Sunday, June 23, 2024

Assad Comes in From the Cold


After many years of equivocation and handwringing, Arab states have decided to bring Syria in from the cold and back into the fold. Arab foreign ministers announced earlier this month that Syria would be readmitted to the Arab League, the regional organization that suspended the country’s membership in 2011. At the time, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime had become a regional pariah because of its brutal crackdown on a popular uprising in the country, which eventually claimed roughly half a million lives and displaced another 13 million people. That period of ostracization is now over.

This decision marks the culmination of a tortuous debate among Arab governments about how to handle the Syrian tragedy. But it promises to create more problems than solutions. Even Arab officials who support a gradual diplomatic normalization with the Syrian regime are uneasy about the disorganized way this process has occurred and are wary of its outcomes.

Syria’s readmission to the Arab League allowed Assad to travel to Saudi Arabia to attend the group’s summit on May 19. His appearance provides a glimpse of the drawbacks of the current rush to normalization: he appeared relaxed and triumphant during the visit, sharing grinning handshakes with prominent Arab leaders. His speech denounced Western hegemony and called for the protection of Arab identity—Syria’s own misery and the circumstances of its people went unmentioned. He also failed to mention the issues that most concern his Arab hosts: Syria’s emergence as a major exporter of drugs throughout the region, its sluggishness in taking back refugees, and the freedom with which Iran-backed militias operate across its territory.

While an improvement of humanitarian access and economic conditions in parts of Syria is likely, the Arab rehabilitation of Assad will only accelerate dangerous trends across the region. The regime will use Arab support to subsidize its brutal strategy for consolidating power. The normalization also threatens the position of Kurdish groups in Syria’s northeast and could hasten a U.S. withdrawal, resulting in the resurgence of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). It gives populist politicians across the region an excuse to escalate attacks on Syrian refugees, even as Assad does little to facilitate refugees’ return to Syria. And it is being cheered by Iran and Russia, which see the normalization of the regime in Damascus as an opportunity to both recoup some of their expenses in propping up Assad and cement their influence in the heart of the Arab world.

Assad has benefited from the Middle East’s fragmented political landscape, which has prevented his many enemies from uniting around a common military or diplomatic strategy toward him. Since 2018, several countries launched initiatives to “return Syria to the Arab fold,” but those efforts did not gain traction because of inter-Arab divisions and Western opposition. But earlier this year, the process started to gain momentum due to a shift in Saudi policy. The divisions within the Arab world guaranteed that Syria would soon be back at the table: governments quickly abandoned their earlier cautious positions in the rush to surpass their regional rivals in embracing Assad’s rehabilitation.

In 2018, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) became the first country to embrace Assad’s diplomatic rehabilitation. Its approach to the Syrian dictator was driven by the urge to contain Turkey, accommodate Assad’s close ally Russia, and mark a conclusive end to the era of popular uprisings. Although this effort received support from Oman, Bahrain, Iraq, and Algeria, which was keen to announce Syria’s return to the Arab League summit it hosted in 2022, the UAE was unable to rally other states behind its conditions-free approach.

Jordan, too, was an early advocate of outreach to Assad. Amman worried that the brutal Russian intervention in 2015 and 2016 in northern Syria would repeat itself in the south, causing a massive exodus of refugees along its borders. It also feared the consequences of Western disengagement: Washington was keen to end its support for Syrian rebels in southern Syria and focus on the campaign against ISIS in eastern Syria and Iraq. In 2018, Amman agreed to a Russian-guaranteed return of regime forces to southern Syria in the hope that Moscow would moderate Assad’s behavior and ensure some stability in the region.

But Amman quickly learned the costs of this gamble. The regime reneged on its promises of reconciliation with local opposition groups, Russian security “guarantees” amounted to very little, and legal trade has been minimal. Instead, southern Syria has become more unstable: it is the conduit for a multibillion-dollar drug-trafficking business overseen by the regime, a safe haven for ISIS and extremist cells, and the staging ground for Iranian-aligned militias. As a result of the 2018 deal with Damascus, Jordan became more exposed to the consequences of the Syrian conflict, more skeptical about Assad’s ability and willingness to compromise, and more cautious about antagonizing its Western partners.

