TonHey Were friends, but even a good therapist might think their relationship was hopeless. Over the years, they abused each other. One uses terms like terrorist, butcher, baby-killer; the other has slurs of his own choice, ranging from thief and murderer to “little employee of the Americans.” Words are just words, but there are actions too: It’s hard to forgive a friend for supporting someone who wants you dead. But diplomatically, everything can be forgiven, or — at least officially — forgotten.
With Russia’s encouragement, Syria and Türkiye are moving toward reconciliation. Last month, their defense minister and spy chief held their first public face-to-face meeting in more than a decade. Rumors followed that their foreign minister might do the same – and then possibly their president. Probably not: the meeting of foreign ministers has been repeatedly postponed. There are reasons for them to seek a settlement, but there are also obstacles.
Whether it happens or not, these meetings to discuss have a big impact on the state of Syria. Twelve years after the first protests against him, you can look at Bashar al-Assad in two ways. One is a survivor who has lived through a rebellion, maintained a grip on power, and slowly emerged from isolation. The other is a beggar with few real friends and a country in tatters. Both are true. Mr Assad has won the war but is losing the peace.
It’s easy to see why the Syrian president would want to engage Turkey, which controls more than 5% of Syria’s territory (a quarter of its population). Mr Assad wants the land back.Restoring ties with countries that support the opposition would also be a diplomatic coup – a NATO Members, boot up.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has his reasons. The four million Syrian refugees in Turkey have become deeply unpopular, a useful issue for his opponents to hammer out ahead of elections in a few months (see special report). His governing Justice and Development Party wants voters to think that normalization with Mr Assad will solve the refugee problem, even if in reality that is unlikely.
Other countries are urging them. One is Russia, which played a decisive role in helping Mr Assad survive the civil war and maintains a deep (if complicated) relationship with Turkey. It would love to see Western allies embrace Western pariahs. Also keen to play mediator is the United Arab Emirates (United Arab Emirates), which reopened its embassy in Syria in 2018 and last year welcomed Mr Assad’s first visit to an Arab country since the uprising began.Abdullah bin Zayed United Arab EmiratesThe foreign minister flew to Damascus on 4 January to meet with Mr Assad.
Even if the leaders of Türkiye and Syria do meet, expectations will be low. Syria wants Turkey to leave the territory it controls.Then Mr Assad needs to secure the border and rein in the YPG, or People’s Protection Corps, a Kurdish militia that controls large swathes of northeastern Syria. He’s probably too weak to do that. In other words, even if he poses for a photo with Mr Erdogan, it is unlikely to lead to a Turkish withdrawal.
This is becoming a pattern. Mr Assad is emerging from isolation in the Middle East, if not the West, with little success.There is no doubt that he hopes to restore the United Arab Emirates A well of aid and investment will be opened. it didn’t. Even if US sanctions weren’t an issue (and they are), Emirati companies wouldn’t be lining up to pour money into the war-torn kleptocracy. Old friends in Syria aren’t much help either. Russia has never invested much. It did snap up some key industries, such as sweetheart deals for oil and gas exploration and phosphate mining off the Mediterranean coast. But these are all about benefiting Russia, not revitalizing the Syrian economy.
The same goes for Iran, which has struggled to keep its economy afloat since Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed U.S. sanctions in 2018. Iran has been Syria’s main oil supplier, but its exports have declined in recent months. Oil that Iran can export would rather go to China, where it buys and prepays at a price closer to the market.
In fact, fuel shortages have brought Syria to a standstill this winter. Power cuts last up to 22 hours a day, even in Damascus. Drivers lined up for hours looking for gas. In December, the regime announced an unexpected holiday due to energy shortages. Schools and government offices were closed, and public transport stopped. The price of firewood has soared as households burn as much as they can to keep warm.
With few sources of hard currency, the regime’s finances are in disarray. (Syria’s main export is Captagon, an amphetamine.) On Jan. 2, it devalued the official exchange rate by 33 percent, to 4,522 Syrian pounds to the dollar, still about 6,500 more than the black market rate. Last month, Mr Assad approved a budget worth 16.6 trillion pounds, a 24 percent increase on the previous year in local currency terms. In dollar terms, it has lost about a third of its value (see chart). The amount earmarked for subsidies was 12% lower than last year.this United NationsThe World Food Program says 90 percent of Syrians now live in poverty, and the prices of some basic foods have risen by 800 percent between 2019 and 2021.
For some enemies of the regime, especially in Washington, it is a sign that isolating Mr Assad is working: If living conditions get bad enough, they believe, people will rise up again. This view is not popular among Syria’s neighbors, or even among a growing number of anti-Assad Syrians, who believe that desperate firewood beggars do not make good revolutionaries. The latter camp seems to be correct, at least so far. In the restive southern province of Riveda, there have been sporadic protests but posed no real threat to the regime.
That should come as a small consolation to Mr Assad. He may no longer be persona non grata in the regional capital, but he has yet to find anyone willing to spend billions rebuilding his devastated country. To say that this winter in Syria came from the cold is only a metaphor. ■