Bashar al-Assad, presiding over 70 percent of what was once sovereign Syria, is at an interesting point in his career. He is a living exemplar of the aphorism “Nothing succeeds like success”, a bon mot attributed to French novelist Alexandre Dumas.
In 2011 with the Arab Spring at its height, Syria, like a handful of other regional dictatorships, was plunged into civil conflict. Popular dissent soon developed into an armed revolt, which finally sought to overthrow the despotic Assad régime and substitute a democratic form of government. It seemed virtually certain that Assad, like the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, would be swept from power.
US President Barack Obama, to avoid annoying the Iranians while delicate negotiations leading to a possible nuclear deal were in progress, did nothing to support the forces seeking a democratic Syria. Assad was a close ally of the Iranians, who regarded Syria as a key part of their Shia empire.
Then, in August 2013, it became clear that Assad had used chemical weapons against his opponents without regard to the horrific civilian casualties that resulted. Once again Obama – although he had sworn to punish Assad if he deployed chemical weapons – failed to act. Russian president Vladimir Putin seized the political initiative. He quickly extracted an undertaking from Assad to surrender the whole of the chemical arsenal that he had originally denied possessing. Obama embraced the pledge as a way of avoiding action. It was a total sham. In June 2021 Fernando Arias, the head of the international chemical weapons watchdog, told the UN Security Council that chemical weapons had so far been used in Syria a probable 17 times.
Under Putin’s shield, and with his help and that of Iran, Assad not only clung to power, but won back the majority of Syrian territory that had fallen into the hands of various militias during the conflict. Now, in the light of his success, and also perhaps of the results of the recent dubious election in which Assad won a fourth term with 95.1% of the votes, extending his rule for a further seven years, some Arab states are reportedly warming to him. Jordan, which has repeatedly said it wants to improve ties with Syria, seems to leading this Arab policy shift.
In September Jordan fully reopened its trade border with Syria, while in the last few weeks Jordan has been the driving force behind a deal to pipe Egyptian natural gas via Syria into Lebanon, which is facing an energy crisis. Syria’s defense minister, Ali Abdullah Ayyoub, visited Jordan in September and met with Jordanian military officials. Shortly afterwards Jordan’s King Abdullah spoke to Assad by phone for the first time since 2011.
Syria was suspended from the Arab League back in 2011 because of its failure to end its violent crackdown on protesters demanding Assad’s resignation. In 2018 the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus, closed since 2011, and recently the idea of reinstating Syria to the League has been mooted. Perhaps as a step in that direction, the UAE economy minister, Abdulla bin Touq Al Marri, recently announced that the Gulf state and Syria had agreed on plans to enhance economic cooperation. The value of non-oil trade between the two countries in the first half of 2021 was some $272m.
A few weeks ago the UAE invited Syria to participate in Dubai’s Expo 2020, the first world’s fair to be held in the Middle East. So named because it was originally planned for last year, Expo 2020 was postponed because of the COVID pandemic. It runs from October 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022. Al-Marri met his Syrian counterpart on the sidelines where, it is reported, they looked at ways to expand the UAE-Syrian relationship.
Political as well as economic considerations loom large in current Arab thinking. The loss of US prestige following its withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as its moves to reactivate the Iran nuclear talks, has prompted a reassessment of policy priorities. The ties that Arab states enjoy with Assad’s most powerful backer, Russia, become a consideration, and Russia has been pressing for Syria’s return to the League. Moderate Arab states would also like to counter the power gained by Iran and Turkey within what was sovereign Syria.
Unlike the pragmatic Arab world, western opinion remains opposed to Assad, widely regarded as a tyrant whose hands are covered with the blood of his own people. There is something of a consensus that he must be removed from power before Syria can be brought back into a normal relationship with the rest of the world.
On October 13 US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated US opposition to any normalization of relations with Assad. A US law, known as the Caesar Act, that came into force last year punishes any companies that work with Assad.
“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 Mr Assad,” Blinken told a joint news conference, pointedly refraining from according the Syrian leader the title “President”. Blinken set out the US requirement with regard to Syria as “irreversible progress toward a political solution”. This can possibly be interpreted as free and fair elections in which Assad will be debarred from standing, leading to a new constitution for the country.
Whether this will become anything more than a US aspiration, though, is doubtful. The words are strong; the commitment less so. Syria is scarcely seen in Washington as a vital US interest. Indeed the Middle East as a whole is not among Biden’s top priorities. Given the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and shortly from Iraq, the Arab world would not be too surprised if the administration announced it was leaving Syria.
After a decade of conflict, Gulf Arab states are seeking ways to bring Syria back into the so-called ‘Arab fold’. Despite the West’s abhorrence of the crimes against his own people attributed to Assad, the realpolitik of the Middle East may yet see him rehabilitated. A decisive lead from the US can prevent this. But is Biden, like Obama before him, too concerned with the nuclear deal and Iranian sensitivities to give it?