Assad’s spat with Macron reveals much of Syria’s tortuous endgame
London- French President Emmanuel Macron is the latest victim of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s growing bullishness. Responding to criticism from the French president, Assad harnessed the bullhorn of state media to bolster support at home while trying to avoid inflaming still further hostility towards his regime abroad.
Responding to criticism from the French President, where he had accused the Assad regime of contributing nothing to the Geneva peace talks while orchestrating the deaths of thousands within the so called ‘de escalation’ zone in eastern Ghouta, Assad’s venom was tangible.
“France spearheaded support for terrorism and its hands are soaked in Syrian blood from the first days and we do not see the French have changed their stance fundamentally,” Assad said on December 18. “Those who support terrorism have no right to talk about peace.”
The accuracy of Macron’s criticism is hard to deny. The Syrian delegation in Geneva demonstrated scant interest in the process or compromises involved in progressing it. Within Eastern Ghouta, the slaughter continues unabated. Since mid-November, the besieged population of 400,000 has endured Syrian and Russian bombardments, with schools, markets and residential areas attacked to wipe out the last holdout of opposition near Damascus.
“In a cruel tactic that belongs to the Middle Ages, the Syrian government is placing hundreds of thousands of its own people at risk of death, bombing civilians indiscriminately while refusing to allow life-saving aid into Eastern Ghouta,” Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch, wrote via e-mail.
From the public row with Macron to the unflinching attitude towards the “traitors” of the US-backed and Kurdish-dominated Syrian Defence Forces, Assad appears confident his star is rising. “Everything since Aleppo — the de-escalation zones, Astana, the slaughter in Eastern Ghouta, all of it — points to the fact that Assad knows he can’t now be forced out,” Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Centre for a New American Security in Washington, said by telephone.
The diplomatic brawl with Macron both plays to and against Assad’s ends. “On the one hand, it was surprising it was Macron that Assad picked a fight with,” Heras said. “He’s almost like Trump on Syria. He just wants the war over. To that end, he’s willing to engage with the Russians. He’s ready to engage with Assad on reconstruction. He just wants the conflict over and the refugee flow halted.”
Beyond Macron the individual, however, is France the former imperial power. For Assad, who is looking to shore up support at home and within his own deep state, the shadow of France’s historic dominance over Syria is a populist ghost worth invoking, even if it comes at the expense of the country’s deconstruction goals.
“He needs to be seen to be standing up to the French state. It’s not just emblematic of the West; it’s the former imperial power. There’s a historical resonance here that goes beyond the present.” Heras said.
Beyond bolstering Assad’s short-term popularity, the strategy is likely to carry long-term risks. As the war inches towards its ambiguous conclusion and Syria’s reconstruction moves from the theoretical to the practical, the wisdom of alienating a major European power is dubious.
“This is where Assad’s rhetoric could backfire,” Heras said, “He needs a quiet Europe, one that can provide assistance and even funds to Syria. He needs to remember this when he blocks the humanitarian routes into Ghouta or when he bombs his own civilians.”
In the face of likely sanctions, not least from the United States, on a post-conflict Syria, Assad is sorely in need of whatever allies he can muster.
Assad’s assumption that his fate is on an upswing may prove well-founded. He looks likely to survive the six savage years of conflict that have seen him unleash the worst of modern warfare on his own people, a campaign that continues in Ghouta. However, that he would sacrifice a potential long-term gain on the altar of short-term popularity may limit how far his star can rise.
“Sure, Assad may seek to present himself as the unbowed leader of a proud Arab nation, one that has resisted empires and the greed of foreign conquerors,” Heras said, “but that’s missing the point. He isn’t. He’s a small-time Mafiosi chief sitting atop a crumbling and corrupt statelet.”