Thaw in relations between Arab leaders and Syria’s Assad
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For years he was reviled by the West and opposed by the Gulf monarchies, but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has regained control of most of his country, is now being courted by Arab leaders, marking a strategic shift in the region.
After the military successes that allowed him to regain control of a very large part of the Syrian territory, the Assad regime is close to scoring a major diplomatic victory as well.
Though he was frozen out of the international community by Western powers, suspected of having used chemical weapons, isolated by the Sunni powers of the region, there have been signs in recent weeks that Assad is being welcomed in from the cold. Regional media are increasingly speculating that Syria will be able to return to the ranks of the Arab League, from which it was suspended in November 2011 in protest at the crackdown on the uprising against the regime.
Return to grace
Syrian participation in an Arab League economic summit to be held in Lebanon on January 19-20 is even under consideration, according to local diplomatic sources. That preliminary step would put Syrian officials back in touch with their counterparts three months before the Arab League’s annual summit, to be held in Tunis at the end of March. Coincidentally, a private Syrian airline flew a commercial flight to Tunisia last week, the first since 2011.
The December 27 announcement that the United Arab Emirates would reopen its embassy in Damascus was yet another confirmation of the Syrian president’s return to grace. The UAE, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, was a major sponsor of Syrian opposition forces. The step would have been unthinkable without the approval of Riyadh and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, took to social media to justify the move. “Given the regional expansionism of Iran and Turkey, there is an Arab role to play in Syria that has become even more necessary,” he wrote on Twitter. Bahrain also announced that it also plans to reopen its embassy in the Syrian capital.
On December 31, Kuwaiti Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Jarallah said he expects a "thaw in relations between Syria and Arab Gulf countries in the coming days," according to reports by the official Kuna news agency. He said the Gulf States remain committed to the decisions of the Arab League and would reopen their embassies in Damascus once the organisation has authorised doing so.
December also saw Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide by the International Criminal Court, visit Damascus to meet with his Syrian counterpart. The move, which was the first time a leader of an Arab League country has visited Assad in Damascus -- and widely publicised by Syria -- had to have been green-lit by Riyadh, experts say.
Upending the game
"This is not a surprise, these decisions are made in the context of a series of signalling events, the most important of which is the success of the regime of Bashar al-Assad in regaining control of nearly 90% of the Syrian territory,” Bachir Abdel-Fattah, researcher at the Cairo-based Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told FRANCE 24. Assad’s military successes, won with the decisive support of Russia and Iran “upended the geostrategic game on the ground and in the region,” he said.
"This shift marks the beginning of the Syrian post-crisis, meaning the Sunni countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia realised that they had lost the game and that they had an interest in having a stable Syria," General Dominique Trinquand, former head of the French military mission to the United Nations, told FRANCE 24.
In Abdel-Fattah’s view, President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would withdraw US troops from Syria also helped reshuffle the cards. The surprise announcement benefited the Syrian regime because it pushed Kurdish forces in the north to turn to Assad out of fear of a Turkish offensive in Manbij.
"This series of events indicated that a change was going to take place in the relations between the Arab powers and Syria, and I think this is only a beginning."
Returning Syria to the Arab fold
Economically devastated, Syria needs funds to rebuild itself after seven years of war. The cost of the destruction is estimated by the UN at approximately €350 billion. But pragmatically, Assad knows that it can’t rely on Iran and Russia, its two unwavering allies, as they are both economically debilitated by sanctions and not as financially affluent as the Gulf States. Trump recently said on Twitter that Saudi Arabia "agreed to spend the necessary money to help rebuild Syria, instead of the United States."
Reinforced politically and militarily by his Russian and Iranian sponsors, Assad risked nothing, diplomatically, in accepting the hand extended by those who wanted to topple him. "The Arab countries’ renunciation of their demand that Bashar al-Assad step down as a condition of a solution in Syria is another indication of what is currently happening," Abdel-Fattah said.
The Arab turnaround has dismayed regime opponents. "While the Syrian people are dying of cold in refugee camps flooded by rains, some of our Arab brothers are racing to open up to the criminal," chief opposition negotiator Nasr Hariri said on Twitter.
Mohammad al-Hammadi, a political scientist based in Dubai, believes that pragmatism is at work on both sides of the regional chessboard. "The international effort failed to wrest a solution in Syria, and the Arabs failed to impose their conditions," he said. In his view, the Arab decision to ban Syria has had no useful result. "It is a failure and that must be acknowledged -- so the policy can be changed -- even if Bashar al-Assad remains a significant element of the crisis," he said.
Al-Hammadi said a bigger issue is motivating Arab powers: Iran, the Shiite regional rival. "The Syrian file must be put back in the hands of the Arabs, because the crisis just benefits the Iranians, who are sitting at the negotiating table with the Russians and the Turks to solve a problem involving a member of the Arab League," he said.
"I think that the Arabs have lost a lot by cutting ties with the Syrians,” he added. “I'm talking about the country, not the regime or Bashar al-Assad. The Arab boycott has had a direct impact on the fate of the population. The Arab League needs to make a clear decision, so that Syria returns to the Arab fold."