Step by step, in the still smoking ruins of Syria, Bashar El-Assad traces his path, without worrying about the corpses on the side. After twelve years of war, more than 500,000 dead and 13 million displaced, the Syrian dictator is continuing his journey towards international rehabilitation. His goal: for the whole world to recognize his victory. A scenario out of the question for the West even if, behind the scenes, the reality seems difficult to elude. “On the ground Assad won the war, we have to deal with it,” an Israeli source explained to us in November. Today, the regime controls around 70% of Syrian territory, with military support from Iran and Russia, and is patiently preparing the next step.
Erdogan’s nod to Assad
On the diplomatic side, Damascus is progressing, one alliance after another. The regime has resumed contact since 2018 with the very influential United Arab Emirates, and some of the countries of the Arab League want its reintegration on the regional scene. Now, even Turkey is multiplying the positive signals. In December, for the first time since the start of the war, Syrian ministers met their Turkish counterparts in Moscow to discuss a possible normalization of relations. More importantly, Recep Tayyip Erdogan let go in early January that he could very well meet Bashar El-Assad in the months to come.
A summit with the Turkish president, long the main adversary of the Syrian dictator, financing and training rebel groups in Syria, would be a spectacular turning point. “There is still a long way to go before a complete reconciliation between Damascus and Ankara, nuance Christopher Phillips, Middle East specialist at Queens Mary University in London. But it would be a giant step towards the rehabilitation of Bashar El- Assad. Together with the United States and the European Union, Turkey is the main obstacle to Syria’s return to the regional and international scene.”
The Turkish turnaround owes a lot to the electoral calendar: in June, Erdogan faces a delicate presidential election, with polls following the free fall of his economy. The question of immigration – four million Syrian refugees are present on Turkish soil – will be central in the election in the spring: the opposition, united against Erdogan, has already promised that, in the event of victory, it would resume contact with Bashar Al-Assad to return Syrian migrants. “With the current economic and security conditions, a good part of the Syrian population remains likely to leave the country and the Turks have no desire to recover them, points out Fabrice Balanche, specialist in Syria and geographer at Lyon 2 University. For Erdogan, this is a big black spot: he absolutely must find a solution for these refugees and satisfy the Turkish population. A meeting with Assad would aim to resolve this problem.”
Beyond the refugees, the Turkish president also needs the support of the Syrian regime, or at least its tacit approval, to launch a military offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria. For several months, and more particularly since the attack in Istanbul on November 13, Erdogan has been promising a land military operation against the Kurdish groups that control northern Syria. The operation aims to delight the Turkish nationalists, but also to divide the opposition, shared between the pro-Kurdish party of the HDP and the Kemalists, favorable to such an intervention. In short, a new tactical move by the unpredictable Erdogan.
In this displayed rapprochement with Syria, the Turkish president does not have a monopoly on tricks. “Behind the scenes, the Russians are maneuvering, says Fabrice Balanche. Assad has no choice but to suffer: he is completely bloodless, the Syrian economy is flat and demonstrations are multiplying everywhere against the life dear. The Russians have never given anything for free, they put pressure on the Syrian regime to accept the Turkish conditions so as to create a united front Moscow-Ankara-Damascus. This united front can only be done against the Kurds. ” Stuck in his war in Ukraine, Putin must satisfy his ally Erdogan, a handy spoiler within NATO, who continues to block the entry of Sweden and Finland into the Alliance…
Internally, Moscow is also beginning to lose patience with the corruption of the Syrian regime and wants to accelerate its return on investment. As long as Damascus remains isolated internationally, the reconstruction of the country must wait. The same goes for Iran, which continues to fund Damascus but has had to face the wrath of its own people since September. The Iranian Foreign Minister will also travel to Ankara next Tuesday to promote Turkey-Syria rapprochement.
If the corruption of the Syrian regime annoys, its leader continues to negotiate at his own pace. “Objectively, Assad is the weakest and has every interest in reaching an agreement with Turkey, but that’s without counting on his psychology, and Syrian psychology more generally: it’s not because they have a rational interest in doing something they are going to do it, breathes Fabrice Balanche. For decades, the Syrians have been very good at raising the stakes on all sides. They are getting closer to Turkey, or pretending to be getting closer to Turkey, knowing full well that this annoys the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which take a dim view of Turkish influence in the region.Assad wants to make the most of all situations and all competing interests .” Thanks to his maneuvers, the Syrian dictator could well be the surprise guest of the next summit of the Arab League, which meets in Riyadh in the spring.
With the West, an impossible normalization
“It is likely that Assad will return to the regional game because many precedents of this type exist in the Middle East, believes Christopher Phillips. But with the West, it will be much more complex, if not impossible, if Assad does not make an offer. up to the challenge.” At the beginning of January, after Erdogan’s resounding announcement on his possible future meeting with Assad, the United States ruled out any normalization with the Syrian regime and took the opportunity to slip that they did not support such rapprochements “under any circumstances”. initiated by their allies. On the European side, while some southern countries were tempted by discreet cooperation with Damascus two years ago, the war in Ukraine makes any normalization impossible with a country in Russian hands.
Not enough to offend Bashar El-Assad, who has shown for twelve years that nothing, absolutely nothing, will put a brake on his cynicism and his ambition. 21 million Syrians can attest to this.