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The case of Mr. Assad

The mustache is now white, the hair gray — Bashar Assad is showing the stress of waging a war against innocents that has lasted six years. Despite the fact that 1,300 tons of gas were removed from Syria in 2014, chemical attacks have persisted as a recurring footnote of the conflict. With hundreds of thousands of dead, millions displaced and cities and infrastructure wrecked, the case to remove Assad is as strong as ever.

Bunkered in the Shaab Palace, Assad gave an interview with AFP which beggared belief, claiming that the sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhun was “fabricated” and conducted by fighters who had “shaved off their beards.” The claims illustrated a complete disconnect with the international outcry that has followed his regime’s crimes against unarmed civilians. 

His words were all the more shocking given they did not corroborate with those of his Russian allies. Following the attack, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, said Syrian warplanes had “struck an insurgent storehouse containing toxic substances to be used in chemical weapons.” 

The ophthalmologist-turned-president seems more committed to regime survival now than at any point in the conflict. Thanks to the generous military and diplomatic support provided by Moscow, Assad has been thrown a lifeline that has bolstered his position, culminating in the callous deployment of chemical weapons at Khan Sheikhun. 

On Wednesday, the UN Security Council failed to pass a resolution condemning the recent chemical weapons attack. Russia vetoed the resolution that sought to condemn the killings and request that the Assad regime cooperate with an international investigation into the attack. Since the beginning of the conflict, Russia has used its veto eight times — often along with China — to sink UN draft resolutions on Syria. 

The persistence of the regime is closely tied to the level of support it has received, but this should not lead to a state of indifference with regards to the conflict and indeed, the fundamental demand that Assad step down. 

Russian cooperation in this regard is essential. Backed into a corner and increasingly isolated internationally, Syria provides Russia with an important foothold in the region and a conflict through which it is able to posture on the world stage. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson encapsulated this perfectly in a statement to the House of Commons, warning: “If President (Vladimir) Putin’s strategy is to restore the greatness and the glory of Russia, then I believe he risks his ambition turning to ashes in the face of international contempt for what is happening in Syria.” 

The medic that found himself president in 2000 is a figure of hate and if captured is likely to face charges of war crimes. On the death of his father, many hoped the Western-educated young leader would bring the long-awaited economic and political reform Syrians demanded.

Assad claimed that the sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhun was fabricated and conducted by fighters who had shaved off their beards. The claims illustrated a complete disconnect with the international outcry that has followed his regime’s crimes against unarmed civilians.

Zaid M. Belbagi

This never materialized and he now finds himself locked in a bitter conflict with opposition groups and battling radical militants. As Assad positions himself as the lesser of two evils, the initial plight of the 2011 protesters persists: Syria is a dictatorship that remains a one-party state in the hands of the Baath Party, the media is state-controlled and bloody repression is the norm. 

The regime has used barrel bombs to kill civilians, mass execution and violence that is altogether removed from the initial hopes some Syrians had for the president. 

Despite the increasingly complicated nature of the conflict that has seen intervention by most of Syria’s neighbors, Iran, Russia and other international players, the initial demands of the Syrian people should not be forgotten. Driven to revolt owing to state repression and economic woes, they have been inflamed further by crimes committed by the regime. Though the Russian position has at times been to call for parliamentary elections (that will thereby empower Assad), it is important to note that more so than before, the Baathists are not fit to govern Syria and a more appropriate solution is required. 

It is not unreasonable, however, to note that when the Syrian state is destroyed, there will be no institutions for a new government to build on, and that conditions could become even worse than they already are — in Syria and across the region. 

The vacuum that will be brought about by Assad’s downfall will have to be managed and planned for to avoid the chaos that followed hasty regime-change in Iraq, Libya and Yemen. 

With much of Syria in ruins, millions of Syrians having fled and a population deeply traumatized by war, two things are certain: Assad must go and rebuilding Syria after the war ends will be a lengthy, extremely trying process. 

Since 2011, the US has repeatedly stated its opposition to the Assad regime, but hesitated to involve itself deeply — until last week. On April 7, the US carried out its first direct military action against Assad, launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base from which the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhun had been ordered. 

This may be an indicator that international pressure on Assad will grow, or it may be an eerie premonition of the perils of further internationalization of a conflict that began with the calls of an oppressed people seeking the removal of a bloody security state.

• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator. He also acts as an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC.