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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

A speech that buried all hope for Syria

Walid Al Muallem's words to the UN were defiant, confrontational and exactly what we should expect from the Assad regime

Syrian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Walid Al Mualem addresses the United Nations General Assembly. Craig Ruttle/AP
Syrian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Walid Al Mualem addresses the United Nations General Assembly. Craig Ruttle/AP

When Syria's foreign minister Walid Al Muallem stepped up to the United Nations podium last week, he initially struck a statesmanlike tone, wishing greater stability and prosperity for “every corner of this world”.

But he soon defaulted to a more defiant, combative theme. “To the disappointment of some, we are still here today, seven years into this dirty war against my country,” he fumed. “We remain committed to this sacred battle until we purge all of Syria of terrorists.”

He also praised the Syrian people, thanking them for their “resolve” and unity in the face of conflict.

But that was a cursory mention. The thrust of the speech was unrepentant and clearly demonstrated that the regime has not changed after seven years of war.

Mr Al Muallem's speech was defiant to the outside world and absolute to Syrians. There is no alternative. There will be no reform. There will be no other president than Bashar Al Assad. The regime has won. Like Marc Anthony at his friend's funeral in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, his message went beyond the words he spoke. Syria's foreign minister went to the UN not to praise Syrians, but to bury them.

Nobody hearing his speech could be in any doubt what the regime thinks and how it will act after the war is over. Listeners familiar with the uprising, and with the repression that preceded it, will have understood perfectly what was meant by “eradicating terrorism” and, particularly, by Mr Al Muallem's line that “terrorism is like an epidemic. It will return, break out, and threaten everyone without exception.”

The Assad regime used security as the cover for mass repression long before the Arab Spring uprisings. From the outbreak of the war in Iraq, just a few years after Mr Al Assad inherited power from his father, the regime expanded its surveillance of civilians, its facilities of detention and torture, and cemented its grip over the entire political process.

This was Mr Al Muallem signalling that nothing would change. The threat of terrorism would never fade. Everything – military service, mass surveillance, disappearances – would continue as before.

The foreign minister also devoted part of his speech to Syria's refugees. There was no longer any reason for refugees to stay outside of Syria, he said. The “doors are open for all Syrians abroad to return voluntarily and safely”.

That is precisely what some of the countries with significant numbers of Syrian refugees, particularly Lebanon in the Middle East, but also European countries, wanted to hear. US President Donald Trump, in his speech to the General Assembly, had also mentioned the issue, saying Syrian refugees should stay in the Middle East “to ease their eventual return to be part of the rebuilding process”.

But this “return and rebuild” message ignores a vital point: it was the regime that forced the majority of them to leave.

The underlying idea is that refugees who were forced out because of ISIS, because there was fighting nearby or because of harsh economic conditions, are now able to return home. This, however, ignores the fact the regime has targeted civilians, dropped barrel bombs on heavily populated areas, unleashed armed militias to terrorise and subdue populations, and starved whole areas into submission.

Yet the world appears weary of the Syrian refugee issue and is seeking a way out.

Lebanon has been at the forefront of this, attempting to persuade Syrian refugees to cross the border. The country's foreign minister has refused to call Syrians in Lebanon refugees, preferring the term “migrants” or “displaced”, both of which suggest they could return soon.

Indeed, Lebanon has been giving the names of those who wish to return to Damascus' intelligence agencies, allowing them to approve or reject the request. Those who are wanted by the regime are told and rarely go back. Yet cases have emerged of Syrians being given reassurances by Damascus via the Lebanese authorities and then being arrested by the regime. Such behaviour is, in many ways, to be expected. It is also proof that the Lebanese authorities should show far greater circumspection and not pressure refugees to return.

All told, Mr Al Muallem’s speech was the sound of the regime drawing a line under the uprising. In its very early days, before it became a war, Damascus showed signs of being willing to compromise with protestors, vowing to end the state of emergency and offering space for political parties to operate.

But that was a different time. When Mr Al Muallem said last week that it was time for “those detached from reality to wake up, let go of their fantasies and come to their senses”, he was talking, above all, about those who joined the uprising. Politically, the world has already accepted that, and few now talk with any sincerity about removing Mr Al Assad.

Mr Al Muallem went to the General Assembly, as he put it in his speech, to “close the last chapter” of the conflict. On the borders of Idlib province, the regime's troops and tanks are waiting to do precisely that.