Biden is prepared to cut Assad some slack where there are obvious benefits to U.S. interests in the region, Martin Jay writes.
Ten years after protesters in an obscure Syrian town demonstrated for change, a direct challenge to the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, half a million Syrians dead and a 100,000 missing, finally the West is accepting the legitimacy of the regime and its leader.
It started with the Gulf Arabs, who have decided that Assad is worth more as an ally – both as a useful expert on defying the odds and suppressing an entire uprising but also for his Midas touch with the Russians who GCC leaders might have to turn to one day, if a new Arab Spring sweeps across the Peninsular.
But then inevitably Joe Biden, whose approach to the Middle East is to have as little to do with it as possible in preference for a foreign policy agenda focussing on China, is following through with this initiative to bring Assad in from the cold once and for all. Intense lobbying in recent month by, in particular the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Washington have paid off and we are witnessing the first tentative steps towards a normalisation of relations with the Syrian leader.
You might have missed the signs as they were not seized upon by western media. The lifting of sanctions against a businessman associated with Assad, followed just recently by allowing Syria to facilitate a gas and electricity to Lebanon – from Egypt, via Jordan and Syria – in what has been called “energy diplomacy” – are clear indications that Biden is prepared to cut Assad some slack where there are obvious benefits to U.S. interests in the region.
It would be hard to imagine that two key decisions in the regime’s favour – Interpol allowing Syria arrest warrant rights and for the WHO to give Syria a seat on its executive board – were not given the tacit approval of the Biden administration. Given that Interpol now is obliged to arrest anyone of the thousands of Syrian dissidents living around the world, or that Assad’s Syria today is a country of people starving while billions of dollars of drugs are being manufactured there, the shift is significant.
Pragmatism seems to be kicking in. The West has lost its own proxy war against the Syrian dictator and there is a general feeling now of working more with Assad and cutting our losses. The war is over, except for Idlib province where Russia fights Turkey-backed extremists and perhaps ten years later the general public who vote in western leaders have educated themselves and learnt a few of the nuances of the ten year battle to overthrow Assad, dressed up as a war against terror; these days, there are pockets of online pundits in both America and the UK who understand that Assad’s forces were allies in fact with the West, in their war against Al Qaeda and its affiliates – a nuanced detail regularly over looked or not even understood by MSM in America.
But what could Biden gain by signalling this shift and stopping short of going the full nine yards himself and lifting all sanctions? Or rather, is it more what he won’t lose?
Lebanon’s meltdown, which saw just this week a total blackout of electricity, is part of it. As Iran wasted no time sending fuel to this tiny country which in recent months has undergone massive shortages and long lines at the pumps, Biden does not want to be the U.S. president whose tenure in office is tarnished by letting Lebanon fall into the abyss and become a full-on Iranian colony, to join Syria, Iraq and Yemen as a fully signed up member of the axis of resistance to U.S. hegemony.
Yet it was a perceived threat to America’s hegemony which assisted the Muslim Brotherhood attempted overthrow of Assad in the first place, which is where this all started. Assad himself must be delighted with how history has done a full circle on him. Despite a country with a destroyed economy and people on the brink of starvation, politically perhaps at his lowest point, he has to only look to the future to see where all this is heading. In recent days, King Abdullah of Jordan made some headlines for having a secret overseas stash of a mere hundred million dollars (small change compared to his Gulf neighbours). He also telephoned President Assad, a man who he had defamed quite spectacularly before and wooed him, talking of the “brotherly” countries and signalling to the Syrian leader that he was ready to welcome him back as a friend and a neighbour. And so, with Syria almost certainly destined to be reinstated at the mother of all talk-lunch-sleep shops, otherwise known as the Arab League, it is probably only a matter of time before Biden moves up a notch the sanctions relief, hoping that this new Syria strategy will give him leverage with the Iranians at the negotiating table in Vienna over the so-called Iran Deal. This is the real story, in reality. Biden badly needs to stop sinking in the Iranian quagmire and showing some peripheral support for Syria is expected to earn him some points. It’s as though we’ve gone back to 2007 with Nancy Pelosi and her “let’s use Assad to control people we don’t normally talk to” approach which almost got the Syrian president “buddy” status in Washington. Almost.