On February 28, 2011, American diplomacy reached a critical and promising point in its effort to produce peace between Syria and Israel. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad told the US mediator he would break military ties with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas and neutralize all threats to Israel arising in Syria, provided Israel would agree to restore to Syria all land taken from it in June 1967. Informed days later of Assad’s conditional commitment, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged the seriousness of the mediation and directed his team to move forward toward a peace treaty based on an evolving American draft.
Two weeks later, however, opportunity began to change to horror. Syrian security personnel had opened fire on peaceful demonstrators. Governmental lawlessness raised a fundamental question: Did Bashar al-Assad still have the right to speak for Syria on something so important as peace with Israel?
As demonstrations expanded across Syria and official security forces continued to inflict deadly violence, the answer became clear: No, he did not. Assad’s violent lawlessness shredded his legitimacy as Syria’s chief of state.
Ten years later Syria lies in ruins, exploited by Russian military officers making money from Assad-directed contracts and Iranian operatives using Syria as a land link to Tehran’s Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon. Al Qaeda and the remnants of ISIS remain implanted in a country whose president promoted their growth to claim he was battling terrorism rather than inflicting state terror on Syrian civilians. The corruption and incompetence of the family and its entourage have destroyed Syria’s economy. More than half the pre-war population has been displaced both inside Syria and externally as refugees. Who knows how many defenseless civilians have been killed, mostly by Assad-directed artillery, airstrikes, and barrel bombs; carnage supplemented by Russian airstrikes? A clique blind to the suffering of Syrians has made Damascus the Pyongyang of the Levant.
The destruction of Syria has been senseless. A Syrian President seemingly committed to retrieving occupied territory in exchange for Syria’s strategic reorientation threw it all away. And for what? Yes, he and his entourage continue to strip-mine what is left of Syria for personal profit. But is presiding over wreckage better than what might have been? Was there no honorable and peaceful alternative to waging war on one’s own people? Were the potential economic dividends of peace worthless?
The “alternative” question is probably unanswerable. Syria’s President and his (then) popular First Lady could have gone to Deraa in March 2011, returning imprisoned and beaten children to their parents, providing compensation to the aggrieved, and ordering his forces to their barracks, all accompanied no doubt by a firm demand for order. But nonviolence, decency, generosity, and respect for human dignity seem never to have been elements of the Assad approach to Syrians.
One possibility is that Assad deliberately used violence to cancel his conditional peace commitments and escape the US mediation. No one forced him to make those commitments; he offered them all during a fifty-minute meeting. One wonders, however, if in the weeks following his promise of full strategic reorientation, Bashar al-Assad had second thoughts about Iran’s likely reaction and the domestic political implications of peace. In any event he has all-but-deeded to Israel the land he said he wanted returned to Syria. “Assad Heights” would be a better name for Israel’s new Golan settlement than “Trump Heights.”
Another possibility is that Assad either was told by his security chieftains to order violence or did so on his own out of fear of seeming weak. Yet the idea of Assad privately preferring nonviolence seems decisively contradicted by his behavior since. He has authorized the use of chemical weapons against civilians, including children. His political survival strategy has centered on civilian mass homicide. He has promoted violent Islamist extremists as his enemies of choice. Would such a person have been capable of considering humane alternatives ten years ago?
Now a new American administration ponders what to do about the incendiary wreckage that is Syria. Assad, maneuvering between the Russian Foreign Ministry, avaricious senior Russian military officers, and Iran makes it clear to all, especially the UN Special Envoy for Syria, that political compromise is not on his agenda. The man who has uttered not a syllable of regret for what has happened to Syria and Syrians is determined to keep his seat at all costs. Yet even those who have grudgingly supported him for years are intimately familiar with the reality of cost: Lives sacrificed for the sake of a family business; and now economic ruin.
Ten years on Assad hopes the US will reengage him diplomatically and lavish reconstruction funds on him and his entourage. The view here is that such hopes are illusory.
Too many key officials in the Biden administration now recognize that a red line erased in 2013 and public presidential advice in 2016 that Arabs should “share the neighborhood” with Iran harmed Western security and damaged American credibility far beyond Syria. The new administration will study its options carefully. It is profoundly unlikely, however, that President Biden would repeat past policy failures by abandoning Syrian political transition – mandated by the UN Security Council – as the foundation of his Syria policy.
Ten years of useless, mainly Assad-imposed agony have plunged upwards of 80 percent of Syrians into poverty, all-but-wiping out a small but productive middle class. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died. Countless Syrians have been maimed and traumatized, both physically and psychologically. Tens of thousands remain in regime torture chambers. All this to preserve a family business; a business that might have thrived and evolved politically into something more inclusive and representative if it had made pragmatic and humane choices a decade ago. But was it even capable of doing so? Syria’s condition in 2021 suggests the answer: No.
Ambassador Frederic C. Hof teaches at Bard College in New York. In 2009 to March 2011, he mediated between Syria and Israel. He then served as advisor to the US Secretary of State on political transition in Syria until September 2012. His book on the Israel-Syria peace mediation is forthcoming.