As a result, Amman designed a gradual, multilateral diplomatic process that conditioned the improvement of relations with Syria on verifiable concessions by the regime. This plan attracted Egyptian and polite Western interest but little more. Jordan was stymied by a lack of coordination among its Arab allies: the UAE disagreed with Jordan’s insistence on placing conditions for normalization on Assad, and Saudi Arabia, which was at the time opposed to any kind of normalization, did not want its policy to be set by another country. This robbed Amman of any leverage it might have had. Seeing these inter-Arab divisions, Assad saw no reason to take the Jordanian proposal seriously.


It took a change of heart in Riyadh to get the ball rolling. Until a few months ago, Saudi Arabia was dead set against normalization. The Saudis had a painful and humiliating history of bargaining with the Assad regime, and they believed that Syria’s normalization would amount to a recognition of the success of Iran, Assad’s ally and Saudi Arabia’s nemesis. During the civil war, Assad had also repeatedly insulted the Saudi leadership and accused it of being behind the rise of ISIS, an accusation Riyadh deeply resented.

Saudi leaders may have no love for Assad, but other factors spurred Syria’s reintegration in the region. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recalibrated the kingdom’s foreign policy, seeking to insulate his grandiose economic development plans from regional instability. This has motivated his decision to reduce competition with Turkey and Iran, and reduce Saudi involvement in conflict zones. He has also grown frustrated with the United States, which he perceives as unreliable, sanctimonious, and in the process of reducing its security commitments in the Gulf. Rather than rely on Washington, he wants to work with China and Russia on areas of mutual interest, such as energy policy.

For the crown prince, Syria is an annoyance he inherited from his predecessors and a distraction from his transformational agenda. In breaking with past Saudi policy toward Syria, he is indicting the previous generations of Saudi leaders, who had massively invested in regional affairs with little to show for it. The Syrian opposition, for its part, has been fatally weakened by its military setbacks and political incompetence—he no longer needs to worry about it. The May 19 Arab League summit served as a platform to showcase Saudi leadership of Arab politics, and readmitting Syria to the group represented low-hanging diplomatic fruit.

The February earthquake that killed tens of thousands in northwest Syria and Turkey provided the opportunity for this diplomatic shift. During the crisis, Riyadh provided much-needed humanitarian assistance to areas under the control of the Syrian regime, which offered a pretext for direct engagement with Assad. The easing of Western sanctions to facilitate the influx of humanitarian aid to Syria also proved convenient for Riyadh, as it gave Saudi leaders an opportunity to highlight how Western policy had reached a dead end.


Once Saudi Arabia decided to normalize relations with Assad, Jordan and Egypt attempted to slow the Saudis down in several meetings. They were supported by Kuwait, which did not want to perturb the United States, its key ally, and is constrained by anti-Assad domestic forces; and by Qatar, where Assad remains the ultimate pariah. These countries argued that Assad would perceive Syria’s conditions-free return to the Arab League as a kind of surrender on the part of Arab countries.

But these differences did not prove insurmountable, in large part because all these countries have bigger fish to fry. Egypt is going through a serious economic crisis as well and a period of tensions with the Gulf states; Jordan faces similar economic struggles and is more concerned by developments in Israel, where a hard-right coalition is in power, and in the West Bank, where a new intifada remains a possibility. Both could ill afford to antagonize Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Qatar is unwilling to jeopardize its reconciliation with Saudi Arabia after the two countries were at loggerheads between 2017 and 2021; it plausibly insists that Syria’s return to the Arab League, a peripheral institution, does not obligate it to restore bilateral relations with Damascus.

Ultimately, the Saudi endorsement compelled Arab countries, including the reluctant ones, to fall in line. Saudi officials initially claimed that they would pursue a cautious and gradual approach, similar to that envisioned by Jordan. But the process accelerated quickly. An initial announcement of the opening of a Saudi consulate in Damascus was quickly upgraded to the full reestablishment of diplomatic relations, including an embassy in the Syrian capital. Recent Saudi and Emirati statements regarding Syria do not even acknowledge UN Security Council Resolution 2254, the framework to resolve the conflict.

Western governments are unlikely to do anything to stop the Arab rehabilitation of Assad.

