Syria’s Assad using deadly earthquake as chance to shed his ‘pariah’ status: Analysts

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Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad – who has been shunned as a pariah for bombing his own people during the bloody 12-year civil war – is using the disastrous and deadly earthquake which struck his country to tug at the political heartstrings of sympathetic leaders in an attempt to break out of isolation on the international stage, analysts said.

The earthquake – the world’s deadliest in decades, with more than 50,000 fatalities– is being used by Damascus to break out of its international isolation, according to Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House.

She said: “Shortly after the earthquakes, the regime’s public reaction was not to express condolences for all Syrian people affected by the tragedy but to use its key figures to try to achieve de facto legitimacy on the international stage for Assad.”

“President Bashar al-Assad has been exploiting sympathy for the earthquake’s Syrian victims to call for a lifting of Western sanctions and an end to his international isolation,” wrote Francesco Siccardi, senior program manager and senior research analyst at Carnegie Europe.

Assad is basking in the international limelight with the outpouring messages of support and solidarity, the pledges of assistance and the desperately needed humanitarian aid packages worth tens of millions of dollars.

The UN estimates the death toll at approximately 6,000 victims in all of Syria, including 4,400 deaths reported in rebel-held areas in the northwest.

The agency also estimated that the 7.8 magnitude earthquake affected approximately 9 million Syrians and has launched a $397 million appeal to help quake victims. The UN’s refugee agency said that nearly 5.3 million people may have been left homeless due to the quake.

Yet, despite the massive scale of the calamity the war-torn country is experiencing, Assad's government is more concerned with how best to use this disaster to make diplomatic strides in achieving legitimacy for its regime. A regime sanctioned by the US for carrying out chlorine gas attacks against civilians.

Khatib added: “The prioritization of highlighting engagement by international and regional leaders is an indication of Assad’s view of the aftermath of the earthquakes as an opportunity to present himself internationally and nationally as the legitimate leader of Syria.”

Siccardi said: “Assad… is calculating every move to maximize his gains and inch away from his status as an international pariah. Assad will make concessions as he sees fit in this regard.”

Response in the Arab world

Assad received phone calls from the Arab world’s leaders, visits from their top diplomats and received aid packages from them. He said: “Syria’s people welcome and will engage with any positive stance towards them, especially from our Arab brothers.”

Assad received phone calls from Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.

He met on Wednesday with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi in Damascus. Safadi is the second top Arab diplomat to visit Syria after UAE’s Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed’s meeting earlier in the week.

Saudi Arabia sent an airplane carrying humanitarian aid and supplies to Syria on Tuesday, which landed in Aleppo.

The UAE gave a $50 million aid package on top of the $13.6 million announced the day the earthquake struck, in addition to relief teams and volunteers, as well as establishing a humanitarian airbridge to transport aid to quake victims in Syria.

Assad said on Thursday in his first televised address since the earthquake hit: “We would be remiss if we didn’t thank all the countries that stood by us since the early hours of the disaster, including our Arab brothers and our friends. Their in-kind aid and field assistance had a massive impact on reinforcing our capabilities to face the difficult conditions during the critical hours.”

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Read more:

Assad says Syria needs more resources for earthquake response, thanks ‘Arab brothers’

Turkey-Syria earthquake death toll to top 50,000, UN relief chief says

Saudi aid plane lands in Syria’s quake-stricken Aleppo

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