Assad's Syria is Not Ready for International Rehabilitation | Opinion

After nearly a decade of civil war, Syria's Assad regime is trying to pick up the pieces of a broken country. Engaged in territorial disputes with Turkey, unable to properly project civil law within its borders and plagued by a dearth of economic activity and functioning infrastructure, Syria's ability to move forward will require a monumental task it is not yet ready for: regaining legitimacy in the eyes of the international community.

Syria has become an international pariah. It is currently subjected to financial sanctions put in place by the United States and the European Union and has been alienated by Gulf states for years. These factors have forced Assad to reconsider the geopolitical realities of the Middle East, and he may see opportunity in the fact that several Arab states' decisions to normalize ties with Israel have been celebrated by the international community. More importantly, Arab states normalizing ties with Israel can lead to warmer relations with the incumbent American administration—currently engaging in such an exchange with Sudan as well as several Gulf states.

But unlike Sudan—which is moving to normalize relations with Israel after signaling to the international community that, under a new civilian-led government, it would become a law-abiding state once more—Syria, under Bashar al-Assad, is nowhere near able to make such a claim.

What started off as a series of relatively peaceful protests in the Syrian city of Daara in 2011 has become a decade of full-fledged fighting between government forces and rebel groups—showing the true lengths to which Assad will go to stay in power. As of 2019, nearly 4 million Syrian refugees have been forced to flee to Turkey, nearly 6.2 million Syrians have been internally displaced and, according to the UN envoy to Syria, an estimated 400,000 Syrians have been killed during the armed conflict. These casualties were inflicted by Russian strikes carried out indiscriminately in civilian areas at the invitation of the Assad regime, by the Syrian government's own use of live ammunition against protestors and by the regime's atrocious failure to abide by the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

Syria became a signatory to the CWC in 2013, which banned the production, use and stockpiling of chemical weapons. Had Syria complied with international law it would have disposed of all its chemical weapons upon signing the legally binding treaty. Not only did it fail to do so—showing an inability to be a good-faith actor in the international community—but it used the weapons against its own civilian population.

A 2019 study by the Global Public Policy Institute indicated that at least 336 chemical weapons attacks have happened in Syria since the outbreak of the civil war—attributing 2 percent of the attacks to the Islamic State and 98 percent to the Assad regime. These attacks show that, for the regime, maintaining power is a priority over compliance with one of the most important treaties in modern history.

Assad and Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hold a meeting in Damascus on January 7, 2020. Alexey Druzhinin / SPUTNIK / AFP/Getty

Assad and his allies have attempted to obfuscate the truth about the use of chemical weapons. Syria is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, which grants the ICC jurisdiction to investigate potential war crimes, and Russia has prevented similar oversight initiatives by practicing its veto power in the UN Security Council. But the international community has still been exposed to ample evidence that Assad prioritizes his grip on power in Syria over compliance with international norms and law.

Leadership that is willing to use chemical weapons as a means of staying in power needs to be ostracized by the international community, not pardoned.

Syria's international rehabilitation is also hampered by Assad's intransigence over potential negotiations with Israel. In early October of 2020, he said in an interview with Russian state news that peace talks with the Jewish state would happen only when Israel was ready to "return the occupied Syrian land," referring to the Golan Heights.

Assad has made the same demand in the past, and he knows what answer to expect from his Israeli counterparts: absolutely not.

Hoping to be surprised by Israeli generosity, however, was not Assad's goal. In making such a remark, Syria's leader hoped American and European officials would recognize his regained authority and, perhaps, discuss the normalization of ties with Israel as a bargaining chip for the lifting of international sanctions without the precondition that Syria undergo a transition of power.

Such a move must not happen.

As devoted as the international community may be to seeing Syria rebuilt and, potentially, have it normalize ties with Israel, it cannot happen when one of the world's most bloodthirsty dictators remains in power.

Yoni Michanie is a Middle East Analyst and Ph.D. student at Northeastern University. He can be reached on Twitter, @YoniMichanie.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.