Analysis: Assad back in the Arab League fold

Bashar al-Assad >, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bashar al-Assad triumphantly returned to the Middle East’s top table last week – 12 years after the blood-soaked dictator was suspended from the Arab League at the outset of a civil war which has killed more than 500,000 people and displaced millions.

What happened

  • On Friday, Assad attended an Arab League summit in Jeddah barely two weeks after the body readmitted Syria and Saudi Arabia restored diplomatic relations with Damascus. The decision followed a visit to Syria by Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the first such visit since the war broke out in 2011.
  • “I hope that it marks the beginning of a new phase of Arab action for solidarity among us, for peace in our region, development and prosperity instead of war and destruction,” Assad said. He also pointedly remarked: “It is important to leave internal affairs to the country’s people as they are best able to manage them.”
  • “I would like to loudly welcome Syria back to its seat among its brothers,” Algeria’s prime minister, Ayman Benabderrahmane, said in the opening speech of the summit. Assad was also warmly welcomed by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, greeted by Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and held meetings with Tunisia’s president and the vice-president of the United Arab Emirates.
  • The development is part of a series of rapid moves in the region following the surprise Chinese-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March.
  • The main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, and western nations, like the United States and Britain, opposed the drive to rehabilitate Assad. “We are not going to be in the business of normalising relations with Assad and with that regime,” the US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, suggested earlier this month.

Countdown to Assad’s rehabilitation

In reality, Assad has not been entirely isolated in the region throughout the 12-year civil war. Tehran and its proxy armies, such as Hezbollah, poured in huge amounts of military assistance which – together with the backing of their mutual ally, Vladimir Putin’s Russia – helped maintain Assad in power. Egypt only briefly cut ties to Damascus, restoring them in 2013, while the UAE reopened its embassy in 2018 and laid out the red carpet for Assad – the first Arab state to do so – last year. Jordan struck a middle path, pushing a plan for normalisation based upon verifiable concessions by the regime. By contrast, Saudi Arabia and Qatar both gave large sums to rebel groups attempting to overthrow Assad. While the Saudis eventually paved the way to Syria’s conditions-free readmission to the Arab League, Qatar remained resistant but ultimately resigned. The rapprochement was given a final, unexpected push by the humanitarian crisis following the devastating earthquakes in Syria and Turkey in February.

What’s the deal?

  • Driven by the Saudis, the hand proffered to Damascus is rooted in hard-headed realpolitik. With the regime’s writ now running across most – if not all – of Syria, it’s clear Assad is going nowhere. This is coupled with the fact that Washington is engaged in a long-term process of disengagement from the region’s affairs in general and the situation in Syria specifically. Finally, the Saudis’ are seeking to ease regional tensions – evident in the deal with Iran, warmer relations with Turkey and steps to end the war in Yemen – in order to promote stability and focus on domestic economic reform.
  • A statement issued by the Arab League after its decision to readmit Syria in early May indicated the expectations of Assad from regional capitals: a political end to the conflict, the return of refugees and action to combat drug-trafficking.
  • Aided and abetted by the regime, Syria has become a mass producer and exporter of the recreational drug captagon, acquiring the label of a “narco-state”. Thanks to Assad’s brutality, the regime has also become a mass exporter of people to its neighbours: according to the UN, approximately 5.5 million Syrian refugees live in the five countries neighbouring Syria—Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

Played by Assad?

Analysts have warned that Assad may ultimately disappoint his Arab neighbours.

  • “In order to keep the region’s attention, it’s quite possible the regime will grant some minimal concessions in the coming months: drip-feeding intelligence on captagon movements; keeping cross-border aid access open; and perhaps granting a small prisoner amnesty,” Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told the Washington Post. “But it’s just not in Assad’s DNA to concede in any significant way, so there will come a time when this re-engagement reaches a natural blockage — where the next step, major economic investment, becomes diplomatically untenable or otherwise deterred by western sanctions.”
  • Emile Hokayem, director of regional security and senior fellow for Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, offered a similarly bleak analysis: “Assad seeks to employ the same formula that has served him so well in the past. In his view, refugees, Captagon … and terrorism are rents. They provide him with a steady stream of political and financial leverage as supplicants visit Damascus imploring him to help solve a problem he himself created.”
  • Likewise, HA Hellyer of RUSI argued: “Assad’s reintegration may come back to haunt Riyadh. Assad hasn’t changed, and his regime continues to be unstable, even with Russian and Iranian backing. There are millions of Syrians who view Assad as the most brutal [sic] in their history, and that isn’t a recipe for good times.”

Brothers in arms

The hope among some Arab states that restoring ties to Damascus may draw Assad away from Iran’s sphere of influence is also likely to frustrated. “Many Syrians doubt that their president, whose capital is ringed by Iranian militias, would even have the power to push them out,” suggested the Economist. Indeed, earlier this month, the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, visited Assad and the two men vowed to “develop and strengthen bilateral relations”, signing 15 “cooperation documents” which envisaged “a new chapter in economic relations”.

What happens next

Impoverished and war-torn, Syria is in desperate need of reconstruction. Despite previous promises, that money is unlikely to come from either sanctions-hit Iran or Russia. The west is unlikely to help while the regime remains in power. That leaves the Gulf States: but few expect Assad is willing to pay the price in concessions they will expect and demand.