It’s all over the news: Syria has joined the Paris climate agreement, leaving the United States as the only country in the world that is not a signatory. Many observers and commentators are using this as an opportunity to chastise America for holding out where a roundly abhorred government has given in. But the questions people should really be asking are why Syria joined the Paris agreement and why it chose to do so now, two years after the agreement was first adopted. The answer is simple. Syria is seeking international legitimacy.
No doubt, copy editors across the mainstream media relished the chance to write headlines like, “As Syria Joins Paris Climate Agreement, US Stands Alone” or “As Syria Embraces Paris Climate Deal, It’s the United States Against the World,” emphasizing America’s isolation over climate change and juxtaposing Syria as the “good guy” with the United States as the “bad guy.” After all, if even Syria is signing on, how bad does that make America?
Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted, “Today at the international climate talks, Syria joined the Paris Climate Agreement. Thanks to Trump, the U.S. is now the only one out.” Many other lawmakers and activists shared those sentiments on Twitter, including one group that noted in a video that even Syria, in the middle of a bloody civil war, “still made time to prioritize climate change.”
Know What the United States Doesn’t Do? Gas Its People
No doubt, Syria’s Bashar al Assad is enjoying this moment. The villain par excellence, who has been engaged in a brutal war against his own people for six years, can sit back and watch as the world bludgeons the Trump administration and mocks the idea of American exceptionalism. But even more enjoyable to Syria’s authoritarian leader is that while everyone is busy dumping on America, they are distracted from his real purpose in signing onto the Paris agreement. No, it’s not that he cares so very much about the environment and working for the good of mankind. Hardly.
Assad’s motivations are entirely self-serving. The first is fairly straightforward. Signing the accord gives him the opportunity to leave the United States out in the cold and relish a moment of fictional moral superiority against the country that’s supposed to be a global leader in all things. Assad gets to look, ever so briefly, like a more enlightened man than Donald Trump. Call it international virtue-signaling. But this is just a perk—and a fleeting one at that, since no one really believes Assad is morally superior to any world leader (except maybe Kim Jong Un, which is kind of a toss-up).
The second, and primary reason Assad waited until now to join the Paris accord has everything to do with wooing the international community and grasping at legitimacy. Most analysts agree that Assad has all but won the civil war in Syria. Yet, as a recent essay in War on the Rocks illustrates, large swathes of the country are still under the control of non-Syrian parties. This includes Jordan in the south, the Kurds in the north, and U.S.-backed forces in the east, plus several remaining Syrian rebel groups, as well as ISIS. One hundred years after the Sykes-Picot Agreement that first formed the borders of modern-day Syria and Iraq, Assad is seeing his country slide into de facto partition, something he wants desperately to avoid.
Assad Is Using Meaningless Gestures for Leverage
That’s why Assad is looking ahead to an inevitable renewed round of United Nations-sponsored peace talks that he hopes could help bring unification to his fractured country and consolidate his power once again in Damascus. So far, none of the previous peace talks have produced any significant results or stopped the war from taking the lives of more than 400,000 people. However, the assumption is that the process will, eventually, provide a pathway for a settlement on peace and borders. Just two days ago, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said he backs the Geneva process as the way to end the Syrian civil war.
There’s little concern that anyone in that process will push for Assad to step down. Despite recent comments from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about the Assad family’s reign “coming to an end,” international leaders aren’t seriously calling for his removal. In fact, even Tillerson admitted that negotiations regarding the future of the country would have to proceed with Assad still in power.
But to get the kind of settlement he wants, Assad needs to butter up the international bureaucracy, showcasing that he’s a team player and the guy they want in charge of a shattered Syria, never mind all that chemical weapons business. There’s no faster way to the hearts of the powers that be in the international bureaucracy (especially western European leaders) than to wax poetic about climate change.
Knowing that Syria signed on to fight climate change will help assuage their guilt that the United Nations, whose supposed purpose is to stop just the kind of mass carnage we’ve seen in Syria, failed in its number-one mission. That’s not just because bureaucracy has corroded the international body’s effectiveness, but because at heart, the U.N. can only resolve conflicts between parties that share the same fundamental values, like basic human rights and rule of law. With someone like Assad, that’s impossible. He was never going to stop fighting or abandon his ruthless tactics until he had obliterated the rebel groups. No amount of diplomacy could have changed that.
For Assad, signing the Paris climate agreement is a road to legitimacy in the eyes of global leaders. The countries that will eventually help broker peace in Syria should see through this charade. But they probably won’t.