March 2023 marks 12 years since the Syrian Revolution. Excluded from the international system in the wake of an unspeakable repression, the Syrian regime is now gradually returning to it. The diplomatic rehabilitation of a government whose brutality has few contemporary equivalents seems to defy morality and political logic. Will Western countries be wise enough not to?
Begun several years ago, the rehabilitation of Bashar al-Assad’s government on the international scene continues inexorably. The United Arab Emirates, for example, reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018. Saudi Arabia, although one of the main supporters of the organizations fighting the Syrian regime following the revolution, is also said to be close to restoring its diplomatic relations. with this diet. The recent earthquakes on the Turkish-Syrian border have further amplified this slow rehabilitation of the Assad government, offering the latter the opportunity to position itself as an essential intermediary for the distribution of humanitarian aid to the affected populations.
For the time being, the Western countries that supported the revolution against Assad have not embarked on a process of normalizing their relations with the Syrian state. To venture into this path promoted above all by representatives of the extreme right, particularly in Europe, would be highly costly on a moral level – reason enough to refrain from doing so – and would betray a short-sighted political vision. People campaigning for a resumption of diplomatic relations with Assad, who present this option as the least bad solution, will have the task of demonstrating its hypothetical benefits.
Although precise figures are not available, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has estimated that the Syrian regime and its partner actors are primarily responsible for atrocities committed against civilians since 2011. Using a sophisticated system of repression inherited from the government of Hafez al-Assad, the regime of his son Bashar and its affiliated actors have, according to several international and non-governmental organizations, committed countless atrocities, ranging from the use of chemical weapons to enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture and sexual violence. Symbol of the systematic elimination of real or supposed opponents, the only prison of Saidnaya, near Damascus, was the scene of thousands of acts of torture and executions.
Violence by the government and affiliated entities is not a thing of the past. Human Rights Watch notably reported on the dropping of cluster bombs on camps for displaced people by government forces in November 2022. Restoring diplomatic relations with the regime of Bashar al-Assad would therefore be betraying the memory of its countless victims. .
In addition to defying morality, the diplomatic rehabilitation of such a regime would be short-sighted political vision on the part of Western states. Since 2011, Assad has largely built his political survival on a strategy that can be summed up as: it’s me, my government and its practices, or chaos, embodied by jihadist groups. Proponents of a resumption of relations with the regime thus often take up this artificial dichotomization of political alternatives. Morality would be secondary to reality, and only maintaining the current power and reintegrating it into the international system would ensure the stability of the country and the region.
However, this argument centered on stability proceeds from a fallacious logic.
The Assad regime was by no means a bulwark against jihadist violence: Syrians suffered from both. Since the same causes tend to lead to the same consequences, believing that a rehabilitation of the Syrian government without significant modification of its internal functioning would be a source of future stability is wishful thinking.
On the regional level, rehabilitating the regime would amount to dissociating the outcome – maintaining Assad in power – from the means mobilized to achieve it – mass crimes. The signal sent to all autocratic regimes would be that hard-line politics ultimately pays off, which could only lead to more atrocities and instability.
While Iran is experiencing mass mobilizations and the International Criminal Court has just issued an arrest warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin, should we, anachronistically, rehabilitate a regime guilty of mass atrocities or restore weight to international justice? To integrate moral considerations into the definition of relations between States is not to be naive in the face of the reality of the world, but rather to judge that this reality is never inevitable. Foreign policy has always been, and must remain, a lever for change.