Syria’s Assad Uses Disaster Diplomacy to Inch Back Onto World Stage

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A powerful earthquake last week catapulted Syria’s authoritarian president, Bashar al-Assad, into the global spotlight, creating an opportunity for him to inch further back onto the international stage through disaster diplomacy.

As the death toll soared from the region’s deadliest quake in a century, Mr. al-Assad, long a pariah for bombing and torturing his own people during Syria’s civil war, received a steady flow of sympathy, aid and attention from other countries.

Arab leaders who had shunned him for a decade picked up the phone and called. Senior United Nations officials trooped through his office, offering assistance and posing for photographs. Planeloads of aid landed from more than a dozen countries — allies like Russia, Iran and China, but also Saudi Arabia, which previously had only sent aid (and weapons) to the rebels seeking to topple Mr. al-Assad.

“There’s no doubt this is a good moment for Assad,” said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “A tragedy for Syrians is a boon for Assad, because nobody else wants to manage this mess.”

Touring Syria’s quake-torn cities over the past week, Mr. al-Assad could for once blame the destruction in his country on nature rather than war, while lashing out at the Western foes he accused of “politicizing” the crisis.

The disaster has bolstered a slow-burn effort by a handful of Arab countries to draw Mr. al-Assad back into the international fold. On Monday, the United Arab Emirates, which is leading the push, sent its foreign minister to the Syrian capital, Damascus, to meet Mr. al-Assad for the second time this year.

On Wednesday, the United Arab Emirates increased its quake donation to $100 million — one-quarter of the entire U.N. emergency appeal for Syria.

Responding to the outreach, Mr. al-Assad, who has a reputation for intransigence, offered up a rare concession, permitting U.N. aid convoys to use two additional border crossings from Turkey for aid to pass directly into opposition-controlled territory for the first time since the civil war began 12 years ago.

Still, beyond the gestures and good will, little of substance has changed for Mr. al-Assad — in particular the punishing American and European sanctions that were imposed in response to his use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, the forcible transfer of residents from opposition strongholds, and other abuses.   

And big earthquakes can be perilous for embattled leaders.

In Mexico in 1985, and again in Turkey in 1999, feeble government responses to major quakes fed public anger that led to major political change, including the rise of Turkey’s strongman leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

If nothing else, the Feb. 6 earthquake laid bare the parlous state of Syria under Mr. al-Assad. After a decade of fighting, the government has clawed back control of much of Syrian territory, thanks to merciless tactics and help from allies like Russia and Iran. The front lines have fallen mostly quiet, and major clashes are rare.

But that has left Mr. al-Assad atop a penniless and fragmented country that is only partly under his rule.

Swathes of northern and eastern Syria are controlled by a diverse array of foes — Islamist rebels, Kurdish fighters and Turkey-backed Syrian opposition forces. About 900 American troops remain in the country, chasing the remnants of the Islamic State, whose leader was killed in a U.S. military raid last year in February (and whose successor was killed less than nine months later).

And the Syrian economy has nose-dived, strained by chronic food and fuel shortages. Millions of Syrians have fled to other Middle Eastern countries, or to Turkey or Europe; those who remain are exhausted.

The days after the earthquake highlighted the Pyrrhic nature of Mr. al-Assad’s victories. As international rescue teams flooded into neighboring Turkey, only a handful made it into Syria. What help arrived from Iran and Russia was not nearly enough, exposing the limits of the alliances Mr. al-Assad had relied on to wall himself off from most of the world.

“The idea that Russia and Iran would come to the rescue is fading,” said Dareen Khalifa, a Syria expert at the International Crisis Group. “They only come when there’s a battle, not when your average Syrian is struggling.”

In Syria, the magnitude-7.8 earthquake and a powerful aftershock hit hardest in Idlib, the densely populated opposition-held province in the northwest that has accounted for four-fifths of the 5,500 deaths reported by the United Nations so far in the country. The toll in Turkey has surpassed 36,000 deaths.

But even in government-controlled parts of Syria, there is a chronic shortage of medicine, medical equipment and heavy equipment like diggers, and rescuers have had to resort to hammers and their bare hands in the desperate hunt for survivors.

