Arab States Are Normalizing with Syria’s Assad Regime

Taking advantage of the devastating earthquake that ravaged parts of northwestern Syria in February, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has tried to use the tragedy to rally Arab states to reestablish relations with Damascus in the hope that his regime can be brought back into the Arab fold and that he can put an end to sanctions against his government. The UAE has been Assad’s chief partner in this endeavor, but several other states, including Saudi Arabia, have recently suggested that the isolation of Syria should no longer be an Arab priority. It appears that many of these states are now willing to willfully ignore the atrocities the Assad regime has committed over the past 12 years in the hope that somehow Syria will wean itself from its dependency on Iran. However, this is wishful thinking considering the deep strategic ties between Tehran and Damascus.

Earthquake Diplomacy

The earthquakes of February 6 had their most severe impact in southern Turkey, where at least 44,000 people lost their lives; but parts of northwestern Syria were also severely impacted. At least 6,000 Syrians are believed to have been killed in the earthquake, and the cost to rebuild earthquake-affected areas of Syria is estimated to be around $5 billion. Assad has used this tragedy, which generated widespread sympathy for the victims, to accelerate trends that were already apparent in the Arab world in order to improve ties with a number of Arab countries.

Immediately after the earthquake struck northwestern Syria, Assad’s communication director, Bouthaina Shaaban, reportedly told other Syrian officials, particularly those in the health and foreign ministries, to capitalize on the sympathy that the earthquake had generated to improve ties to Arab states and to influence international opinion to end sanctions against the country.

In 2011, the Arab states expelled Syria  from the Arab League over the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown and its atrocities against its own citizens. But when the tide of the civil war turned in Assad’s favor, some Arab states began to reassess their opposition to his rule. The UAE has been at the forefront of this turnaround, and reestablished formal ties with Damascus in late 2018. Other Arab states—with the exception of Bahrain—were still hesitant at the time to follow suit, given that public opinion in their countries remained opposed to rapprochement with a regime considered responsible for untold human suffering, including at least half a million people killed in the civil war for which Assad is largely responsible, the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians from the regime’s use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs, 6.8 million internally displaced people, and probably close to seven million refugees living outside the country.

When the tide of the civil war turned in Assad’s favor, some Arab states began to reassess their opposition to his rule. The UAE has been at the forefront of this turnaround, and reestablished formal ties with Damascus in late 2018.

Although Assad had visited the UAE in 2022, he seized the opportunity that came with the earthquake to visit Abu Dhabi again on March 19, 2023, whereupon he and his wife were warmly greeted by UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in an effort to deepen ties and help his efforts to restore relations with the broader Arab world. Assad was not disappointed. The UAE leader reportedly stated, “Syria has been absent from its brothers for too long, and the time has come for it to return to them and to its Arab surroundings.” During the same meeting, Assad praised the UAE’s efforts to strengthen relations between Arab countries and emphasized that cutting ties between Arab states was an “incorrect principle in politics.” The UAE promised not only funds to aid earthquake-affected areas in Syria but also to facilitate Syria’s return to the Arab fold.

Saudi Arabia and Other Arab States Warming to Syria

Although Saudi Arabia was one of the countries that in 2011 took the lead in breaking ties with Damascus and expelling Syria from the Arab League (Riyadh also funded for a time some rebel groups in Syria fighting the regime), it now seems to have had a change of heart. On March 7, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud stated that the policy of isolating Syria was not working and that engagement with the Syrian government was needed. He stated that this may “lead eventually to Syria returning to the Arab League,” though he cautioned that it was still too early to discuss that possibility. However, this caution may have been ephemeral. On March 23, Saudi state media reported that Riyadh and Damascus are in discussions about “resuming the provision of consular services.” In addition, some press reports have suggested that talks about reopening embassies between the two countries were the result of Russian mediation. And indeed, Assad had traveled to Moscow just ten days prior.

Since the earthquake, Syria has also received the Jordanian foreign minister, followed by his Egyptian counterpart. In addition to his trip to the UAE, Assad traveled to Oman on February 20 where Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said received him. Although Oman withdrew its ambassador from Syria in 2012, it never broke diplomatic relations with Damascus, a reflection of the fact that Oman has long played the role of mediator in the Middle East. In this instance, Assad sought the sultan’s help in restoring Arab states’ ties to Damascus. Knowing about Oman’s close ties to the United States and to some European countries such as Great Britain, Assad also reportedly asked Sultan Haitham to press western states to temporarily lift sanctions against Syria in return for keeping crossings into rebel-held areas open for humanitarian aid. In addition, Assad asked the sultan to approach Iran with the idea of Saudi Arabia having an economic presence in Syria.

An Arab Plan for Syria’s Reintegration

Such meetings and visits apparently produced a joint Arab plan for Syria’s reintegration. In mid-March, it was reported that several Arab nations led by Jordan have proposed to help rebuild Syria. Substantial sums of money in the billions of dollars would be provided to Syria (presumably from the Gulf states), and these states would then use their influence to persuade the United States and European countries to lift their sanctions against Damascus. In return, Assad would have to engage in talks with the Syrian opposition, accept Arab troops in the country to protect Syrian refugees wanting to return home, crack down on drug smuggling, and reduce Iran’s involvement in Syria.

