In November 2011, six months after civil war broke out in Syria, the Arab League expelled the country from its ranks after a failed mediation attempt. For the next 10 years, the Arab pariah Bashar al-Assad rarely traveled abroad except to thank his main allies – Russia and Iran – for the military help enabling him to control two-thirds of the country.
Twelve years and a deadly earthquake later, al-Assad recently received Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who said the meeting was an “honor” in a press conference with his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad. Shoukry is not only the highest-level Egyptian visitor since the beginning of the war, but he also represents a historically significant nation closely allied with the United States. The US has imposed severe sanctions on Syria and opposes normalizing relations with al-Assad. On February 7, one day after the earthquake hit the Turkey-Syria border region and claimed 6,000 Syrian lives, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi telephoned al-Assad for the first time since he took office almost 10 years ago. So did Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
The earthquake has also prompted the first visit to Syria by Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, the next step in a gradual rapprochement that began with the 2021 reopening of the main border crossing between the two nations. The Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, even rolled out the red carpet for al-Assad’s official state visit. Oman reinstalled its ambassador to Damascus three years ago after an eight-year absence. The official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) released a video (accompanied by epic music) of al-Assad’s state visit to Oman that clearly demonstrates the political and symbolic importance of Syria’s return to the Arab fold.
Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Chatham House think tank says, “Damascus is trying to use the humanitarian catastrophe to break out of international isolation. Instead of expressing condolences to the Syrian people affected by the tragedy, the regime’s public reaction was to seek de facto legitimacy for al-Assad in the international arena.”
Khatib noted that al-Assad made no statements about the February 6 earthquake until he visited hard-hit Aleppo four days later, despite receiving numerous messages and calls from foreign leaders. In 2011, Bashar al-Assad brutally repressed peaceful protests sparked by the Arab Spring, triggering a crisis that devolved into a civil war that has caused 500,000 deaths and the exodus of 13 million Syrians, more than half of the country’s population. Syrian security forces have been accused of thousands of disappearances, prisoner torture, chemical weapon attacks and dropping barrel bombs packed with explosives, fuel, and metal fragments on civilians.
Holding on to power
Syria’s spate of friendly handshakes with its neighbors does not represent a complete turnabout but rather the acceleration of a recent trend. “The earthquake offers a political opportunity because it provides an excuse to show solidarity during a natural disaster, which is difficult to oppose,” says Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank. Beyond that understandable humanitarian solidarity, several Arab nations concluded years ago that al-Assad had won the war. Even though he does not control northern Syria, his forces control the country’s most populated regions. Bashar al-Assad has somehow held on to power, so it is time to embrace realpolitik. Some countries, such as Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, and Sudan, never turned their backs on him. Former Sudan President Omar al-Bashir met with al-Assad in 2016, the first Arab leader to do so since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011.
In February, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, spoke about this new dynamic at the Munich Security Conference. “There is a growing consensus, not only within the Gulf Cooperation Council but throughout the Arab world, that the status quo is not viable.” Foreign Minister bin Farhan stressed the need “for dialogue with the government in Damascus to achieve the most important objectives, particularly from a humanitarian and refugee repatriation point of view.” He carefully avoided mentioning Saudia Arabia’s aim to free Syria from the tutelage of Iran, his country’s most significant strategic rival.
Syria expert Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma (USA), believes concessions are the key. “They’re trying to figure out what it will take to bring the country back into the fold, but it’s not going to be easy.” Landis is sure “Washington will complain bitterly” about any overtures to Syria, “but it won’t stop them,” especially after certain US sanctions were temporarily lifted to allow earthquake recovery assistance. In 2020, the Trump administration expanded sanctions on individuals and companies trading with Damascus, further weakening a country with 90% of the population living below the poverty line. “If you don’t want to starve the Syrian people, you have to deal with al-Assad, because he’s holding the country hostage,” says Landis.
Countering Iranian influence
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is spearheading the rapprochement with Syria. After years of supporting Syrian rebels, the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018. Four years later, the UAE skillfully avoided photos of its leaders welcoming al-Assad during a state visit. UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed has met with al-Assad three times in Damascus.
The UAE leads the group of Arab countries that have “decided to restore ties [with Syria] unconditionally to counter Iran’s influence,” says Khalifa, who has observed two other approaches to dealing with Syria. “[Egypt] would like to normalize relations but doesn’t want to distance itself very much from the US and Saudi position.” The United States gives Egypt more than $1 billion in annual aid while turning a blind eye to the country’s human rights violations. Saudi Arabia is also a significant source of funding for Egypt. During his recent trip to Damascus, the Egyptian foreign minister sidestepped questions about normalizing relations and said his visit was “primarily humanitarian.”
Qatar – a prominent supporter of the Syrian rebels – and Saudi Arabia are pursuing “conditional normalization,” says Khlaifa, which is unlikely to succeed since al-Assad “doesn’t want and is unable to mitigate Iranian influence and accept the repatriation of many refugees,” which are the principle conditions of this approach. Qatar prefers to keep its distance and has only channeled humanitarian aid to the rebel zone affected by the earthquake through Turkey.
At the root is the perception in the Arab world that international sanctions do more harm to civilians than weaken al-Assad, leading to a new scenario that will force Syria’s neighbors to take a stand. After years of calling al-Assad a “murderer” and a “fascist,” Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is making tentative overtures to its next-door neighbor. There is also a prevailing suspicion that when Biden leaves office, the United States will complete the troop withdrawal from Syrian Kurdistan that Trump began in 2019, causing the same chaos experienced in Afghanistan when US and coalition troops pulled out in 2021.
In an interview with the Russian RT news agency, Bouthaina Shaaban, the Syrian government’s face to the outside world, said al-Assad “still believes in good relations” with all Arab countries because “they share a common destiny.” Shaaban’s words echoed Mohammed al Halbousi, the Speaker of the Council of Representatives of Iraq, who recently told delegates to the conference of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union: “We cannot be without Syria, and Syria cannot survive without the Arab world, to which we hope it can return.”
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