Analysis: Assad, the rehabilitated dictator

Some suggest Gaddafi was easier to rehabilitate than the Syrian who oversaw 300,000 deaths

By ROBERT SWIFT/ THE MEDIA LINE
March 29, 2016 08:12
4 minute read.
Assad

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is seen during an interview to the American magazine Foreign Affairs in Damascus.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Ask a Middle East analyst whether Syrian President Bashar Assad will still be in power in one year’s time and you’ll likely receive a cagey reply:  too many times his downfall has been predicted only to see him cling to power. Although it’s still too early to predict whether Russia’s sudden intervention in September was sufficient to keep Assad afloat, his regime is certainly more stable than it was nine months ago.

While this means he could still stumble and fall from power, the possibility also exists that he won’t, and instead the man responsible for triggering a war which killed more than 300,000 people and displaced millions more will remain in office.
How such a leader can function on the world stage; and more importantly, how other international leaders continue to deal with him are questions many are asking.

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In reality, Western statesmen interacting with the leaders of nations with poor human rights records is nothing new and is arguably a necessity in the pragmatic world of international relations. When dictators visit democratic countries there are often protests by pro-democracy advocates aiming to pressure the local government to express criticism, but few have caused bloodshed on the scale of Assad.

Throughout the 1980s, Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi was a pariah to the international community, accused of promoting state-sponsored terror, and famously branded as the “mad dog of the Middle East,” by former US President Ronald Reagan. Libya’s anti-Western stance was most notably demonstrated in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, in which Pan Am Flight 103 was destroyed midair killing 270 people, an act that was linked directly to Gaddafi.

Yet, despite this, the Libyan dictator was welcomed in from the cold by Western leaders in the early 2000s. A change in policy and rhetoric from Gaddafi was enough to have him shaking hands with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, making official visits to Italy and sending his son to the United States to visit the State Department and then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

If Assad survives in office, the same scenario can be a possibility for him in years to come.

In fact, Western leaders have already changed their attitudes toward Bashar Assad remaining in power as a result of the emergence of the Islamic State, Natasha Ezrow, from the department of governance at the University of Essex told The Media Line.

“I think he might still be in power in five years. I definitely don’t see him stepping down… and I think he has enough support to still be there,” Ezrow said, qualifying her statement by noting that Assad would likely only rule a fragmented portion of the country.

In such circumstances, Western leaders are likely to be obliged to interact with Assad and will justify it to their electorate with a shift in rhetoric, the academic said, adding “that’s how they’ve framed it in the past (with other dictators).” The need for democracy and radical change is likely to be played down while the importance of stability and gradual reform are emphasized, Ezrow said.

Examples of this can be seen in the way Western governments interact with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, she suggested.

“Gaddafi couldn’t have been more of a pariah, but he got really pragmatic and changed his tune and (Western leaders) welcomed him,” Ezrow concluded.

Scott Lucas, a professor of politics specializing in media studies and the Middle East, was not convinced, arguing that Assad, as the head of the regime, had killed too many people to remain in power. “(It’s different) because Gaddafi didn’t kill hundreds of thousands of his own people … or dislocate half of his population,” Lucas told The Media Line.

Although Gaddafi “was a nasty piece of work” his oppression of the Libyan people was relatively out of sight from Western audiences; the same cannot be said for Assad, Lucas explained. It will be all the more difficult for Western politicians to justify interacting with a ‘rehabilitated’ Assad in the future because of it.

In international relations, such considerations might be put to one side in order to maintain the balance of power, Moshe Ma’oz, a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told The Media Line. If Western leaders need Assad, then it’s possible even he could one day become just another state leader to cooperate with.

A future US president could say they “wanted to avoid further chaos and bloodshed (in Syria) and to avoid using American boots on the ground…” In this way the rehabilitation of Assad could begin and the electorate could accept it, Ma’oz suggested.

For some, such a possibility will be hard to stomach and impossible to justify. Countries like the United Kingdom will likely follow the lead of the US. If Washington appears to be making moves towards accepting Assad, then other states could follow, Lucas noted.

A conducive approach to Assad will be unlikely under Hilary Clinton who would show a firmer hand towards Syria than her predecessor, the politics professor opined. But a future meeting between her republican rival, if he were to take the Oval Office, and the Syrian president could be a possibility. “(Donald) Trump might, that’s the wildcard because he’s so unpredictable,” Lucas said.

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