Many Arab nations are prepared to put the past in the past and resume normal relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after rejecting him for the past twelve years. Following Assad’s brutal crackdown on anti-regime protesters in 2011, the Arab League suspended Damascus’ membership, underscoring this change. As a result, the Syrian president is now likely to attend the Arab League’s annual summit on May 19.
The reconciliation represents a significant diplomatic victory for Assad as well as his backers Iran and Russia. Additionally, it might be extremely advantageous for both his regime and the normalization-minded Arab governments. The Syrian people, who have endured more than ten years of civil war, state-sanctioned violence, and extremist militancy, are likely to benefit little from the pivot. Additionally, the United States and other nations that continue to oppose Assad do not favor the change.
What is the force behind the normalization movement?
Assad’s forces have recently reclaimed a significant amount of rebel-held territory and now control roughly two-thirds of Syria, thanks in large part to crucial support from Iran and Russia. As a result, although the majority of neighboring Arab governments initially supported and acknowledged the Syrian opposition, they have since come to accept Assad’s rule as reality and desire to prevent further regional instability caused by Syria, according to experts.
Over thirteen million people—more than half of Syria’s pre-war population—have been displaced by the twelve-year war, and about three hundred thousand civilians have died in the conflict. Many Syrians have fled to nearby nations like Turkey and Lebanon, where they now face hostility toward refugees. By ensuring Syrians’ safe return home, host governments hope to reduce those tensions. They also demand that Assad stop the smuggling of captagon, a highly addictive amphetamine that his family is said to have used to generate more than $50 billion in profits during the conflict.
When it reestablished ties with Syria in 2018, the United Arab Emirates assumed the initiative for normalization. Bahrain and Jordan were among the nations that soon followed, while Saudi Arabia only recently expressed interest in rapprochement. The earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria in February 2023 appears to have sped up normalization efforts and given Syria’s neighbors a chance to mend fences with the regime by delivering humanitarian aid. Another factor might be the recent reestablishment of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, not all governments support the idea. In particular, Qatar maintains its criticism of Assad and claims that only changes within Syria will change its mind.
Does Syria need to give anything up?
Jordanian lawmakers are working on a draft framework for normalization with other Arab governments, and it calls on Damascus to stop the captagon trade and ensure the safe return of Syrian refugees. Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations may exert pressure on Syria to rely less on Iran. Numerous of these governments also seek guarantees that the Islamist extremists in control of northwest Syria won’t widen their influence.
What benefit does it have for the Syrian government?
Most significantly, normalization represents a significant symbolic win for Assad, who has been shunned by the majority of the world for more than a decade. The Jordan-led plan is not currently contingent on political solutions to the issues that led to the war—corruption, poverty, and the Alawite Muslim regime’s political marginalization of the majority Sunni Muslim population, to name a few—or accountability for abuses committed by the regime.
Other, more concrete advantages are listed in Jordan’s plan, like funding for reconstruction efforts, which could cost up to $400 billion [PDF]. Additionally, Arab allies could persuade more nations to normalize relations with Syria and ease sanctions against it, boosting an economy that saw its gross domestic product (GDP) decline by half between 2010 and 2020.
How about the warring non-Arab nations?
Normalization will probably be seen by Washington as a rejection of its policy objectives, especially in light of the fact that Arab nations appear to be openly supporting a significant ally of the rival nations of Iran and Russia. In the meantime, both of those nations will consider Assad’s rehabilitation to be a diplomatic success.
Although American officials have urged Arab nations to “get something for that engagement,” such as a guarantee that Syria will crack down on the captagon trade, the United States is warning against normalization. Washington is not inclined to change its own position toward Damascus or redeploy the roughly 900 troops it has stationed in Syria to combat Islamist militant groups.
The Russian element is also crucial to consider when analyzing Saudi Arabia’s considerations regarding Assad. One of Moscow’s objectives ever since it began using air power to support Assad in 2015 has been to persuade members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that they must accept the fact that Assad’s regime will continue to exist. As a result, recent discussions to normalize Saudi-Syrian relations have taken place in Moscow. After the fasting month of Ramadan, they are anticipated to result in the reinstatement of diplomatic relations between the two nations. A similar agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran was mediated by China only a few weeks prior, building on earlier efforts by Iraq and Oman. This deal would represent a significant victory for Russian foreign policy.
A key question remains
There are several important issues to think about. First, following the restoration of diplomatic ties with Damascus, would Saudi Arabia brazenly disregard the Caesar sanctions? Second, if the Saudis disregard Washington’s secondary sanctions against Syria, will the Biden administration impose economic sanctions on Saudi Arabia? How much political capital is the White House prepared to commit to putting pressure on Arab nations to refuse to assist Syrians in rebuilding and developing their nation?
In the interest of avoiding new problems in Washington, Riyadh may still proceed cautiously when it re institutes diplomatic relations with Assad’s government. However, the Kingdom may find itself less in need of US security guarantees than in the past, when tensions between Riyadh and Tehran were high, depending on the development of Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran and whether the truce in Yemen holds.