Abdul Qader Dawalibi, an official with the Aleppo governor’s office, appealed to the United States to lift sanctions to allow imports of urgently needed heavy machinery.

“Every day, more buildings are collapsing. And every day, more people are becoming homeless,” he said.

Aleppo was especially vulnerable to an earthquake because so many of its buildings were bombed by Mr. al-Assad’s forces during the war. Just last December, the authorities had announced they were demolishing the 1,500 weakest structures.

“The international community failed the Syrian people by not reacting fast enough,” the statement said.

The growing sense of urgency about the need to address that shortfall plays into Mr. al-Assad’s hands.

Quake diplomacy makes it “easier, less costly and more justifiable for a number of countries to talk to him,” said Mr. Hokayem, the analyst.

For the United Arab Emirates, the moves toward Mr. al-Assad are part of a sometimes contradictory foreign policy in the region that has also included the normalization of relations with Israel. Another prominent supporter is Algeria, which has pushed to have Syria reinstated to the Arab League.

But perhaps the most striking sight this week was the first aid plane from Saudi Arabia that landed in the northern city of Aleppo, the first in more than a decade of war.

Such moves dismay Syrians who want Mr. al-Assad to face justice for his misdeeds.

Still, there is little sign of the United States or Europe easing the sanctions that target Mr. al-Assad and his inner circle, even though the United States did temporarily ease some restrictions with the aim of allowing money for earthquake relief to flow more easily.

“The status of Syria as a pariah state isn’t going to change dramatically,” said Ms. Khalifa, the analyst.

Even among sympathizers, their embrace of Mr. al-Assad is hesitant. Some hope to reduce the influence of Iran and Turkey in Syria, analysts say. For others, it is a reflexive reaction against Western pressure.

But mostly, they seem to be driven by cold realpolitik — a tacit acknowledgment that Mr. al-Assad’s grip on power is tight and unlikely to be challenged anytime soon.

“Nobody is seriously trying to depose Assad anymore,” said Aron Lund, a Syria expert at the Century Foundation. “They are just looking for the terms of his integration and survival.”

The quake could also bring benefits for Mr. al-Assad in his tense relations with Turkey, which backs militias that control a stretch of northern Syria. Mr. Erdogan has proposed a possible meeting with Mr. al-Assad this year. Now, faced with an enormous rebuilding task in quake-hit areas, and contesting a general election expected around midyear, the Turkish leader is even less likely to vex the Syrians.

Even as the earthquake opens doors for Mr. al-Assad abroad, it could spell trouble for him at home.

The quake hit hard in two government-held areas that are important to him: Aleppo, where Syrian government forces ground out a bloody victory against rebels in 2016, and Latakia, on the Mediterranean, the Assad dynasty’s ancestral home and political heartland.

Only last summer, Mr. al-Assad was photographed strolling the streets of Aleppo alongside his wife and three of his children — a calculated show of strength intended to signal to Syrians that he can rebuild where he once bombed.

Mr. al-Assad and his wife returned to Aleppo this past week, touring hospitals caring for earthquake survivors and shaking hands with Russian rescuers. They also visited Latakia.

With as many as 5.3 million Syrians left homeless by the earthquake, according to the United Nations, the president is struggling to respond to popular fury at his government’s paltry response to the disaster — and to suspicions that what aid does arrive could be largely diverted by corruption.

“I have children who need clothes, people who need food,” an activist critical of the government, Moein Ali, railed in an online video, accusing provincial authorities of diverting precious aid. “Shall we give you the donations to be stolen? What a joke.”

The video prompted Syrian security to detain Mr. Moein for several hours, other activists said, until a public outcry led to his release.

More than ever, Mr. al-Assad needs to show Syrians that he can rule with more than just violence, Mr. Lund said.

“Syrian society is exhausted. Its stability was under threat even before the earthquake, and now people are desperate,” he said. That doesn’t necessarily point to regime change, he added.

“But it could get messy for Assad in a way that will be uncomfortable for him.”

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.


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