Analysis: The tyrant who came in from the cold

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

Bashar al-Assad’s international isolation appears to be coming to an end as Arab capitals make moves to bring the Syrian dictator in from the diplomatic cold.

Political, strategic and economic imperatives have caused governments in the region – including some which previously aided the rebels attempting to overthrow the Assad regime – to begin reaching out to Damascus in recent weeks and months.

What happened

  • King Abdullah of Jordan, who called for Assad to stand down in 2011, spoke with the Syrian president by telephone earlier this month – their first contact in over a decade. Jordan’s royal court said the call was to discuss ties between “the brotherly countries and ways to enhance cooperation between them”. Assad, the country’s state news agency said, had phoned the Jordanian monarch with the goal of “reinforcing cooperation in the interests of the two countries and people”. The call came shortly after Jordan reopened its main border crossing with Syria for trade and allowed a visit by Assad’s defence minister to discuss security issues.
  • At the same time as Abdullah’s call, the United Arab Emirates announced it had agreed “future plans to enhance economic cooperation and explore new sectors” with Damascus. The UAE touted itself as “Syria’s most prominent global trade partner” and noted that non-oil trade between the two countries had risen to $272m during the first six months of the year. Syria’s economy minister also visited the recent Expo 2020 hosted by the UAE in Dubai. Syria’s pavilion – appropriately – was titled: “We Will Rise Together”.
  • The United States has backed a pipeline – which will run through Jordan and Syria – to supply crisis-hit Lebanon with Egyptian gas.
  • In September, the Egyptian and Syrian foreign ministers met at a meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York. In the first such meeting since the start of the Syrian civil war, Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry pledged Cairo’s help to “restore Syria’s position in the Arab world”.
  • “Across the Middle East there is a sense that Mr al-Assad – long known for gassing his own people and dropping exploding barrels on his own cities – is being brought in from the cold, reflecting a resignation with his survival,” reported The New York Times in early October.
  • Nonetheless, Assad presides over a war-ravaged economy – whose principal export and source of hard currency is the amphetamine-like drug Captagon – and his control over the country is far from secure.
  • Iran, however, has thrived on the chaos and war in Syria and is reportedly concerned that any rapprochement between Assad and the Arab world threatens the power it wields in the country – and its ability to supply Hezbollah in Lebanon with arms via its “land bridge” through Iraq and Syria.

Cutting ties

The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership of the body 10 years ago in response to Assad’s violent crackdown on protesters, calling on Arab ambassadors to leave the country. While some countries – such as Jordan and, under president Sissi, Egypt – maintained low-level contacts with the Syrian regime, others – such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar – backed rebel forces. Assad, with the help of Vladimir Putin and Iran, waged a bloody civil war in which at least 350,000 people are believed to have died with many more being displaced from their homes as poverty rates hit 80 percent. But, as he has regained control over much of Syria’s territory during the last five years, some Arab states have begun to adopt a new tack. The UAE and Bahrain reopened their embassies in Syria in 2018, Jordan returned a senior diplomat to the country in 2019 and Oman sent its ambassador back to Damascus last year.

Egypt leads the way

Egypt has been at the forefront of efforts to assist Syria’s rehabilitation. As Caroline Rose, senior analyst at the Washington-based Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, told the Al-Monitor website, the meeting between the Egyptian and Syrian foreign ministers “indicates Egypt’s aim of incremental normalisation with the Assad regime”. She termed it “an opportunity for Egypt to test the waters, identify spaces for political and economic cooperation, and gauge attitudes toward this process among its Middle Eastern allies”.

Mixed motives

Arab governments are acting for a complex mix of political, strategic and economic objectives:

  • A massive influx of refugees, and the sharp reduction in trade between it and Syria after the outbreak of the civil war, has hit Jordan’s economy especially hard. Indeed, Syria had long been termed Jordan’s economic “lung”. Jordan’s economic malaise has seen unemployment rise to 25 percent during the first quarter of 2021, with youth unemployment running at twice that level.
  • Jordan’s approach is likely to encourage others, politicians in the country suggest. “When Jordan breaks these barriers and establishes ties and it’s at this pace, there will be countries that will follow suit,” Samih al-Maaytah, a former Jordanian minister and political analyst, told Al Mamlaka, a state-owned broadcaster.
  • More widely, argues Joshua Landis, director of the Centre of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, “for the regional economy to come back to life, Syria must take [back] its normal place within the Arab world. It is vital to the economic health of Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq as well as Egypt.”
  • Amid the tumult of the last decade in the region, there is also a desire among many Arab governments to push for a greater level of stability. “No Arab country wants to see more chaos in the region or the failure of another Arab state,” suggests Landis.
  • Pragmatic Arab states are also looking to rein-in both Iran and Turkey, which have used the civil war in Syria to increase their influence in the country. Turkey’s backing for Sunni Islamists throughout the region is a particular concern, as is Iran’s support for Shia militias, such as Hezbollah, through which Tehran wields considerable power.
  • Similarly, the US decision to back the revival of the moth-balled gas pipeline reflects the Biden administration’s desire to help stabilise the situation in Lebanon while minimising the impact of Hezbollah’s efforts to bring in sanctioned oil from Iran.