Gulf capitals have felt vindicated in their course of action by the feeble Western reaction to Assad’s rehabilitation. None of the topmost Western officials have mentioned Syria in their recent public comments. Readouts of Western officials’ meetings with Middle Eastern leaders rarely mention it. Opposition from the State Department was couched in the mildest terms: the United States would prefer that Syria remained politically ostracized, but does not demand it.

This tepid response has only reaffirmed the dim view in the region of Western policy regarding Syria. For Gulf states, this strategy was bookended by U.S. President Barack Obama’s failure in 2013 to enforce his “red line” on Assad’s use of chemical weapons and the success of the 2016 Russian intervention in rescuing the regime. Subsequent diplomatic failures and U.S. President Donald Trump’s partial withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2019 only made matters worse. Currently, Arab governments view the lack of U.S. response to mounting attacks by Iranian-aligned militias in Iraq and Syria as an ominous sign. If Western governments are disengaging, Arab thinking goes, all the more reason to reengage with the Assad regime.

It is unlikely that Western governments will do anything to stop the Arab rehabilitation of Assad. Western leaders want nothing to do with an issue that consumed their predecessors, would distract them from the ongoing war in Ukraine, and might complicate relations with the wealthy Gulf monarchies. Western sanctions on Assad’s regime and (dwindling) humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people have become a substitute for policy. It is telling that the Western envoys to Syria are increasingly junior in rank or that the position has been discarded altogether.


Assad does not show any remorse or magnanimity to those Arab officials who meet him in Damascus or Gulf capitals. In his view, he does not need to repent or reflect on his brutality. Instead, he expects Arab states to apologize for the sin of having opposed him. Fortunately for him, the memory of the carnage his regime unleashed—the use of chemical weapons, the brutal sieges of cities such as Aleppo, and the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians—is already beginning to fade, and moral inhibitions against cutting a deal with Damascus are melting away.

Assad has managed to turn a very weak hand into a winning one. His strategy of digging in and patiently waiting for regional and global winds to shift has worked, as it has in the past. He sees concessions as a mark of weakness, aims to empty multilateral processes of their substance, and perceives diplomatic relationships as tools that allow him to triangulate endlessly to avoid taking decisions.

During the height of his ostracization, Assad found comfort in history. It was only 15 years ago that he sat triumphantly on the Champs Élysées in Paris as French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s guest of honor for France’s Bastille military parade. At the time, he was coming out of a period of diplomatic isolation owing to his suspected involvement in the assassination of Lebanese political figures. It mattered little that he had been building a secret nuclear reactor, was supporting Sunni jihadists in Iraq, and was working with Iran to arm Hezbollah. Assad’s then-best friends were the Qatari and Turkish leaders, and he hosted U.S. leaders, including Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry, in Damascus. Even though Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah blamed Assad and Hezbollah for the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri (the king’s Lebanese protégé and a former prime minister), he conducted a high-profile reconciliation with Assad. Even then, Assad capitalized on the unstructured, disorganized rush to Damascus to maximize his financial and political gains. And in the end, he gave up nothing.

Ultimately, absent an integrated, inclusive reconstruction framework, Syria will remain broken and impoverished.

Assad seeks to employ the same formula that has served him so well in the past. In his view, refugees, Captagon (the drug that has flooded Gulf cities), 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. And he is already trying to translate Arab engagement into geopolitical and financial gains: Both he and his foreign minister, in meetings with their counterparts, have asked Arab states to lobby Western governments to relax sanctions on Syria. Similarly, he is using Arab engagement to pressure Turkey to commit publicly to withdraw from northwest Syria. Assad and his ministers also have made financial demands of their interlocutors, saying that without an injection of money they will not be able to welcome back refugees or halt the export of captagon.

It is doubtful that Arab governments will spend precious political capital lobbying Western capitals over sanctions. The rapaciousness of the Syrian regime, the difficulty of conducting any kind of business inside Syria, and the war-torn state of the country will also likely prevent any large-scale funding for reconstruction. If funding is provided, some will make it into the Syrian economy—but much more will find its way into the pockets of regime insiders or go to fund its brutal security services.

