Arab States Seeking to Rehabilitate Assad’s Syria

Hoping to bring Syria back to the Arab fold - and to oust Iran.

The Assad regime killed hundreds of thousands of fellow Syrians in the more than a decade-long civil war. For many in the Arab world, Bashar Assad became “untouchable,” and the US has proclaimed that it will not deal with him. In this Muslim Middle Eastern region, the bottom line is power and survivability. Until the Russian involvement in Syria, in September 2015, when it appeared that the Damascus dictator might be going down in defeat, the moderate Arab regimes in the Gulf, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and others, supported the rebels. In recent years, as it appeared that Assad might prevail, as he, with Russia as his ally recaptured most of the pre-war Syrian territory, the prevailing attitudes have changed. Now, Damascus has become a frequently visited place by Arab leaders.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and King Abdullah II, in particular, have taken on the initiative to bring Assad’s Syria back to the Arab fold, and away from Iran. King Abdullah has been busy on the diplomatic circuit, having two summit meetings, one with US President Joe Biden, and the other with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The contents of his presentations have undoubtedly been the benefits Russia would derive from Iran exiting Syria, along with its terrorist Shiite militias. The US would likewise win from an Iranian departure from Syria.    

Jordan has been a neglected actor on the Middle Eastern scene, but serving as an interlocutor between Syria and the US, and between Assad and the Arab League states, is certain to boost Abdullah’s prestige, and give Jordan stature. The last time Jordan enjoyed the limelight was in 1994, when the late King Hussein, and the late Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin signed the peace treaty. President Bill Clinton and his entourage flew to Wadi Araba to partake in the occasion. 

There are far more selfish reasons for Jordan to push for Assad’s rehabilitation, and bring him back to the Arab fold. Over one million Syrian refugees are currently living in Jordan. Repatriating them back to Syria would ease Jordan’s economic burdens, and ailing economy. Moreover, once Assad sends the Iranians and their proxy militias packing, the Sunni Arab moderate states, Jordan among them, will rush in to help in Syria’s reconstruction. That means contracts with Jordanian firms. Finally, given the scarcity of water in this arid region, the Yarmouk Water Agreement between Jordan and Syria can be re-established. Syria and its Russian patrons can then serve as guarantors in keeping Iran and its militias away from its border.

Until last year, contact with Assad by the Arab states was done mainly behind the scenes. In recent months however, it has come into clear view. King Abdullah has had numerous telephone conversations with Assad, and invited the Syrian Defense Minister to Amman. The moderate Sunni-Arab states, headed by Saudi Arabia, no longer speak openly about Assad’s war crimes (most of his victims were Sunni Muslim Syrians). In 2018 the United Arab Emirates (UAE) reopened its embassy in Damascus, and now plans to deepen its economic involvement with Assad’s Syria. The Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry met with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad, in September, on the sideline of the UN General Assembly.

Although the moderate Sunni Arab states have supported the rebels against the Assad regime, the rebels’ inability to form a unified alternative democratic force were subsequently dwarfed by the Islamic State, and Al-Qaida (both Sunni jihadist groups). This has made the Assad regime the more acceptable option.

For Bashar Assad, the “butcher of Damascus,” finding once again legitimacy among his fellow Arab leaders is most significant. It will clearly improve his image, and diminish the effects of his murderous campaign against his fellow Syrian countrymen. This, he hopes, would likely lead to the revitalization of Syria’s devastated economy. Unlike Iran’s limited resources for investment in Syria, the oil rich and prosperous Arab Gulf states have vast resources and capabilities to invest heavily in Syria.

Assad’s comeback is seen not only by the efforts of the Arab states to win him over to their side, but by western powers and US recognition, albeit off-camera, that they must deal with him to save Lebanon from a total economic catastrophe. The US imposed economic sanctions on the Assad regime, due to its murderous behavior toward its people. Now however, the US is relenting somewhat by allowing aid to Lebanon to come through Syria in contravention of the 2019 congressional Caesar Act. This has provided an additional green light for the Arab states to normalize relations with the Assad regime.  

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has explained the Biden administration’s policy on Syria as being largely focused on humanitarian relief. He said, “What we have not done, and what we do not intend to do, is to express any support for efforts to normalize relations or rehabilitate Assad.” Mona Yacoubian, senior adviser on Syria at the US Institute of Peace, a US government funded think-tank explained that, “The Biden administration finds itself having to navigate between the realities on the ground, and its own principled posture with respect to Assad himself.”

Iran is concerned that Syria might return to the Arab fold. That would mean a reduction of the flow of arms from Iran via Syrian territory to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Such a scenario would be well received in Jerusalem. And if the Arab states are able to convince Assad to remove the Iranians from Syria, that would be a major boon for Israel.

Assad has had to consider the fact that about two-thirds of Syria’s pre-civil-war population was Sunni Arab. Iran is a non-Arab Shiite-Muslim nation. While Assad himself belongs to the Alawi sect, considered a branch of Shiite Islam, if he is to survive in the long run as Syria’s ruler, it would be essential for him to placate his Sunni majority population, as well as the Sunni-Arab states.

In order to appease his Iranian patrons, the Assad regime has declared on several occasions that it will not change its position on normalization with Israel. It considers normalization with Israel detrimental to Arab and Palestinian interests. Nevertheless, in order to rebuild his devastated Syria, he needs a peaceful border with Israel. In fact, prior to the Iranian involvement in Syria, during the pre-civil war in 2011, the Israeli-Syrian border was the quietest. Removing the Iranians from Syria would keep Israel away from Syria, please the moderate Arab states, as well as Russia and the US.

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