For almost a decade he was a pariah who struggled to get a meeting abroad or even to assert himself on his visitors. Largely alone in his palace, save for trusted aides, Bashar al-Assad presided over a broken state whose few friends demanded a humiliating price for their protection, and weren’t afraid to show it.
During regular trips to Syria, Vladimir Putin arranged meetings at Russian bases, forcing Assad to trail behind him at functions. Iran too readily imposed its will, often dictating military terms, or sidelining the Syrian leader on decisions that shaped the course of his country.
But with the din of war and insurrection receding and a tired region recalibrating from an exhausting 10 years, an unlikely dynamic is emerging: Assad the outcast is in demand. Foes who opposed him as Syria unravelled increasingly view Damascus as a key to reassembling a ruptured region. The savagery that saw half a million people killed when officials stopped counting in 2015 appears no longer the obstacle it was. Nor is Assad’s central role in a catastrophe that uprooted half the country’s population and infected the body politic of Europe and beyond.
Instead of being the epicentre of the Middle East’s demise, Syria has become a focal point of plans to restore a post-Arab Spring stability. Over the past 12 months, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have sent officials to the Syrian capital to meet its spy chiefs. Egypt and Qatar have also made overtures. Jordan, meanwhile, has implored the US to help with Syria’s reintegration and suggested it is best placed to help.
Earlier this month, Washington made a play of its own that will add to Assad’s resurgence. In an attempt to solve Lebanon’s energy crisis, the US embassy in Beirut announced a plan to send Egyptian natural gas via Jordan and Syria. The proposal gave Assad a direct stake in finding a solution for Lebanon – a turn of events that many in the Lebanese capital say will again drag the country into Syrian tutelage.
“At the very least, the two economic crises [Lebanon and Syria] are now integrated,” said a European diplomat. “So much for sovereign solutions. Does the US truly understand what it has done here? All these years of talk about state-building. And then at the end, you hand the mess back to Bashar who played a lead role in killing both countries.”
Assad was uncharacteristically quick to agree to the deal, which would see Syria take a chunk of the Egyptian gas for its own needs, as it did when a tanker of Iranian-supplied diesel destined for Lebanon was unloaded in mid-September in its port of Baniyas. To mark the occasion, he invited Lebanese ministers to the border where – straight from the Putin playbook – his officials displayed only the Syrian flag.
“The Lebanese ministers should have got up and left,” said Mirna Khalifa, a Beirut-based researcher. “But beggars can’t be choosers. And now we’ve been forced to go begging to Bashar again.”
Visiting Washington in August, King Abdullah of Jordan pitched members of Congress on the need to re-engage Assad. The plan seemed aimed at restoring Jordan’s role as a go-between under the Biden administration – and offloading the financial burden of huge numbers of Syrians still on Jordanian soil, many of whom are refugees.
“Jordan could lead an initial engagement with the regime to guarantee commitment before broader contacts are initiated,” a briefing note prepared by Abdullah said.
Vladimir Putin greets Bashar al-Assad at a meeting in Moscow earlier in September. Photograph: Mikhael Klimentyev/Sputnik/EPA
Malik al-Abdeh, a Syria watcher close to the Syrian opposition, said: “What the regime is desperate to achieve is to end the US and EU sanctions and restore diplomatic relations with Arab countries and the west. King Abdullah appears to be putting these on the table and saying ‘let’s give these to Assad in return for limited behavioural change’.
“Assad will not engage in a transactional relationship as described in the paper. Instead, he will likely exploit the channels extended to him to undermine whatever leverage the west/Arab states have.”
Another dynamic has helped lure Assad back into the fold: the rise of Saudi Arabia’s heir to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman, and the revamp he is attempting of the Kingdom – away from a rigid theological regime where clerics compete with rulers for power, to an Arab nationalist police state – of the type that Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi would have instinctively recognised.
An influential aide of a regional leader says Assad feels emboldened by the new attention. “The Saudis have sent their spy chief, and the Emiratis want to do business with him. And now the Americans and Jordanians. He has become impossible to deal with. He’s been insisting that he won’t compromise on Syria at all, and that all Americans have to leave Deir Azzour. He’s even been demanding that he has a say in where they withdraw to.”
In the north-eastern Syrian city of Qamishli, where the country’s Kurds dominate local affairs, Assad’s steady resurgence has not gone unnoticed. Here, he is seen as a pyrrhic victor of a war of attrition more than a strategist; his survival due to Syria’s historical role in the region and the way the modern state was constructed by his late father, Hafez al-Assad.
“Hafez made sure that if one arm of his regime fell, there would be earthquakes elsewhere. That’s what happened,” said Ako Abdullah, a communications technician. “The consequences became too high for everyone and people just lost patience.”
A second Syrian in Qamishli, an anti-Assad merchant who referred to himself as Abu Laith, said the world was starting to forget Syria’s decade of destruction. “They walked away from Afghanistan, and now us,” he said. “Soon Bashar will be back at the UN and the sanctions will be lifted. He will control Lebanon again. History should be a teacher.”
Toby Cadman, a UK barrister working on war crimes prosecutions who has focused on Syria, cautioned against re-engagement with Assad. “This is not a regime with whom we should consider re-establishing diplomatic relations. The recent rapprochement by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar is something that we should approach with a great deal of concern.
“There can be no peace, stability or reconciliation without a process aimed at justice and accountability. We have failed the Syrian people over the past decade. Let us not paper over the cracks of instability and injustice with a final act of abandonment.”