Of Course, the Dictator Assad No Longer Persona Non Grata

It was easy to find reasons to overthrow Bashar al-Assad: The regime killed the opposition, relied on a religious minority for support, and had become a monarchy disguised as a republic. Four years after the start of the rebellion, the United States concedes that it’s necessary to hold talks with the Syrian leader: from Dictator Assad to President Assad, just in case John Kerry’s words confirm a change in American strategy. What has changed since 2011? The rise of the Islamic State, Assad’s ability to survive, and, you might say, disillusionment with the “Arab spring.”

Kerry admitted to holding talks with the Syrians in a CBS interview in Egypt. Now, this is a country that saw its dictator Hosni Mubarak overthrown and imprisoned, then elected a president, overthrew him, and once again, put a general into power, albeit out of uniform. Worse off are two other countries that also took advantage of the winds of the “Arab spring.” One is Libya, which, after the death of Moammar Gadhafi, lives in a climate of civil war. The other, Yemen, with the negotiation of Ali Saleh’s departure, has remained plagued by rebellion.

The exception was Tunisia alone, which was the leader, freeing itself of the dictator Ben Ali, now exiled in Saudi Arabia. However, the little country from the Maghreb has always shown itself to be the most prepared for democracy, not least because of its secular tradition, freedom for females, and even economic development.

Returning to Assad, who has been in power since 2000, he disappointed when he failed to come through with promises of transparency, but it is also true that, supported by the Alawites, Christians and Druze, and by the Sunni elite of Damascus and Aleppo, he appeared to have the country under control. And, as can be seen in a photo of a dinner in 2009 with then Sen. Kerry, he was very much worthy of courtship.

From one moment to the next, Assad was abandoned by the West, but above all by the [Persian] Gulf and Turkish monarchies, which became the financiers of the rebels, some rebel groups being obvious extensions of al-Qaida, as in the case of the al-Nusra Front.

To resist, Assad has only been able to count on Russia, which protected him in the United Nations and on Iran, until last year when the fear caused by the Islamic State group led the United States to attack jihadi bases in Syria as well as in Iraq, with previous communications about flights to the Syrians. Even controlling just part of the territory, it has become evident that imagining a Syria without Assad is utopian, not a working scenario.

In his last book, Henry Kissinger discusses the eternal U.S. dilemma between following its ideals and conducting realpolitik. When he overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, George W. Bush was not aware of the chaos he was creating in Iraq. The idealist Barack Obama, who is relying on Kerry to make his mark on the Middle East (from the Israeli-Arab dossier to nuclear Iran), has perhaps understood that reality is complicated.

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