For almost 10 years, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has presided over a country that has been brought bitterly to its knees. More than half a million people have died and more than half of its 17 million population has been displaced, while the number of those rendered disabled disappeared and dispossessed is nearly countless, and the economy has been crushed to almost nonexistence.
Yet the 55-year-old leader continues on his family’s five-decade, iron-fisted rule on the broken nation, but his political future and the regime’s survival could very well hinge on the U.S. vote come Nov. 3. President Trump and former Vice President Biden are likely to approach Syria and Assad’s future in dramatically different ways – with Iranian relations at the centerpiece.
And that could ultimately determine Syria’s outcome.
“Many Syrians feel reliant on the Republicans’ victory in the upcoming presidential elections because that will mean more siege on Iran, the primary and most dangerous supporter of the Assad regime, with the blockade on Iran being reflected in the effect on its expansion in Syria,” surmised Fadel Abdulghany, CEO of the Syrian Network for Human Rights. “Without a doubt, we would have noticed a far broader proliferation than the current one without the current U.S. leadership; this was also reflected in Iran’s financial and military support for the Syrian regime.”
On the flipside, Biden has signaled that he would restore the 2014 Iran deal, of which he played a pivotal role in its development as the vice president.
In September, the Democratic nominee said he would seek to reengage with Tehran, warning that the country was ever closer to a nuclear bomb under Trump. However, the Islamic Republic’s net of neighborhood proxy wars was not explicitly discussed.
“The Iran issue could have a major impact in a scenario where Biden makes a full-throttle effort to revive the 2015 nuclear deal and decides to accommodate Iran by easing pressure on Assad, but that is hardly a given,” said David Adesnik, a senior fellow and the director of research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “On the other hand, Biden may push back harder against Russia in cases like the vehicle ramming incident last month, which injured seven U.S. soldiers.”
But according to Ayman Abdel Nour — a Syrian reformist, defected government adviser and the president of the nonprofit Syrian Christians for Peace — the Syrian diaspora in the U.S. has mixed support for both Trump and Biden. A number of Muslim community leaders held foreign policy Zoom meetings with the Democratic presidential contender in late July and then in August, he said, and several got behind a Syrian Americans for Biden campaign.
“At first, many Syrians felt optimistic. But in the first paper on his American-Arab agenda, there was no mention of Syria, so then (the campaign) went back and added a Syria paragraph to the bottom. But for many, it wasn’t enough. We need more clarification,” Nour told Fox News. “And some are worried that there are still a lot of people around Biden who support Iran and restoring ties to Iran.”
In an Aug. 24 meeting held between the Syrian Americans for Biden group and Biden’s senior foreign policy adviser and former deputy secretary of state, Antony Blinken — as per a transcript obtained by Fox News — the Syrian Americans highlight that the biggest cause of concern in their community was Iran. When questioned as to whether a Biden-Harris administration would recommit to the Iran deal without addressing Iranian proxies in Syria and elsewhere, Blinken emphasized that the money given back to Iran in the Obama-era deal was “its own money, frozen in banks and given back to settle the historic debt as well as various infrastructure projects.”
“A small proportion was spent by the IRGC, and to be clear: any dollar was a dollar too many,” Blinken continued, as per the transcript. “The region has changed since 2016, but a Biden-Harris administration would attempt to pursue another nuclear deal with the framework that engagement with Iran opens channels to address broader regional issues, including Syria.”
He insisted that the Biden-Harris duo would “use the robust sanctions tools at our disposal to target Iran’s human rights abuses, support for terrorism, and ballistic missile program.”
“Leverage over Iran we believe will be best when the U.S. is at the table and leading with our allies. The Trump administration is attempting to use the ‘snapback’ provision in the UN, which would snapback a historic arms embargo on Iran should any participant renege or be dissatisfied with Iran’s adherence to the deal,” he said. “The U.S. gave up that leverage when it ceased to be a participant in that deal.”
The full reinstatement of sanctions was rejected by the UN, but the Trump team has vowed to keep pushing.
In 2012, Obama cautioned that the use of chemical weapons would be a blatant “red line,” but a year later – when such an attack did happen, and no follow-up military response was taken – Assad’s resolve to wage war was only invigorated. Nour noted that most Syrians don’t hold Biden responsible for that, stressing that the controversial inaction was initiated by the commander-in-chief and not his number two.
But he also highlighted that the Syrian previously pushing for a Biden win also expressed concern that his added “Syria policy paragraph,” which stated that “the Trump administration has repeatedly fallen short on U.S. policy in Syria,” vowed to “help mobilize other countries to support Syria’s reconstruction.”
“This is very dangerous,” Nour said. “We can’t be talking about construction without a political solution to end this crisis.”
Years on, Assad remains in the grand and imposing Presidential Palace – but staring out at a country that has largely crumbled. Assad can no longer turn to military allies Russia and Iran to boost the rebuilding bank account. According to estimates by The World Bank, the reconstruction endeavor in still-smoldering Syria will require some $400 billion.
