For all the controversy surrounding it, there was one silver lining to President Trump’s now suspended executive order that barred nationals from seven Middle Eastern and African countries, including Syria, from entering the U.S.: It had kept an old associate of Bashar al-Assad from entering the United States and rattling the tin can on behalf of the Syrian butcher.
Abdallah Dardari, Assad’s former Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, was supposed to come to Washington last Tuesday for an event at The Atlantic Council on “Rebuilding Syria.” As Dardari was not able to enter the country, the event has been postponed. This would have been Dardari’s second appearance at a D.C. think tank in the past four months, having spoken at the Middle East Institute in November. This time was different, however, as Dardari was also coming to take up a position at the World Bank as an adviser on reconstruction efforts in the Middle East.
The move raised some eyebrows. A veteran Middle East hand in Washington summarized it: “The group of people who are actually respected on Syria is surprisingly small, and everyone knows everyone, and many of them are concerned about being associated with Dardari. He’s perceived by them as a fundraiser for the Assad regime who has managed to worm his way into international institutions, and that’s how he’s doing his work now.”
How does someone perceived as the bagman for a mass-murdering war criminal get offered a job at the World Bank, you might ask? Good question, considering that Dardari never defected from the regime, never spoke a word against Assad, and never took part in opposition politics. Rather, as the uprising against Assad took off, Dardari picked up and moved next door—to Beirut. Far from fading away into obscurity there, he began work at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA), where, by 2014, he became Deputy Executive Secretary.
According to an informed Arab source in Beirut, Dardari maintained regular contact with Damascus, constantly shuttling back and forth. In fact, according to this source, European diplomats in Beirut grumbled that Dardari’s office at ESCWA was like a second Syrian embassy.
By 2013, there were unconfirmed reports claiming that Dardari had brought Assad a $21 billion loan offer for reconstruction from the World Bank, which nevertheless may accurately capture Dardari’s function. What’s more, Dardari understood that sanctions were a major obstacle, as they severely impeded direct financial transactions, exports, and investment. Early last year, Dardari (in partnership with Raymond Hinnebusch of St. Andrews University’s Centre for Syrian Studies, which has a longstanding relationship with Assad’s father-in-law) oversaw a report on the impact of the war, and of sanctions, on Syria’s economy. The report pointedly devoted much attention to international sanctions, and, unsurprisingly, called for lifting them.
The ESCWA report was the main starting point of a regime information campaign focused on sanctions relief and allowing Assad access to funds, elevating the issue on the international players’ agenda. The campaign built up to a conference in Damascus organized by Assad’s father-in-law, Fawaz al-Akhras, through his British Syrian Society, which, last October, brought in a number of American media outlets and think tankers to meet with Syrian officials including Assad himself. Sanctions were a main talking point of the event, and the journalists and think tankers faithfully carried back the regime’s message and relayed it in U.S. media outlets.
Tying a ribbon on a campaign that started in his ESCWA office, Dardari immediately followed the Damascus PR shindig with a trip to Washington where he made his pitch on financing the reconstruction of Syria at the Middle East Institute’s annual conference in November. “An unjust peace is better than a just war,” he told the audience. The meaning was hardly cryptic: Assad will remain at the helm, and reconstruction will go through him.
Aside from sanctions, Dardari may recognize another major hurdle, which he explained to the MEI audience. The amount of money required is huge (Dardari has thrown out an estimate of $350 billion), and mobilizing free funds (which is what Assad is after) or investments on this scale is not easy. “Grants will not be available at the scale of $200 billion,” Dardari said. “At the same time, you don’t want to come out of reconstruction with an indebted country for the next 100 years.”
The Russians and the Iranians, Dardari repeatedly says, do not have that kind of money to spend on Syria. The fact is, they’re not stupid enough to do so, if they can have others foot the bill for the massive devastation they and their client have caused. And so, Dardari and the Russians began singing from the same songbook: what’s required is a collective effort to fund the reconstruction—what the Russians have called a “Marshall Plan for Syria.” In other words, let the Americans, the Europeans, Turkey, and the Gulf Arabs pick up the tab.
Indeed, the Europeans are probably open to giving reconstruction money to a government headed by Assad. In December, the EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini spoke of Europe’s eagerness to offer support for reconstruction, supposedly conditioned on Assad agreeing to “power sharing” of some unspecified nature. Mogherini thinks this gives Europe leverage of sorts, even as she spoke of Europe not being able to “afford having a black hole there.”
Assad has other ideas. He likely figures that Europe’s refugee crisis plays into his hand. If Europe can’t afford a black hole in Syria, Assad’s logic likely goes, then Europe should normalize relations with him and give him money to “stabilize” Syria. Dardari has articulated a marketable version of this: Don’t think of it as funding Assad, think of it as an “economic opportunity,” with added benefits “in the domains of peace and fighting terrorism.” That is to say, in essence, if you retroactively finance Assad’s mass murder machine, you’re really doing it for your own good.
Mogherini and perhaps many in Europe might be ready to sign on to such an arrangement. But the problem is they don’t have the money, which was evident in Mogherini’s appeal to “regional powers” to help carry the load. Indeed, Dardari has acknowledged that fact. He recently complained about the dearth of funds: “You go all over the world and everyone tells you we don’t have money to rebuild Syria.”
The same applied to his new employer. “I was in discussions with people at the World Bank recently,” Dardari said. “And they also say there is no grant money for Syria so don’t expect big money coming to Syria.” By taking up a job at the Bank, which reportedly is set to begin on February 16, Dardari will arguably be in a better position, based in Washington, to push his reconstruction agenda. Which is why it’s good he wasn’t able to enter the country, and why it would be good if it stayed that way.
President Trump’s Executive Order is conceived to make sure potential terrorists from seven failed or terror-sponsoring states are kept out. If it extends to those who are effectively mobilizing funds on behalf of a terrorist regime, that’s also a good thing.