As America is weakened, Assad is emboldened
For the first time since 2011, Bashar Assad’s forces have entered Deraa, the cradle of the Syrian rebellion against his regime. One might think it is a coincidence that the aggression in Deraa followed the American debacle in Afghanistan, but it is not. The American departure from Afghanistan, the image of US weakness and the retreat from world affairs it portrays is emboldening Assad. It is not only the Syrian dictator who now will be encouraged to pursue aggressive behavior, but also terrorist groups around the world.
Over the years, Assad has repeatedly reneged on his commitments when it comes to reconciliation and has used time-buying techniques to avoid sharing power with anyone. He is not willing to change his behavior or reconcile in order to end the conflict. On the contrary, he waits for the right moment to take back the territories he lost and bring them back under his control on his terms, which are just as brutal as they have always been.
As Assad’s forces entered Deraa, rumors spread about the possibility of the US withdrawing from Syria the same way it left Afghanistan. While Washington refuted the news and said its commitment to Syria has not changed, American allies have serious doubts.
Washington’s foes are rejoicing. Those who laid low now see an opportunity to show their claws. Abu Mohammed Al-Julani had previously donned a suit to convince the West that he had changed his behavior. However, he now says that “things are going for the better.” He added that he hopes to see people falling from American planes in Syria, as was the case in Afghanistan. He also said that Kurdish fighters would leave with the Americans.
The Deraa episode is the first repercussion of America’s retrenchment from the world scene. As the US is ending its supposedly endless wars, it is leaving a void behind that will be filled by the likes of Assad and Al-Julani. Though the Biden administration is stressing on diplomacy, this does not seem to work with the likes of Assad, who feels emboldened every time he is offered any incentive. Even before the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Syrian president was not cooperating with the constitutional committee or offering any concessions, but rather was just stalling to maintain the appearance that he was negotiating.
The previous agreement on Deraa, which was brokered by the Russians between the regime and the opposition, failed because Assad never kept his side of the bargain. While he promised that members of trade unions, like teachers and doctors, could resume their jobs, he barred them from doing so. And while he promised members of the opposition amnesty, he slaughtered those he could reach. As he now perceives that he has won, he will be encouraged to pursue such brutal behavior.
Assad definitely wants to humiliate his opponents and let them know they will be kept under the thumb of the regime. An unbridled Assad will not stop, especially now that the Americans have shown a sign of weakness. Experience has shown us that any sign of weakness by the US will be met with increasing brutality by Assad. In 2013, after failing to strike Assad following his use of chemical weapons, when Barack Obama’s red line became pink, the Syrian president was emboldened. He used chemical weapons again and only faced a symbolic slap on the wrist. During the time of Donald Trump, the single series of airstrikes in 2018 was not followed by a strategy, meaning it did not really scare Assad. And now with the Afghanistan debacle, one wonders what Assad will do next. The brutality of the Syrian Army’s 4th Armored Division in Deraa is an indicator of what is to come.
The head of the negotiating committee representing the residents of Deraa, Adnan Al-Masalmeh, said that Assad had proposed impossible conditions, such as fighters having to give up all their weapons and the people having to bear intrusive measures at checkpoints inside residential neighborhoods; plus they asked for the exile of all fighters. When I called an acquaintance from Deraa to check on his family back home, he told me: "The international community is a liar. We are left alone to face the criminal Assad.”
The US now has to deal with a dictator who is obsessed with regaining control of all of Syria, even if that means its destruction.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
The US is in a tough spot. Al-Qaeda has congratulated the Taliban and vowed to continue its “liberation” across the world, giving a sign that extremist groups will be galvanized. Iran, on the other hand, will have a freer hand on the borders of Israel and Jordan.
Assad has also bombed Idlib and targeted a medical center in Jabal Al-Zawiya in the north of Syria. This is a sign that he will stop at nothing. The US now has to deal with a dictator who is obsessed with regaining control of all of Syria, even if that means its destruction.
The perceived American retrenchment from world affairs will not end endless wars; on the contrary, it will start new conflicts and bring chaos. Meanwhile, as US prestige has been badly damaged, Washington needs to compensate and show assertiveness on other fronts. Hence, President Joe Biden should not withdraw from Syria. And, unless the US compensates for the Afghanistan debacle by showing determination, commitment and assertiveness, the only way for the US as a great power is down.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.