The Arab League welcomed President Bashar El-Assad to its May summit, reinstating Syria as a member. The regime appears to have overcome the international opprobrium earned by its brutal repression of its opponents. But what exactly has he achieved?
When Syria was readmitted back into the Arab League in May, it looked as if President Bashar al-Assad’s bid to rehabilitate supporters of his regime after years of brutally cracking down on his opponents had succeeded. By welcoming Syria back into the Arab fold, the leaders who once advocated the removal of Assad have taken a step back from their attempts to pressure the regime. However, the Syrian conflict continues and today Arab states wield less influence than other foreign powers with a military presence on the ground or who have lifted sanctions against Syria. In addition, the main tool of influence of the Arab states – investment – faces great obstacles and produces limited returns.
The League suspended Syria’s accession in late 2011, after offering various proposals to end the violence following Assad’s decision to forcefully suppress a popular uprising. Although the regime subscribed to most of these plans and allowed League observers to visit Syria, it continued to escalate its violence against protesters. Some Arab countries were shocked by the level of cruelty and how Assad mocked their efforts. Some, too, used the exile from Syria as a warning to a regime that allowed Iran to increase its influence in the country. Syria would remain in the political desert for twelve years, enjoying the support and military backing of Russia and Iran, as well as other non-state actors such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“The Arab States See That None Of Their Differences With The Syrian Regime Have Been Resolved Through Ostracism And Western Sanctions”
The change of opinion has been motivated by several factors. Among them, Iran’s growing role in Syria, directly and through allied Lebanese, Iraqi and Afghan militias; the weakness of the Syrian state, which holds it hostage to Russia and Iran; and the unease stemming from shunning an Arab leader whose limited grip on power they perceive as having contributed to the rise of jihadist groups, large flows of drugs (with the complicity of the regime) out of Syria, and the long-term presence of refugees. Syrians in the Arab world. None of these issues constitute overriding national security concerns for the Gulf Arab states that have pushed for normalization, but taken together they are important enough to warrant a rethink. In the absence of any indication that the US or European governments are willing to modify their policy toward Syria, or make Syria a priority, Arab states have been encouraged to choose their own path.
Officials in Arab capitals admit they don’t expect the approach to change immediately, except perhaps with regard to trafficking in Captagon, a drug that is wreaking havoc in the Gulf. Damascus seems to have accessed to curb the illicit trade, which is reportedly one of the main sources of income for both the regime and the forces fighting on its behalf. One day after Syria’s return to the Arab League, the Jordanian air force bombed a drug factory in southern Syria, an event downplayed by the official Syrian media despite the clear violation of national sovereignty. For the rest, the regime has no history of giving in to internal opposition or external pressure, except that of its protectors. In 2013, it agreed to dismantle its chemical weapons program under the credible threat of US military strikes, but ultimately kept part of the program secret.
“The Arab League itself is largely powerless when it comes to managing regional affairs, mainly due to its deep internal divisions”
If Damascus has come to welcome the move by the Arab states as a victory – an acknowledgment by former adversaries that they have lost – the cause for celebration is limited. The Arab League itself is largely powerless when it comes to managing regional affairs, mainly due to its deep internal divisions. (Members were even divided on the decision to readmit Syria, but not to the point of using the veto power.)
Gulf states exerted their influence most early in the Syrian civil war, which has receded sharply in recent years, eclipsed by the US and Turkish military presence, as well as Western sanctions and the entry of Iranian and Russian-backed forces. Although the recalibration of the policy of the Arab States towards Syria is perceived as an opportunity for other non-Western capitals – in Africa or Asia, for example – to re-establish ties with Damascus, beyond the symbolic meaning of such movements, none of those countries have little or no influence in Syria.
Nor can Assad expect to gain any real benefit from the Arab states. If he believes that this rapprochement could lead Western capitals to ease sanctions and thus allow Gulf countries to invest in rebuilding Syria, he may even achieve the opposite. In fact, he has precipitated a bipartisan effort in the US Congress to further strengthen sanctions. Against this backdrop, no Gulf country is likely to be willing to invest large amounts in support of his regime since, far from being a priority, the Syrian economy offers high uncertainty and low returns.
Nor can they hope to compete with the influence that Iran has built through years of military engagement. Western sanctions limit economic gains, and US sanctions in particular impose significant legal barriers and political costs. Furthermore, investing heavily in a Syria with a devastated infrastructure, an impoverished population with low purchasing power, a predatory regime, and dismal security even in the areas it controls would be like pouring money down a bottomless pit. Without substantial changes in the way Syria is governed, the country will remain an economic hopeless case, as well as the scene of a humanitarian disaster, which for years has left much of the population food insecure while Asad and his cronies were spared.
“Turkey seems to be taking a more conditional approach to normalization than the Arab states”
Nor can its Arab neighbors significantly help the regime to recapture the northern parts it lost during the war, thereby restoring the country’s territorial integrity. In addition to the sanctions that are holding back their economic recovery, recovering these lands is the regime’s second main concern. The stretch of territory outside its control, with its long borders with Iraq and Turkey, is home to most of Syria’s natural resources – oil, water and wheat – as well as millions of displaced people, thousands of paramilitary and rebel fighters, and jihadists of various shades. Turkish soldiers patrol parts of it, and the US and Russia have troops on the ground elsewhere. Any attempt to recapture part of it will require either a Russian-Iranian-backed regime offensive that would clash with American and Turkish resistance, or a negotiated deal between the regime and Turkey or the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). .
The SDF leader visited the United Arab Emirates in May in an apparent Emirati attempt to mediate, but both the Kurdish-led and Syrian opposition forces present in these areas are unlikely to consent to a regime return without international guarantees. for your security, something that no external actor seems willing or able to offer. Turkey, for its part, appears to be taking a more conditional approach to standardization than the Arab states; Overall, the differences between their positions and those of Damascus remain wide, and Ankara has little incentive to compromise for now.
Embracing Arab states may do little to change the geopolitical equation Syria finds itself in, but it could have side effects. Readmitting Syria to the Arab League without a major concession from Damascus has undermined the potential for a future coordinated process based on a collective bargaining position. That said, the UN-led political process over the years has been, to say the least, ineffective and it is far from clear that such a collective position could ever have unblocked the situation in Syria, given Assad’s intransigence.
And just as importantly, millions of Syrian refugees fear that the Arab states that have brought Assad back will do so at their expense: that they will be forcibly repatriated, especially from Lebanon but also from Jordan, to face the risk of arrest or death at the hands of a vengeful regime. Western countries such as Denmark, which has long pushed for Syria to be declared safe for the return of refugees, will be discouraged in their efforts. Ideally, countries hosting Syrian refugees make it explicit that they do not expect them to return to Syria until their safety can be guaranteed. These countries will need to be clear that return is unlikely to be safe while Assad remains in power.
For now, Syria’s readmission to the Arab League is significant because of the recalibration in the Gulf capitals, but it remains unclear how important it is more generally, given the obstacles to broader change. Although the normalization surge shows the effectiveness of Damascus’ survival strategy, its narrow base of support, its incomplete control of Syria and the unstable geopolitical environment suggest that neither a negotiated end to the war nor a true rehabilitation of the regime is likely to happen. short term.