cruise missiles as punishment for the gassing of rebel-held Damascus suburbs on August 21.
Now, US Secretary of State John Kerry says it is a “credit to the Al Assad regime” that UN inspectors have been able to destroy a first batch of the chemical weapons in Syria’s arsenal under a deal cobbled together last month by Washington and Moscow, Syria’s international champion.
Al Assad has always been lucky.
In October 2005, for example, he sent a top aide to Washington to sue for peace, fearing US reprisals after funnelling jihadists across the border into Iraq to attack the Anglo-American occupation. His luck held. Within months Iraq dissolved into ethno-sectarian war; and the US-UK alliance threw its diplomatic weight behind Israel’s assault on Lebanon in the summer of 2006, a damaging draw after Hezbollah, Iran and Syria’s paramilitary ally, held its ground.
Hezbollah and Syria’s Lebanese clients then shut down the pro-western government in Beirut with an 18-month siege. This ended with the May 2008 Doha agreement, giving the Damascus-Tehran axis veto rights over what passes for government in Lebanon. Lebanon’s politicians got $44 million (Dh161.83 million) in cash while a grateful Qatar gave the Syrian leader an Airbus for agreeing to what he had been angling for all along. That July he flew to Paris, where then French president Nicolas Sarkozy rehabilitated him in polite geopolitical society, with Bastille day as the backdrop.
Al Assad has every reason to think diplomacy is rather like the board-game Monopoly in which he holds all the Get Out of Jail Free cards. But these are not much use for elephant traps.
The Al Assad clan will doubtless interpret its diplomatic reprieve as a licence to kill, a shield behind which to step up the bombardments and massacres that have already claimed about 100,000 lives. While killing freely with conventional weapons, the Al Assads will delay the surrender of their chemical arsenal. They remain acutely vulnerable and this is a war of survival which they fear they cannot win (hence their use of sarin gas). Unlike Muammar Gaddafi in Libya or Saddam Hussain in Iraq, despots who met violent ends, they will probably retain some chemical capability as a deterrent and a terror weapon.
Vladimir Putin certainly got the better of Barack Obama in August’s diplomatic joust that was almost a throwback to the Cold War. In the longer term, however, Russia has publicly taken international responsibility for Al Assads’ behaviour. For now, the Kremlin and Damascus can present themselves as bulwarks against Al Qaida jihadists flooding into Syria.
But it is going to be tricky for Moscow to maintain the same level of diplomatic alignment with the Al Assads as their killing machine grinds forward alongside a stuttering chemical disarmament process; and especially if gas is used again. If Putin thinks the Al Assads are jeopardising Russia’s return as (in his eyes) the recognised second superpower, they could become dispensable.
Iran has a different calculus. Yes, Syria is a valuable Mediterranean asset in Iran’s Arab neo-imperium — the land-bridge to Hezbollah, its spearhead in the Levant. But chemical weapons, rained by Saddam on hundreds of thousands of Iranians during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, while the West turned a blind eye, are an emotive issue, especially among supporters of the regime, the principal victims. Whoever follows the Al Assads, moreover, will at best downgrade Syria’s relations with Iran; Tehran can minimise this by acting constructively now.
However, the real consideration for Iran now is whether it can reach detente and a nuclear formula with the US and its allies that sees debilitating sanctions progressively withdrawn and Iran recognised as a regional power with a seat at the table in resolving regional conflicts (from Syria to Iraq, or Lebanon to Palestine). The right to enrich uranium and master the full atomic fuel cycle is a deterrent and a proxy for Iran’s status that most Iranians (not just theocrats) support. Securing regional standing and a compromise on nuclear rights might be prize enough for Iran also to consider the Al Assads dispensable.
— Financial Times