Assad’s spat with Macron reveals much of Syria’s tortuous endgame

French President Emmanuel Macron is the latest victim of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s growing bullishness.
December 24, 2017
Short-term gains. Syrian President Bashar Assad (L), Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu at the Hmeimim Airbase in Syria, on December 11. (AP)
Short-term gains. Syrian President Bashar Assad (L), Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu at the Hmeimim Airbase in Syria, on December 11. (AP)

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.”

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