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PoliticsMiddle East

The dilemma with Assad in Syria

Matthias von Hein
May 26, 2021

Syria has been through ten years of war, destruction, and death. Yet Bashar Assad is still having himself elected president. It's time for a strategy change in dealing with this country in need, writes Matthias von Hein.

Syrian citizens in Lebanon go to the polls to vote
The outcome of the Syrian elections has been clear from the startImage: Hussein Malla/AP Photo/picture alliance

It doesn't take a crystal ball to predict the outcome of the Syrian "presidential election": When all the votes are counted, the winner won't be Abdullah Salloum Abdullah or Mahmoud Ahmad Marei. The two mostly unknown opponents of Bashar Assad are mere extras without a chance in this election farce.

Matthias von Hein
DW's Matthias von Hein

One thing is certain: The old president will be the new one. It's also clear that this election says nothing about the political interests of the Syrian people. It says all the more about the balance of power in the country, though. Perhaps this is the uncomfortable message of this election: Even if Syria lies in ruins after a decade of war, with hundreds of thousands killed and millions on the run ― Assad has not only survived. He also remains in power.

No regime change in sight

Major powers Russia and the United States are militarily engaged in Syria, as are regional powers Turkey, Iran and Israel. The regime in Damascus only controls two-thirds of the country. And yet the Assad regime has decided the Syrian civil war in its favor. There is no regime change in sight, nor is there any negotiated power-sharing. It is time to acknowledge this reality.

For Syria is a country in distress. Millions are on the run. A decade of war is now being followed by a catastrophic economic crisis. Eleven million Syrians need humanitarian aid, including nearly five million children. The majority of them live in areas under Damascus' control. The implosion of whatever state structures are still in place is a very real threat.

This cannot leave Germany and Europe cold. First and foremost for humanitarian reasons. But also because no one can want Syria to remain a source of conflict, terrorism and refugee movements. The international community is thus faced with a question to which there are no easy answers: How can you create and support stability without strengthening a regime that is both the cause and part of the problem?

Help for the people on the ground

The answer is tricky. It is time for a departure from the unrealistic goal of regime change in Damascus. At the same time, however, there can be no path to normalizing relations with Assad. The prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity in European courts must continue. But Europe must also look for ways to contribute to economic recovery.

So far, Europeans have only been involved in humanitarian aid. The EU member states are by far the largest donors here. But the humanitarian approach is reaching its limits: It is limited to emergency care ― of internally displaced persons and of refugees. Economic recovery and reconstruction in Syria, however, are actively hampered by sanctions.

What is needed now is a strategy that focuses on tangible aid on the ground without lining the regime's pockets. A strategy that explores what concessions Assad might be willing to make below the threshold of political transformation, with appropriate quid pro quos. Diplomacy in the best sense of the word: As the art of the possible, in the interest of the people.

This article was adapted from German.