This plan, however, seems to have little chance of being fully accepted by Assad. He is reportedly opposed to having any troops from Arab states inserted into Syria, even for the purpose of facilitating the return of refugees. Moreover, various talks between the Assad regime and the opposition have taken place during the ill-fated Geneva process, but with little to show for them. Assad thus has little reason to be conciliatory now, given the fact that most of the country is now back in his government’s hands. In addition, it seems doubtful that Assad would significantly reduce the Iranian role in Syria given that Tehran’s assistance to the regime was one of the factors that allowed it to eventually win the civil war. And Iran remains an important source of weapons and advisors for both the Assad regime and its proxy forces, namely Hezbollah in Lebanon. Meanwhile, drug smuggling, particularly of the synthetic amphetamine known as Captagon, which is the drug of choice for youth in the Gulf states, is reportedly a major money maker for the Assad regime, despite the regime’s supposed efforts to oppose the drug trade.

Assad has little reason to be conciliatory with the opposition, as most of the country is now back in his hands.

All this does not mean that the talks are dead. Assad will certainly want them to continue in the hope of receiving billions of dollars of aid to Syria for rebuilding the country, and he will likely pay some lip service to the idea of reducing Iran’s role in the country so as to placate the Arab states. The Assad regime, while officially anti-drug, has used occasional raids against drug smugglers to cover up its role in an illicit and lucrative drug trade. This situation is akin to the fox guarding the chicken coop, pledging to protect the chickens while feasting on them at the same time.

Arab States’ Motives

Arab states involved in negotiations with the Syrian regime are not naïve about the problems inherent in their proposal, but they hope that they can get enough from Assad to justify their rapprochement with Damascus. The key question is, why are they engaging with Assad?

Some of this outreach may be ideological. Given the fact that the Syrian rebels have, over time, become much more Islamist in orientation in order to curry favor with their outside patrons, the Arab states engaged in this outreach to Damascus want to make sure that such Islamist forces are contained and defeated, and thus do not spread to their own countries. Other than the northeastern part of Syria, where the US-backed Kurds predominate, one of the last Syrian rebel strongholds is Idlib Province in the northwestern part of the country. Idlib is partly controlled by the extremist group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which in its former incarnation was an affiliate of al-Qaeda, though HTS has disavowed any such connection. Arab states supporting a rapprochement with Syria are not only opposed to such extremists, but also to more moderate Islamists as well. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, for example, have all designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and Jordan has tried to keep the group off-balance. The fact that the Assad regime has boxed in Islamist extremists in Idlib and has defeated the opposition, which included elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the rest of the country is reassuring to these regimes.

In addition, the Arab states do not want to see Syria become a failed state. The Syrian economy is in very poor shape, and these states may fear that if Damascus is not brought back to the Arab fold and given a lifeline of support, opposition to Assad within Syria could break out again and have a contagious effect on their own countries. At the same time, these states also see Syria’s role in the drug trade as a threat. Jordanian security forces have battled drug smugglers along the border with Syria, and Saudi authorities have seized millions of Captagon pills hidden in fruits and vegetables, as well as in other innocent-looking items. But such actions and interdictions may have only stopped a small part of the shipments from getting through to these countries, where rising drug use among youth is becoming a serious social issue. If a deal is struck whereby the Assad regime truly curtails its involvement in the drug trade in return for billions of dollars of aid, then the Gulf states may consider such largesse worth the trouble.

Finally, the outreach to Syria can also be seen as a policy of realpolitik prevailing over any moral concerns stemming from the Assad regime’s brutality. All of these regimes are more concerned with political survival than the welfare of their citizens, and likely consider that if the Assad regime had to resort to draconian policies in order to survive, then so be it. One day, these regimes themselves may face a similar type of rebellion, and they do not want to be ostracized regionally and internationally if they resort to similar practices. Although some of the moral outrage expressed by these regimes in 2011 and 2012 may have been genuine, now the prevailing view among their officials is to put all that behind them and to treat Syria as a normal state. In their view, the Assad regime has won the civil war and so there is no reason to continue to sanction it.

Hence, the Assad regime and the Arab states’ that desire to improve relations with it are cynically using the tragedy of the earthquake as an excuse to foster better ties. Both sides see caring for earthquake victims as an opportunity to accelerate a trend that was already in the making.

Is the Biden Administration Going Wobbly?

The official policy of the US Government is that even though humanitarian aid must go to the earthquake victims, the Assad regime should remain ostracized and subject to sanctions. However, there appears to be some weakening of this policy of late. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said that the administration “would encourage normalization” with the Syrian regime if it would “fulfill the political guidelines” laid out in UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Meanwhile, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf has said that while she was skeptical that engagement by Arab states with Assad would make him peel away from Iran, “Our basic message has been [that] if you’re going to engage with the [Assad] regime, get something for that.” This hardly sounds like a steadfast commitment to ostracize the Syrian leader.

Republicans in Congress seem to be the ones holding the Biden administration’s feet to the fire when it comes to Assad.

At this point, Republicans in Congress seem to be the ones holding the Biden administration’s feet to the fire. Michael McCaul of Texas, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a statement on February 28 urging the administration to commit to the Caesar Act, which sanctions companies doing business with Syria. He also said he was “deeply concerned” that many countries have made diplomatic overtures to Assad, whom he characterized as a war criminal, adding that any normalization with him is a “moral abomination and a strategic error.” In the Senate, Jim Risch of Idaho, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted that the recent outreach to Assad “will not benefit our Arab partners,” and that the earthquake “doesn’t whitewash Assad’s crimes against the Syrian people.” Risch ended his tweet by saying there must be “no rehabilitation or re-entry [of Syria] in the Arab League.”

Although many Republicans in Congress often play an irresponsible role in foreign policy by favoring an isolationist stance, in this case their foreign policy leaders seem to have developed an internationalist moral compass that the Biden administration should certainly heed.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Twitter/Mohamed bin Zayed