The door is opened for Bashar al-Assad. Again.
The Sudanese President Omer al-Bashir, being the first Arab leader to visit Damascus and meet with Assad, is not the news; it is who sent him over there. Donald Trump must have surely played a key role in sanctioning this visit to the Syrian capital; at the Helsinki summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin in July, the US, Russia and Israel came to a joint agreement to keep the Syrian dictator Assad in power.
Trump likes Assad. He thinks he is one of the "tough guys" who managed to force their will over the international community. It’s no secret anymore that he gets on well with his parallels: Kim Jong-un of North Korea, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and the Saudi crown prince Mohamed bin Salman.
The American strategy in Syria, if there is such a thing, is full of holes. Trump imposes the harshest set of sanctions on Iran, for its malicious destabilising behaviour in the Middle East, and at the same time pulls its most important ally from under the bus. He raises questions on Russia's increasing role in the region, yet gives Syria away to the Russians.
Never mind the raucous shows he comes up with every time civilians get hit with chemical weapons, and his threats to punish “animal Assad” – it is all, as he might say himself, fake. The US president is not sparing much thought for Syrian civilians, their rights or their safety. Earlier this year, he promised that Assad would “pay a price” for dropping of chemical bombs on a rebel-held part of the city of Douma in Eastern Ghouta. Now, instead, it’s time for his rehabilitation.
On Sunday, the very same day Bashir was visiting Damascus, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a conference that Turkey and other world powers would consider working with Assad if he won a "democratic election". Still though, nobody from Turkey has landed in Damascus – yet.
So why has Bashir been welcomed into Syria? Because he is the weak spot of the Arab world. Bashir is another Assad, on a smaller scale. His nation remains in the grip of a nasty civil war, which split his country in two and is still wreaking havoc in South Kardafan and the Blue Nile provinces. Just like Assad, Bashir is considered a leader of a rogue regime and remains under tough economic sanctions. Although Trump’s administration announced last year that the sanctions, which have been in place since 1997, will be lifted, Bashir’s government is still bogged down in negotiations with Washington.
Bashir’s impasse turned him to a desperate prey, ready to do anything to stay, politically and economically, afloat. His daring economic reforms, which tumbled the Sudanese pound to a record low 47.5 against US dollar, weakened his efforts to change the constitution, allowing him to stay in power indefinitely. No Arab ruler who came to power through the ballots – in the Arab fashion of democracy, of course – would have the strength to cling on without American consent.
And just like Assad, Bashir is on the route to be rehabilitated.
In October 2017 the US announced the permanent lifting of a raft of sanctions, stating that the African nation had begun addressing its concerns about terrorism. This summer, Saudi Arabia agreed to supply Sudan with oil for the next five years to help in tackling its energy crisis, after Bashir sent troops to support the Saudi-backed government in the bloody Yemeni civil war.
Western governments seem eager to repeat the same mistakes. Policies of Rehabilitation of bloodthirsty ruthless despots have taken us nowhere but to a Middle East which turned into a homeland of daily atrocities, chaos and extremism. Walking down the same road is a naive strategy.
After the chemical weapons attack on Halabja in March 1988, which killed more than 5,500 Kurdish civilians, the world thought it would be the end of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. But the west decided to give him another chance, and some time. It was not until Saddam decided to invade Kuwait that Washington and its allies realised they had been fools to imagine that they could turn Iraq under this lunatic leader to be the region’s cop. Later still, they had to rush to the Middle East again to try to fix their own bungling plan. But did they learn from their mistake? Of course not.
A couple of years earlier, American fighter jets conducted a series of warning air raids on the Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi’s house in Tripoli, and other targets in the country. But after the downing of the Pan AM Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988 – the same year of Halabja chemical attack, ironically enough – everyone thought: that’s it for Gaddafi, he is done. But it turned out that he was not. He would go through the same rehabilitation loop for the next two decades, until the very same West fathoms that sharing a bed with a monster will give you nightmares.
Now, Trump is playing the same game with Assad.
After seven years of fierce fighting, triggering the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War, nobody seems to understand what (and how long) it will take the West to understand that redeeming Assad is a lost cause – even if the price of accepting that will be a few American military bases in the north of Syria and guarantees on Israel’s security.
Trump's position on Bashir and Assad is another example of how people in the West still can’t understand the complexity of the politics of the Middle East and never will. But remember: history repeats itself, and payback time will come. Again.
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