The rehabilitation of mass murderer Bashar Assad

As the Arab upheaval’s worst war winds down, the rehabilitation process of the century’s most prolific mass murderer is under way.

A GIRL holds an image of Syrian President Bashar Assad. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A GIRL holds an image of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Eight years after he torched himself to death, the social wounds Muhammad Bouazizi exposed in his last words remain raw, festering and bare, but the political inferno he sparked has been reduced to whispering ambers.
“How do you want me to make a living?” – the Tunisian street vendor’s question after a cop confiscated the scale atop his pushcart – is what multitudes of other desperate Arabs later asked, as they climbed gilded Europe’s unwelcoming shores.
It was an exodus from an Arab world beset by the economic stagnation, social alienation and political bankruptcy that caused multiple regime collapses and wholesale fratricide, displacement and, in Yemen, also famine.
Now, as the Arab upheaval’s worst war winds down, the rehabilitation process of the century’s most prolific mass murderer is under way.
As Arab governments’ political retreat and America’s military departure help legitimize Bashar Assad’s rule, it is clear that the Arab underclass, whose plight was so tragically voiced by Bouazizi and scores of others who followed his morbid example, has lost the war.
ASSAD’s REHABILITATION has a long way to go.
The Arab League’s suspension of Syria in November 2011 has yet to be overturned, Syrian diplomats expelled from most Arab capitals have yet to be readmitted, and Arab ambassadors recalled from Damascus have yet to return.
Syria’s suspension from the Arab League was backed in its time by 18 Arab countries and opposed only by the four in which Iran is influential – namely, Lebanon, Yemen, and of course Syria, all of which voted against, and also Iraq, which abstained.
The Arab pressure on Assad was redoubled by non-Arab Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who demanded in May 2013 that Assad resign, calling him “butcher” and “murderer” and vowing in front of a crowd outside Ankara that Assad would pay “a very heavy price for showing courage against babies in cradles.”
Erdogan’s stance was shared in Europe. British prime minister David Cameron, speaking to The Sun in October 2015, condemned Russia for “backing the butcher Assad,” and French president François Hollande told the UN in September 2015 that refugees flocking to Europe were “fleeing the regime of Bashar Assad,” and that “Assad is the origin of this problem, and cannot be part of the solution.”
All this was before Assad’s many detractors had reason to assume he anyhow won’t last.
Now, having not only lasted but indeed outlasted both Cameron and Hollande and, in fact, appearing poised to outlast their successors as well, everyone’s position on Assad has changed.
TURKEY HAS backtracked from its original demand, in tandem with its retreat from its broader hope to reprogram Syria by installing in Damascus a Sunni fundamentalist regime. Having given up on such a heart transplant, Turkey is now focusing on amputating Syria’s Kurdish limb.
The Arab world is also backtracking.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s arrival this week in Damascus signaled the end of the Syrian government’s diplomatic siege, breached already in November 2016 when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told Portuguese TV he backed “national armies,” including Syria’s. Asked whether this applied also to the regime behind that army, Sisi replied unambiguously “yes.”
It follows, that what happened at the UN two month ago, when Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem and his Bahraini peer, Khalid bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, embraced and kissed in diplomatic limelight, was no coincidence.
Assad, the man who condemned to death more Arabs than anyone else in recorded history, is being rehabilitated by the governments of the Arab world.
Fittingly carried by another marshal of genocide, Sudan’s, the message to Assad this week was reportedly that Arab League members want relations with Syria renewed, which makes sense, considering that the Arab Parliament – a pan-Arab forum established in 2001 – called last week on the Arab League to reinstate the Arab country whose government has repeatedly gassed its Arab citizens.
This is, of course, besides the fact that the European demand that Assad go has given way to a typically aloof “demand” that he stand for a free election.
In short, as this week began, it was already clear that little was left of what for several years seemed like an Arab-led, international siege on Bashar Assad and his regime.
Now, as the week closes with an American decision to quit Syria, the Syrian people is fully abandoned to the devices of Assad, Vladimir Putin and Ali Khamenei. Assad will be wise to avoid doing this, but he might as well embark on his victory lap tonight.
ASSAD’S EVOLVING rehabilitation calls for three conclusions.
The first is that for Egypt, which quietly triggered this creeping reacceptance, confronting Sunni fundamentalism is more important than anything else.
As Sisi sees things, Assad’s downfall would mean victory not for freedom, but for the Islamists who dominated the charge on Assad’s regime. Sisi was right in suspecting this, and he was right in assessing that such a victory would have fueled Egypt’s own restive Islamists.
The second conclusion is that, from the viewpoint of every regime in the Middle East, the US this week emerged as an unreliable patron. Washington’s looming abandonment of Syria’s Kurds to the fury that Turkey and Syria have in store for them will be compared in capitals throughout the region with Russia’s loyalty to Assad, and its willingness to take risks for him, even when he seemed on the brink of collapse.
Thirdly, and most tragically, Assad’s return to legitimacy and Washington’s departure from Syria underscore the futility of what began as a pan-Arab social revolt, and is now ending with the ancien régime’s successful counterrevolution.
The Arab masses have lost. The cause that in its first moments was civic was quickly hijacked by fundamentalism and then altogether devoured by tribalism.
Lacking focus, leadership and resources, the Arab underclasses now emerge from eight years of violence as destitute, undereducated and powerless as they were when Bouazizi kindled the fire that toppled four presidents and sparked multiple civil wars, before all returned back to square one.