Is Europe warming to Assad?

European leaders see no successor to lesser of several evils.

June 27, 2017 02:00
3 minute read.
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with RIA Novosti & Sputnik, April 2017.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with RIA Novosti and Sputnik in this handout picture provided by SANA on April 21, 2017.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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In comments to the press last week, France’s newly elected President Emmanuel Macron made a major shift from his predecessor on Syria policy.

Discussing whether Syrian President Bashar Assad should leave office, Macron said “no one has introduced me to his legitimate successor.”

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Macron’s comments come as the Syrian regime has been stabilized by Russian and Iranian support in the last two years and appears to be on the march to consolidating its power in the rest of the country. European leaders, fearing the instability and terror that some allege Europe has been subjected to in the wake of the rise of Islamic State amid the Syrian war, appear to be warming to the idea that Assad will stay in power.

In the United Kingdom, Theresa May has been an outspoken critic of Syria’s president. Her administration has said Assad was likely behind a chemical weapons attack in early April. However, the strengthening of the Labor Party in this month’s elections has weakened her hand and any thought that the UK might support military action – the way the US launched cruise missiles against Assad’s air force – is now out of the question.

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has been a long-time opponent of action on Syria. After the US launched cruise missiles in response to the chemical attack, Corbyn condemned the strikes as potentially “escalating the war in Syria still further.” The Democratic Unionist Party, which looks set to support May’s government, tepidly supported action on Syria in 2015. But party leader Nigel Dodds said they needed “a plan with a clear exit strategy.” That’s code for, “We don’t really want to get involved.”

A boy plays with a ball in front of damaged buildings during Eid al-Fitr celebration in the rebel-held besieged Douma neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria June 26, 2017. (REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh)

Emblematic of the view of many European chanceries today is UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s comments in a 2016 op-ed in The Telegraph. “Bravo for Assad – he is a vile tyrant but he has saved Palmyra from Isil [Islamic State].”

This “the devil you know” or “lesser of two evils” approach sees Assad as the stable dictator, and removing him leads to chaos and terror. “President Macron has opted for realism on the Syrian dossier,” a French diplomat told France24 last week. Assad and his supporters have exploited this view, labeling most opposition to the regime as “al-Qaida and ISIS.”

Asked at a June 22 State Department briefing about Macron’s comments, Heather Nauert said regarding the leadership of Syria that “eventually that would be up for the people of Syria to decide.” This kind of statement leaves Assad in power, since the Syrian people do not get to vote in real elections.

The same US State Department recently briefed reporters that Assad had hung thousands of dissidents and burned their bodies – it’s hard to see how Syrians can decide if they are being killed by the regime.

Italy’s Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni told The Washington Post in April that “the Assad regime is there, and we have to negotiate with the regime. Assad is stronger than he was two years ago.”

Angela Merkel, the strongest European leader today, has condemned Assad, but also said the West must talk with the regime to solve the crises. These talks have gone on for years and Assad continues his offensive.

The overall picture in Europe is an EU that is struggling with a migrant crisis, and the weakening of the union as the UK leaves. It is focused internally, and individual state foreign policies play into Assad’s hand.

In the last two years, Assad has portrayed himself as saving Syria from ISIS.

And as ISIS is defeated, he will come out of the six-year battle with the rebellion scarred, but with his credentials in Europe bolstered. European diplomats are quietly signaling that Assad is likely here to stay.

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