International donors across the board have proven hesitant to put forth funding that would ultimately boost the existing regime, and Moscow and Tehran are in the throes of their own economic spirals, largely due to U.S.-imposed sanctions, collapsing oil and gas prices, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Washington and Brussels have, in addition, upheld a united front mandating that allies do not issue Damascus rebuilding loans until it concedes to a fair and inclusive political transition.
At least for now.
Added to the equation, depending on November’s outcome, is Assad’s very literal fate.
When questioned about passages of Bob Woodward’s new book “Rage,” Trump affirmed on Fox News that he had a “shot” to take out Assad in 2017 in the wake of a yet another chemical attack on his own people inside a rebel stronghold, but he didn’t take it because then-Defense Secretary James Mattis opposed the proposal in favor of a more “measured” approach.
Since then, the Syrian leader has gone on to maim and massacre many hundreds of thousands more and regain control of almost 90% of the blood-spattered state. Assad’s forces are at the cusp of retaking the remaining Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold peppered by the complicated presence of both well-intentioned freedom fighters and U.S.-designated terrorist outfits.
This Saturday, July 27, 2019 file photo shows a Syrian man carrying an injured girl after an airstrike hit the northern town of Ariha, in Idlib province, Syria. Syrian opposition activists and a war monitor said Sunday, July 28, 2019, that five people had been killed in airstrikes on Ariha on Sunday as the government keeps up its deadly air campaign against the rebel-controlled region. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP, File)
In a bid focused on keeping ISIS at bay, American troops still do have a small footprint in the country under Trump, and Biden has pledged to maintain a Special Operations presence. Yet the U.S. envoy for Syria, Ambassador James Jeffrey, earlier this year pledged to “double efforts” to bolster a draft constitution that would pave the path for United Nations-endorsed government elections.
“This depends on the international powers, who can come together for a new Syria. If not, this situation will continue,” noted Loqman Ehme, spokesperson of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. “The regions not under Assad will never accept to return to live under the Assad regime and live like before because what there was before was not really life.”
Indeed, the sentiment among many Syrians is that something has to give — regardless of who holds the White House.
Life on the inside has been reduced to a state of perpetual anxiety over when the next rocket will crack, or if an intel officer will knock at the door. And for those on the outside, thrust into exile, it comes down to clawing through papers and posts trying to find news about missing loved ones.
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It is that ongoing and heavily reported rash of human rights perpetrated by the Assad leadership that has them exasperated and confused as to how and why he has remained. Since the start of the crackdown against protesters in 2011, which was met with a hail of government bullets, the documentation pointing to crimes against humanity has been ceaseless.
The 9th Annual Report on Enforced Disappearance in Syria, released by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) in late August, underscored that more than 100,000 have fallen into the void since the start of the civil war nine and a half years ago, with some 85% attributable to the Assad regime.
SNHR data shows that more than 12,325 were documented as having died under torture in Syrian government prisons and that some 13,000 are still imprisoned or missing, their fates unknown.
United Nations investigators continue to condemn the abysmal levels of abuse. A September report from the Commission of Inquiry on Syria – its 21st – yet again illuminated that “Syria’s government continues to perpetuate rape, torture, and murder,” while also acknowledging possible war crimes committed Turkey-backed coalition of rebel groups in the Idlib area.
A U.N. Security Council resolution backed by more than 60 countries to refer the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court was vetoed by Russia and China in May 2014.
In his meeting with Syrians, Blinken pledged that a Biden-Harris administration will need to “balance against China and Russia in the UN,” and the U.S. “cannot walk away from it.”
Meanwhile, the Trump White House has continued to level hefty sanctions on Assad, on Wednesday issuing a dozen more on government and military officials and businesses tied to the Syrian President for grave abuses committed throughout the conflict.
In this May 3, 2019, file photo, smoke rises after Syrian government and Russian airstrikes hit the town of al-Habeet, southern Idlib, Syria. In their latest assault on the last rebel-stronghold of Idlib, the Syrian government and its Russian backer had resorted to familiar tactics to break the will of people and pressure civilians to flee: Target residential areas, bomb hospitals and markets, destroy civilian infrastructure. It is a well-established pattern that worked for President Bashar Assad’s forces seeking to recapture Aleppo and other strategic rebel territories during the eight-year war. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP, File)
Nonetheless, most of the people in Syria continue to suffer in one way or another — faces everywhere are etched with exhaustion. If Assad won’t go willfully if more bodies pile up, could a second Trump term prompt him to make good on the “take him out” plan?
“We see Assad as regime – an institution, an army and an intelligence apparatus committing massive crimes against humanity,” conjectured Nour. “And when that person goes, the full regime will collapse.”
Others have a different perspective.
“We do not want Assad to be killed, that would be not fair for millions of Syrians who suffered from him,” added Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat and the co-founder and director of external relations of People Demand Change. “He should go to the International Criminal Court with all his family and all his inner circle.”