Assad’s normalization and the politics of erasure in Syria

Next March, the conflict in Syria will enter its eleventh year, with no end in sight. As this bleak anniversary approaches, the Syrian economy has collapsed. Drug trafficking became a major source of revenue for the regime. More than 12 million Syrians are food insecure. Internal security is risky. Low-level insurgencies erupted in areas previously retaken by regime forces. ISIS cells are active across large areas of eastern Syria. Despite a nominal ceasefire in the northeast, regime and Russian attacks targeting civilians occur almost daily.

But even in the face of this grim assessment, President Bashar al-Assad has scored major diplomatic victories over the past year. Starting with the initiatives of Jordan’s King Abdullah II last July, the normalization of Assad and his regime quickly gained momentum throughout the region. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain reopened their embassies in Damascus. Senior officials in several Arab countries are pressing for the reinstatement of Syria’s membership in the Arab League, including Algeria, which will host the next League summit in March. Syria is already set to host the 2024 Arab Energy Conference. The United States has sought sanctions relief to allow an Egyptian pipeline to transport natural gas to Lebanon via Syria, though the project faces hurdles. This trend is likely to accelerate in the coming year. Despite the Biden administration’s insistence that it opposes normalization of relations with Assad and will keep economic sanctions in place, it has not strongly backed away from US regional allies who have reached out to Damascus, even as they undermine the stated goals of US policy.

The Arab regimes have been described as shifting from punitive isolation to “step-by-step” diplomacy, and they have offered any number of justifications for normalizing Assad. It is presented as giving Syria an Arab counterweight to Iran. A way to alleviate the economic hardship of Syrian civilians. A step towards the return of Syrian refugees. Insurance against more refugees could threaten the stability of neighboring countries. Most of all, however, is that engagement will create incentives for the Assad regime to accept the reforms needed to open the spigots of EU reconstruction funding and move Syria toward the political transition called for by UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

If sanctions fail to change the Assad regime’s behavior, according to this logic, it may be time to show the regime what it can gain from cooperation. This possibility is what prompted the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, to endorse normalization under the banner of engagement. He commented in December: “With each passing month, I have felt a broader realization than before that political and economic steps are needed – and that these steps can only happen together – step by step, step by step.”

But as a rationale for making concessions to Damascus, this approach, which rehabilitates Assad diplomatically, does not amount to an illusion. The idea that the Assad regime will respond to normalization with concessions on its part is a fly-by in the face of everything we know about how the Assad family has ruled Syria for more than 50 years. Not only did this “step-by-step” correlation fail to produce the slightest hint of a shift in system behaviour, it had the opposite effect.

Step by step is evidence of the success of intransigence, as it legitimizes and empowers the Assad regime, reinforces its determination to reject compromises, and pushes a political settlement of the Syrian conflict beyond its reach. Nor are the Syrians likely to see the purported economic benefits of normalization. Predation and corruption defined the regime’s management of humanitarian aid throughout the civil war. Economic openings have always been seized by the Assads and their associates, who monopolize their advantages with complete disregard for the welfare of ordinary citizens. There is no reason to imagine that normalization will lead to any other result.

No less disturbing is the fact that advocates of normalization are indifferent to its failure. They showed no interest in taking further “steps” contingent upon the positive response to previous initiatives. Indeed, “step by step” has become a framework for unilateral diplomatic disarmament.

Normalization would also have very devastating effects on sanctions, despite US claims to the contrary. The Biden administration has shown less willingness than its predecessor to take advantage of existing sanctions under the Caesar Civilian Protection Act in Syria. For other states, including regional actors, “step by step” is a convenient excuse to ignore sanctions and deepen economic ties with the regime. Jordan and the United Arab Emirates are already in discussions with Damascus on how to stimulate trade and investment. The Russian special envoy for Syria expected further sanctions relief in the coming year.

Sanctions critics may welcome this possibility, arguing that they have failed to achieve their goal and caused harm to Syrian civilians, while imposing little hardship on the regime’s elites. However, when making such claims, critics often overlook many other factors that collectively contribute far more than sanctions to the suffering of the Syrian people.

These include the regime’s massive destruction of Syria’s infrastructure over the past decade. mass exodus of people; The collapse of the Lebanese economy. The impact of regime corruption and predation on the recovery of the Syrian economy; Its major international sponsors, including China and Russia, refused to provide meaningful support for either humanitarian aid or economic reconstruction. Let’s look at the bread crisis in Syria, which sanctions have nothing to do with. It is largely a result of Russia’s refusal to sell wheat to Syria as the COVID-19 pandemic spread, the wildfires that devastated large swathes of farmland in the summer of 2020 – much of which appears to have been caused by regime forces – and the subsequent drought across Syria’s eastern provinces.

Moreover, critics of sanctions ignore the harm that easing them will do, even tacitly—not only for victims of the regime’s violence and a source of influence often underestimated by critics, but to international law and global standards that are the most viable mechanism. To hold the Assad regime accountable for its crimes and violations. This is a regime that has presided over mass killing, the systematic use of chemical weapons against civilians, torture, arbitrary and unlawful detention, and the forced displacement of millions of Syrian civilians.

Simply put, the effectiveness of sanctions cannot be measured solely by forcing the regime to change its behaviour. Equally important, if not more important, is their value in signaling the repudiation and denial of a regime responsible for crimes against humanity and egregious violations of international law. In recent years, this aspect of sanctions has become increasingly important with the progress of legal proceedings against Assad regime officials implicated in torture in a number of countries, including Germany, France, Spain, and the Netherlands.

If “step-by-step” diplomacy is accepted as a framework for normalizing the Assad regime, the end result will be the erasure of its responsibility for the destruction of Syria and all that came with it. Russia, along with the regime, is working hard to ensure exactly this result. The United States and its European allies should not be complicit, directly or indirectly, in such efforts. The United States must do more than underscore its commitment to maintaining sanctions against the brutal Assad regime. You need to use it, as it publicly states that it will take steps to impose sanctions against any party that violates it and follow up immediately when violations occur. It should also make clear that there is only one path to sanctions relief: clear and irreversible progress toward the meaningful political transition in Syria called for by UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The Assad regime, and further diminish the prospects of preventing other tyrants from following in his footsteps.

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