Bashar Assad has risen from the dead.
Confident, brazen and annoyingly soft-spoken, the man who two years ago was discounted as a dead man walking emerged Sunday in the Syrian Foreign Ministry where he wowed diplomats with a rhetorical victory lap.
Referring to what is of particular interest to that audience, Syria’s pariah status in the West, the Arab world and Turkey – Assad now spoke from atop the horse’s saddle: “Let’s be clear,” he said. Anyone seeking to restore ties with the Syrian regime must first sever ties with its enemies, which he dubbed collectively “terrorism.”
Then, he told the diplomats who are eager to return to inhabit towns like Washington, Paris, London and Berlin, “maybe we can speak about opening embassies.”
It may have been arrogant, but it was well earned.
Western leaders who lectured Assad as he bombed his people – Barack Obama, David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande and Stephen Harper – are all gone. Assad outlived them politically, and as he sees things, he also outlived them morally.
The allies he now hailed as great historical figures – Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Iran’s Ali Khamenei, and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah – compensated in bullets, money and blood for what Syria lost in ceremony by the departures of several sermonizing governments’ envoys.
Indeed, considering his war’s strategies, tactics, and results, Assad may be headed to political longevity much like that of General Francisco Franco, who led Spain for nearly four decades after winning its own gruesome civil war.
LIKE ASSAD, Franco unleashed foreign armies on his own people.
In what proved to be the strategic key to his victory, Franco enlisted Germany and Italy, exactly the same way as Assad enlisted Russia and Iran.
Tactically, the fascist intervention in Spain was dominated by massive air strikes on civilians, most memorably the Luftwaffe- led raid on Guernica, military history’s first-ever carpet bombing of civilians.
Assad’s deployment of Russia’s air force since autumn 2015 was this precedent’s reenactment, and such were also its results: it tipped the war’s scale.
Politically, too, Assad has followed in Franco’s footsteps, successfully keeping his side of the war tight and its leadership uncontested, whereas his opponents proved disunited, quarrelsome and leaderless.
Franco’s enemies were divided among communists, socialists, anarchists and others; Assad’s were divided among scores of jihadist, secular, and Kurdish militias, backed inconsistently and disjointedly by a plethora of suppliers with different and often conflicting agendas, from Saudis, Qataris and Turks to assorted Europeans and gullible Americans.
Finally, diplomatically, both Assad’s and Franco’s enemies were abandoned by the democratic powers while the despotic axis stuck to its guns.
Assad’s impression, then, that his war is headed in the direction of Franco’s, is sensible. The war’s aftermath however, is a different matter.
FRANCO AND Assad, despite their wars’ parallels, were opposites.
Physically, the stocky 1.63-m.
Franco would not reach the 1.89- m. Assad’s chin. More substantively, Franco was a real soldier and battle-reared leader who, after being born humbly to a military paymaster and fighting courageously in Spain’s African wars, became Europe’s youngest general at age 33.
Assad, by contrast, was born into power, and never in his life spent one day as a plain soldier.
That is why Assad followed his army’s defeats from the warmth of his palace, whereas Franco was with his troops as they slaughtered thousands, after he whisked an entire army across the blockaded Gibraltar Straits in what was military history’s first major airlift and the Spanish war’s first strategic turning point.
This is not to say Assad is a coward. He could have fled his country, the way Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali did in 2011, but he chose instead to remain in Damascus and secure his Alawite tribe’s minority rule.
This is also not to belittle Assad’s diplomatic shrewdness in getting Moscow and Tehran to fight his war. It is, however, to say that he is in no position to portray himself, the way he did this week, as a champion of the Palestinian cause.
Who can believe that the man who killed and displaced more Arabs than anyone else in modern times cares a fig about the Palestinians? Or that the man who gave away Arab land to Russia gives a damn about the West Bank? Yet this moral hypocrisy is no longer the issue regarding Assad, whose most damning diatribe will emerge from an Arab pen. Right now the issue is Assad’s plan for the future.
HAVING FOLLOWED Franco’s wartime script, Assad must now follow the mustachioed generalissimo’s postwar acrobatics, if he is to survive his victims’ wrath.
Franco, after his allies’ disappearance in 1945, became a pariah for both sides of the emerging Cold War. Impoverished and ostracized, Spain was excluded from NATO, the Marshall Plan and the UN.
Ever practical, Franco understood the value of the two geopolitical assets he possessed – his geographic location and his ideological anti-communism. He therefore set out to serve Washington, giving it naval and air bases northwest of Gibraltar in return for badly needed economic aid.
That is how Franco won 30 peaceful postwar years.
If Assad is to learn not only from the wartime Franco but also from the postwar Franco, he must realize his international value lies not in anti-Western bravadoes – like his recent attack on America’s record in Vietnam – but in his enmity with Islamism.
Assad’s survival lies in his understanding that Islamism is for him what communism was for Franco, and that his alliance with Russia is one thing, but his alliance with the ayatollahs is an entirely different thing, because his Islamist allies will eventually vanish, the way Franco’s fascist allies did.
For at the end of the day, the sheepish West whose military reluctance despots like Assad excel at exploiting is the same West whose protection they later court and whose treasure they ultimately beg. Ask Franco.