Only someone responsible for the killing and displacement of millions of his own citizens would see an earthquake that has claimed tens-of-thousands of lives as an opportunity for a public-relations blitz. After years hiding away in his palaces, Assad has been out visiting Latakiya and Aleppo. Syrian diplomats are meanwhile insisting that all aid be diverted via Damascus.
Yet we have witnessed this scam repeatedly; with aid channeled to pro-regime demographics, while pro-opposition populations are starved and bombed into submission. The regime’s first action after the earthquake was to bomb the stricken region of Marea – as if to ensure there were no survivors. Assad officials say that they will block any aid going to “terrorist groups” – the language the regime habitually uses for those in rebel-held areas. There are already anecdotal reports of aid being stolen and resold by this criminal regime.
Lebanese clients of Syria and Iran have meanwhile been staging pilgrimages to Damascus in support of efforts to normalize Assad. How was Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib allowed to embark on a disgraceful visit to Damascus when what was required was a show of solidarity with the victims? Statements from Hezbollah – which controls substantial areas of Syrian territory – also exploited the quake to condemn “hypocrisy” for the world’s principled refusal to engage with the blood-soaked Assad regime. “It would be quite ironic, if not even counterproductive, for us to reach out to a government that has brutalized its people . . . gassing them, slaughtering them, being responsible for much of the suffering that they have endured,” a US State Department spokesperson said – and for once, I find myself agreeing with US diplomats.
While aid is belatedly entering northern Syria via the single, badly damaged Bab Al-Hawa crossing route, Russia and China have repeatedly vetoed opening other crossings. With so many Syrian refugees having previously fled to quake-epicenter areas of southern Turkiye, we now see lorryloads of body-bags returning toward Syria, repatriating these poor souls. Assad has denied Netanyahu’s claim that Damascus asked Israel for help, with both sides exploiting the quake for propaganda. There are meanwhile concerns that Iran will capitalize on the US temporary alleviation of sanctions to use aid convoys for transporting arms and other contraband goods.
In a related context, I had a conversation last week with several senior European Middle East diplomats who sketched out various scenarios for electing a Lebanese president and containing Iran. They noted that Hezbollah was coming under increasing pressure as its grassroots support weakened, the broader population became awakened to the threats it poses, and the group’s alliance with the FPM’s Michel Aoun and Gibran Bassil became ever-more fragile. They expressed hope for a scenario where Hezbollah had no option but to sign onto a consensus candidate (who in any case the group would seek to bend to their will), allowing Lebanon to advance toward an IMF deal.
However, they also sketched out a scenario without consensus on a president or a government, in which the country descended into anarchy. They noted that with the cessation of nuclear negotiations, it could be a matter of time before Netanyahu took military action to neutralize Iran’s nuclear program. Hezbollah may not be in a position to refuse embarking on a war with Israel at Tehran’s behest, which would quickly become regionalized and highly destructive. While many Lebanese Shiites still see Hezbollah as their nominal representative, they don’t buy into the hard-line anti-national elements of its agenda. They are also sick of poverty and the degradation of the country’s situation, and they experienced more than enough of the 2006 conflict to embrace Hezbollah’s readiness to take on the “Zionist enemy” again.
People who regularly engage with Lebanese leadership figures remark on their complete disregard for the suffering of ordinary Lebanese and their reluctance to be drawn into conversations on such themes, while obsessing over regional rivalries and forcibly repatriating Syrian refugees. The earthquake, the 2020 port explosion, IMF negotiations and the presidential standoff consequently become negotiating cards to exploit in a broader jostling for position. Decisions currently being taken, or indefinitely postponed, impact the lives of millions and will ultimately influence whether or not the region teeters into renewed conflict. My Western interlocutors noted that the increased animosity toward Tehran was ironically more due to its arming of Moscow, rather than its continuing crimes in the region. They also noted that increased vigilance along national borders had reined in Hezbollah and Assad’s ambitions of fulling their coffers by dominating the narcotics trade, particularly with little prospect of their Iranian benefactors reaping windfalls from sanctions relief following a nuclear deal. After months of protests, this is a period of exceptional weakness for Iran, and hence also its proxies.
Hezbollah’s tanking of the economy means that within Lebanon itself there is “nothing left to steal,” hence Hassan Nasrallah’s uncustomary flexibility on lucrative issues of borders and gas exploitation, as he perceives the opportunity for profit. Assad will never be fully rehabilitated: His tenuous grip on a portion of Syria is only thanks to a fateful alliance with Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. The families of millions of people whose lives he destroyed will never forget. In the context of growing global animosity toward Moscow and Tehran, as Iran-made drones are used in new onslaughts against Ukraine, Assad is likely to remain permanently frozen out from the international community.
The earthquake temporarily returns Syria to the top of the global agenda, while serving as a reminder of Assad’s fundamental inhumanity. He and his Lebanese and Iranian allies can spin for all they are worth, but the passing of time does not render Assad any less of a war criminal. Syrians impacted by the earthquake are no less deserving of global support than the tragic victims in Turkiye. It is not their fault that the world abandoned this conflict and left Syria frozen as a handful of dysfunctional cantons. The onus therefore lies heavily on the international community to atone for its accumulated failings of the Syrian people, and move heaven and earth to heed their cries in their latest hour of need.