European politicians and delegations are appearing increasingly in Damascus, and recently a group of Belgian lawmakers met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Before the rise of the jihadist Islamic State, and as the revolution against Assad unfolded and was brutally suppressed by him, Western politicians gave the Syrian capital a wide berth and joined the chorus demanding the Syrian president step down.
While no major Western leader has met recently with the Syrian president, some, including from countries that withdrew their ambassadors from Syria, are now saying that while Assad’s regime is brutal, the jihadists of the so-called Islamic State present a threat to the West, and that intelligence cooperation and greater communication with Damascus is needed to help combat them.
The argument to end the ostracizing of Assad is increasingly being made behind closed doors in European Union foreign policy and security meetings, say European diplomats. The British and French governments are dismissive, arguing that the European Union-wide demand for Assad to step down should remain, and that there should be no relaxation of economic sanctions on Syria.
The EU first imposed sanctions on Assad and his circle in 2011, as authorities in Damascus cracked down violently on protests calling for reform. London and Paris say the Assad regime has lost legitimacy and shouldn’t be rewarded now.
“The Scandinavian countries as well as the central Europeans and Spain and Austria are the ones pushing for a rethink,” says a British diplomat involved in European Union foreign policymaking.
Their push for a change received added momentum last month when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a television interviewer that Washington will “have to negotiate in the end” with Assad.
“That remark, even though the State Department subsequently walked it back, just served to embolden the Europeans, who are arguing for a Western rethink,” says the Brussels-based diplomat. He declined to speak on the record.
Assad appears to be doing all he can to stoke the frustration among some Europeans and to heighten European fears about jihadists, say analysts. In recent weeks, he has been granting more interviews to Western media outlets, and on Friday in an interview with Sweden’s Expressen newspaper he warned that Europe is under threat from Syria-based jihadists.
Misguidedly, Western politicians have only been helpful to the terrorists by opposing his regime, he said. Many Western officials “didn’t see the reality at the very beginning,” he argued. And he urged Sweden to “play a major role in lifting the sanctions” on Syria, arguing there is no distinction between peaceful or moderate opponents of his government and the jihadists of the Islamic State and al-Qaida.
The Syrian president has long couched his war in Syria as a fight against terrorists, but now as unease increases in European capitals about the flow of European recruits to jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, his argument appears to be gaining more of a hearing - especially from far right and nationalist politicians, who have long charged that Europe is in danger of Islamization.
Last month, a Belgian delegation of lawmakers from the far right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) party and its French-speaking equivalent, Democratie Nationale, met with Assad in Damascus and afterwards praised him.
In a statement, Democratie Nationale president Marco Santi said, “While the media is trying to portray Bashar al-Assad as a savage dictator slaughtering his people, the reality on the ground is different. The Syrian army, in fact, is protecting Christian cities and Christians from fundamentalist attacks. So, let’s try to imagine what would happen should the regime fall.”
A month earlier, a French delegation of four parliamentarians visited Damascus. One of them, Gerard Bapt, is thought to be a confidante of French President Francois Hollande. The visit was touted as a humanitarian one, but included French security officials - among them the inspector general of the French defense ministry.
The delegation - the first high-level French one to Syria since 2012 - said the Syrian leader would have to be part of the solution to the civil war in Syria. That line is at variance with the official French position that Assad has to go for a negotiated solution to be reached. The French delegation’s trip came just weeks after the jihadist attack in Paris on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Signs of a European rethink toward the Assad regime alarms Syrian rebels.
“They are seeing the war just through the prism of the jihadists,” worries a rebel commander in the strategic northern Syrian city of Aleppo. “It shouldn’t be an either/or choice - Assad or the jihadists. We have to fight both of them.”
The rebels have long suspected Assad of colluding with jihadists when it serves his purposes. A release from Syrian jails at the start of the revolution of dozens of Sunni extremists by the government is pointed to as evidence.