The normalization will have practical effects in other ways, however. For a start, the increase of elite exchanges will inevitably improve the way Syria is portrayed in the media across the region. Security cooperation between intelligence agencies is also likely to rapidly expand. Syrian residents in the Gulf states, already careful not to antagonize authorities there, will worry even more about doing anything to cross Damascus. While the regime will facilitate Gulf humanitarian assistance, it will insist that it is deployed in line with its preferences instead of international standards. Some early recovery projects may be put on track, but large-scale reconstruction financing remains unlikely. Ultimately, absent an integrated, inclusive reconstruction framework, Syria will remain broken and impoverished, and Syrians will continue to seek refuge elsewhere.


It may be tempting to welcome the rehabilitation of Syria as an unfortunate but acceptable cost of the lowering of political tensions across the Middle East. The war in Syria, after all, is increasingly seen as intractable. For many Western countries, offloading Syria to their regional partners may seem to be an attractive option.

But Arab rehabilitation of Assad is legitimizing and accelerating dangerous trends across the region. Squeezed between Turkey and Assad, Kurdish-led militias in northeast Syria have renewed their diplomatic overtures toward Damascus. The trend toward Arab normalization is amplifying fears about the sustainability of current Western policy and, should U.S. appetite to maintain a military presence in the region vanish, the result could be the revival of the ISIS insurgency. Meanwhile in northwest Syria, a crucial cease-fire in place since 2020 appears increasingly fragile amid fears that regional normalization could ultimately fuel renewed regime military offensives.

For the over five million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, normalization has brought them no closer to being able to return safely to their homes—many of which remain in rubble from the war. But it has made it easier for populist politicians in those countries to escalate xenophobic rhetorical campaigns against them as part of an effort to force them out. The expectation in neighboring governments and societies that large numbers of refugees will return does not square with a widely shared suspicion that Assad does not intend to take back people he views as fundamentally disloyal and possible future threats. In Assad’s mind, most refugees are not worth luring back unless he is properly rewarded for their repatriation.

To whet Arab appetite for engagement, Syria has allowed small numbers of refugees back to the country. Lebanese security agencies are already expelling refugees despite the protestations of UN agencies and Western donor countries. But Syria insists on screening them, and those who run afoul of these checks are quickly disappeared by the mukhabarat, the Syrian intelligence services. In addition to inspiring fear, the regime has created other obstacles to returning refugees, including the legal dispossession of property, urban reengineering of their communities, and denying them the right to settle back in the places they came from.

The Syrian president knows that he has no more loyal partner than Iran.

The Arab embrace of Assad is also raising fears in Lebanon that Syria will once again exert influence on its politics. The leading candidate for the presidency is Sleiman Frangieh, a politically weak former warlord whose only asset is his proximity to Damascus and Hezbollah.

Assad’s two primary allies, Iran and Russia, have also welcomed the Arab normalization of Syria. Iran calculates that this process is happening on Assad’s terms and is unconcerned that anything about it will challenge its influence in Syria. It has embedded itself deeply inside the country and can operate largely unimpeded, save for Israeli strikes against its proxies. The Syrian president also knows that he has no more loyal partner than Iran, however difficult the partnership may sometimes be. It was no coincidence that Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi chose to visit Damascus in the midst of the Arab opening in early May, the first visit by an Iranian president to Syria since the uprising began.

Russia has welcomed Syria’s reintegration into the Arab world with particular delight. The move allows Moscow to present itself as victorious to its population and other doubters as it struggles in the prosecution of its war in Ukraine. It also maintains its image as a global power and solidifies its partnership with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other countries. Moscow is also using Syria to pull Turkey out of the Western orbit and has organized meetings between top Iranian, Syrian, and Turkish diplomatic, military, and intelligence officials. The normalization process promises to make Moscow’s job easier. Finally, Russia expects Arab countries to contribute to Syria’s stabilization, thus reducing Moscow’s own burden.

The incessant Western claims that “there is no military solution, only a political one” to the Syrian conflict have been proven wrong. Unsurprisingly, battlefield successes have dictated political outcomes—and this mantra only served to justify Western inaction toward a conflict that has had a direct impact on European politics and security. Assad’s rehabilitation by Arab states is yet another recognition of that reality. At a time when Western states are debating what goals to pursue in Ukraine, Syria is a reminder of the strategic and human costs of such complacency.