Over the past few weeks, social media has been taken over by the 10-Year Challenge: the latest online fad where users post two pictures themselves 10 years apart, allowing them to reminisce and engage with their friends and family. This trivial internet craze led me to ponder what Bashar al-Assad would post on his social media account if he had the chance, and how this would be reflective of his career and future aspirations.
The Arab Economic Summit, taking place in Lebanon over the weekend, is in its own right an Assad 10-Year Challenge as his were desperately scrambling to turn this venue into an occasion to normalize Syria’s relations with its Arab neighbors. The zeal to reinstate Syria’s membership in the Arab League, according to Assad’s supporters, would be the last act in securing Iran’s supposed victory in the region. Ultimately, Assad wishes to show both his supporters as well as his opponents that he, and equally his regime, are older yet stronger having endured eight years of gruesome war yet survived.
Ten years have passed since Saudi King Abdullah’s wishful attempt to skew Assad from his joint venture with the Iranian regime, an attempt that led Assad to cooperate further with Tehran and to allow it more access to both Lebanon and SyriaMakram Rabah
This normalization blitz led by Assad’s Lebanese allies, mainly Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri and Lebanon’s Foreign Minister and President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil, clearly demonstrates how Assad and his Iranian associates have no real understanding of the steps needed to achieve proper normalization. In Assad’s dictionary, normalization simply means continuing to play both sides of the political spectrum and promising the Arab Gulf countries to abandon his “sacred alliance” with Iran in exchange for the billions needed to rebuild Syria and its razed infrastructure.
Growing Iranian influence
Assad simply misconstrued some of the Arab countries’ initiatives, such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, to meet him half way by reopening their embassies in Damascus. Instead of reciprocating with an act of good faith, Assad exerted more pressure on the Lebanese state by derailing the formation of the next government by Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, linking the formation with Hariri’s acceptance to invite him to the Beirut summit.
Such actions prove that any bid to normalize relations with the Assad regime will simply face the same fate as its many earlier attempts.
One ought not forget that the late Saudi King Abdullah made the trip to Damascus in October 2009 and later chaperoned Assad to Beirut in hopes of containing Iran’s growing influence in the area and to shield the Lebanese government from Hezbollah’s complete take-over. Ten years have passed since King Abdullah’s wishful attempt to skew Assad from his joint venture with the Iranian regime, an attempt that led Assad to cooperate further with Tehran and to allow it more access to both Lebanon and Syria.
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The repercussions of empowering Assad at this particular moment in time, by re-establishing diplomatic relations or even readmitting him to the Arab League will only strengthen Iran and come at the expense of Lebanon, Iraq as well as Yemen; places which the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have won over with blood and sweat, and will simply not forgo easily.
In 1990, Hafez al-Assad was handed Lebanon in exchange for his participation in the first Gulf War to liberate Kuwait, a grant that his son Bashar lost after he failed to check Iran’s growing infiltration of the region. Bashar simply can no longer deliver as a peddler of security and stability like his equally ruthless father did; as it stands Assad is merely a finger-puppet as well as a victim of Iran’s ambitious expansion in the Levant.
The challenge to exit the current state of affairs in the next decade or so is for the future pictures not to include the likes of Assad, nor should one be fooled that a simple Photoshop or political whitewashing can hide the fact that Assad and his Iranian patrons are the problem and never the solution.
Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History. He is the author of A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967-1975. He tweets @makramrabah.