Washington: realpolitik…

However, the primary driver of the new approach towards Assad is that the region has “given up on the U.S. having a more forceful posture against the regime,” says Charles Lister, director of the Middle East Institute’s Syria programme. The US’ gradual withdrawal from the region over the past decade – graphically illustrated by Washington’s chaotic abandonment of Afghanistan – has simply reinforced this perception. The Biden administration rejects the notion that there has been any shift in US policy towards Syria. “What we have not done and will not do is express any support for efforts to normalise or rehabilitate the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad, lift a single sanction on Syria, or change our position to oppose the reconstruction of Syria until there is irreversible progress towards a political solution,” the State Department told Reuters earlier this month. However, Biden has made sparing use of the new Caesar Act – passed by the US Congress in 2019 to further tighten sanctions on Syria – and appears to be adopting a pragmatic stance towards its regional allies’ approach towards Assad. There is no sign, for instance, that Jordan will pay a price for its recent actions, despite the tough US sanctions regime against Syria. As Aaron Stein, director of research at Foreign Policy Research Institute, notes, the Biden administration “isn’t interested in expending diplomatic capital to prevent regional governments from doing what they think is best vis-a-vis the regime”. The signals emitted by Washington are likely to be closely watched by the Saudis, who have been slower to reach out to Assad (although Riyadh sent its spy chief to Damascus for talks last year). Of the Lebanon gas deal, which Assad leapt at, one European diplomat despairingly told The Observer last month: “At the very least, the two economic crises [Lebanon and Syria] are now integrated. So much for sovereign solutions. Does the US truly understand what it has done here? All these years of talk about state-building. And then at the end, you hand the mess back to Bashar who played a lead role in killing both countries.”

…and quiet words behind the scene

But while Biden may be publicly taking a less hardline view than his predecessor, senior administration officials have made clear that – behind the scenes – they’re keeping the pressure on allies. While allowing the gas deal in order to assist Lebanon, and also giving the green light to some kinds of aid inside Syria, the US is also trying to minimise any benefits flowing to the Assad regime. “We are actively telling the UAE and Saudi Arabia, ‘Don’t go building shopping malls. Don’t unfreeze Bashar’s assets. Don’t give the government in Syria access to any kind of revenue for rebuilding or reconstruction,’” one official told The New York Times.

Assad on shaky ground

  • War, sanctions and corruption has seen Syria’s formal economy collapse over the past decade. Syria began exporting captagon pills – manufactured by Hezbollah and sold at a huge mark up to the Gulf states – in 2013. Profits from the sales – which far-outstrip Syria’s largest legal export, olive oil – are financing the Damascus government, believes Ian Larson, author of a recent report by the Centre for Operational Analysis and Research, on the subject.
  • The Assad regime has also recently been accused of siphoning off millions of dollars of foreign aid – at a rate of $0.51 for every dollar – by making UN agencies use a lower exchange rate. It is said to have made $60m in 2020 from the ruse.
  • Assad now controls roughly 60 percent of Syrian territory (up from a low of 30 percent in 2014), including many of its principal cities. However, the Kurds control a huge swathe of territory in the north-east, with Turkey and Turkish-backed rebels, remnants of Islamic States and jihadists linked to al-Qaeda holding areas in the north-west and south-east.
  • While his allies in the Kremlin are encouraging Arab states to reach out to Assad, Iran – which also played a critical role in saving the regime – is less keen. Damascus is thus seeking to reassure Iran. A senior Syrian official reportedly told the pro-Iran Al-Mayadeen news recently that, in contrast to Egypt, the UAE and Jordan, “Syria has not and will not change its position on the normalisation of relations with the Zionist regime. Damascus considers normalisation to be wrong and detrimental to Arab and Palestinian interests.”

What happens next

Observers of Syria are gloomy as to the likely impact of rapprochement with Assad. Malik al-Abdeh, who is close to the opposition, says: “What the regime is desperate to achieve is to end the US and EU sanctions and restore diplomatic relations with Arab countries and the West. King Abdullah appears to be putting these on the table and saying ‘let’s give these to Assad in return for limited behavioural change’. Assad will not engage in a transactional relationship as described in the paper. Instead, he will likely exploit the channels extended to him to undermine whatever leverage the West/Arab states have.”