Nothing succeeds like success. Despite every prediction to the contrary, Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, was not swept away during the Arab Spring but, with the considerable support of Russia and Iran, has clung to power. In an utterly ruthless, no-holds-barred civil war, which included the use of deadly chemical weapons against his own people, Assad gained, and now maintains, control over some 70% of sovereign Syria. in the process some 7 million Syrians have fled the country, while another 7 million are displaced. Even so, the Assad regime, ostracized by the Arab world since 2011 but having survived, seems to be edging its way back into acceptance.
November 12, 2011 was the day the Arab League, appalled by the brutality of the Assad government’s reaction to the popular protests of the Arab Spring, suspended Syria’s membership and imposed sanctions. Shortly afterwards, as civil war erupted, the US and Europe added their own stringent sanctions on the Syrian government, and on companies connected to the Assad family in particular.
Open disunity within the Arab family was not to the liking of several nation states, and efforts to rehabilitate Assad and his regime began as far back as 2018, when the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain reopened their embassies in Damascus. In 2020 Oman took the further step of becoming the first Gulf state to reinstate its ambassador to Syria.
More recently Jordan has been taking the initiative. Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi has said he aims to find an Arab solution to the overwhelming political, military, economic and humanitarian crisis that besets Syria, but in full coordination with the UN. The initiative aims to launch Arab efforts to engage in dialogue with the Syrian government to resolve the crisis and address its humanitarian, security, and political problems. “Jordan will present the initiative to Arab countries,” one source is reported to have said, “which will, in turn, set their conditions for restoring diplomatic relations with Syria.”
On March 25 Qatar, which has rejected previous calls to reinstate Syria to the Arab League, announced its support for the Jordanian initiative. In close coordination with the UAE and Egypt, Jordan hopes to achieve consensus on the initiative ahead of the Arab League summit in Riyadh on May 19.
As is not unusual in politics, it was an entirely extraneous event that gave the rehabilitation process an unexpected impetus. The deadly earthquakes of February 6, which killed some 6,000 people in Syria, provided the opportunity for a number of Arab states to re-engage with Assad while contributing disaster relief. The diplomatic floodgates opened. The UAE took the opportunity to normalize relations with Damascus, while in the aftermath of the quake Assad received the foreign ministers of the UAE, Jordan, and Egypt on separate occasions. On March 19, Assad paid a state visit to Abu Dhabi, the second in two years, and met with UAE’s President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
On April 1, Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad arrived in Cairo to talk with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, amid reports that a summit meeting between Egypt‘s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Assad was being prepared. Sources in Jordan confirmed that a similar meeting between King Abdullah and Assad was also being considered.
A further boost toward reconciliation followed the rapprochement in March between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Assad’s main backer. Now rumors are widespread that Saudi Arabia, which once supplied arms to the rebels seeking to oust Assad, will invite him to the Arab League summit it will be hosting in May. Lifting his suspension would seal Assad’s rehabilitation in the Arab world.
This would not please the US, which for a dozen years has held firm to its mantra “Assad must go.” On the other hand, some softening of its hard line has been detected of late.
In March, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Barbara Leaf, reiterated that Washington opposes any normalization of the Syrian regime without serious progress toward UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which in 2015 laid out a roadmap for a political settlement to end the crisis. That Resolution called for negotiations between the government and those fighting it, free and fair elections, and the drafting of a new constitution.
None of that has taken place. According to the current constitution no president may serve more than two consecutive 7-year terms. In 2021 Assad was sworn in for his fourth term, following a presidential election procedure in which he claims to have won some 95% of the vote.
However, Leaf went so far as to suggest that if Arab states did engage with Assad, it should involve a quid pro quo in terms of Assad moving toward Resolution 2254. “What we are reading from what the Americans are saying,” an Arab diplomat commented, ”is ‘we are not against the initiatives you are doing …Let the Arabs try, and let us see what the results are’.”
Leaf was, however, skeptical of the claim by some states that re-engaging with Assad could detach Syria from Iran, whose militias helped turn the tide of the 12-year civil war in Assad’s favor. Yet, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Arab nations in talks with Assad are offering him a deal that would restore ties between Syria and much of the Middle East while potentially curbing the influence of Iran. They are proposing aid worth billions of dollars to help rebuild Syria after the country’s 12-year civil war, and have pledged to lobby the US and European powers to lift sanctions on Assad’s government. In exchange, Assad would engage with the Syrian political opposition, accept Arab troops to protect returning refugees, crack down on illicit drug smuggling and ask Iran to stop expanding its footprint in the nation.
Whether Assad can be prized away from Iran is an open question. There must certainly be considerable attraction in the prospect of being accepted again within the Arab family – Iran, of course, is not an Arab nation. The question is how close toward the conditions of UN Resolution 2254 Assad feels able to move while not forfeiting his grasp on power.
One acid test of whether real change is afoot will be whether Assad is offered a seat at the Arab League meeting scheduled for May 19, and whether he actually attends.