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Syria’s dictator comes in from the cold

Posted By on April 17, 2023 @ 06:00

More than a decade after long-departed Western leaders called for his removal from office as a precondition for any resolution to the Syrian crisis, Bashar al-Assad is on the verge of reintegrating into the region. He has survived in power despite the efforts of many regional leaders who’ve financed, armed and attempted to coordinate the efforts of opposition groups seeking his overthrow.

Some Gulf states have reopened their Damascus embassies in recent years, and in the past few weeks the Egyptian foreign minister paid his first visit to Syria in over a decade and the Syrian foreign minister visited Saudi Arabia for the first time since 2011.

A possible return of Syria to the Arab league is also being discussed.

At first glance, regional relegitimisation of Assad seems to be another blow to Washington’s prestige. Coming hard on the heels of a Beijing-brokered detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran, regional political arrangements appear to be developing despite, rather than because of, American diplomatic efforts. There’s no doubt that the Middle East views Washington in a different light than it did a decade ago. Military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the on-again, off-again nuclear deal with Iran and its consequences for regional security, along with a belief that Washington is focused on Russia in Europe and China in the Indo-Pacific, mean that US administrations have little ability to focus on the Syria file. Washington opposes normalisation with Assad, but it has little interest in expending political capital to dissuade regional states from doing so.

Even though Syria has long been the most wicked of wicked problems—and always in Moscow’s rather than Washington’s sphere of influence—the failure to ensure the fall of Assad meant that Iran, through its military support for the Syrian regime, took on an importance much greater than it had before the Syrian uprising. Some argue that a regional rapprochement will allow Arab states to supplant Tehran’s influence, though there’s little evidence for that.

The US does retain some leverage over Syria, with its continued troop presence in the country ostensibly to fight Islamic State but really to have a say in Syria’s political outcome, as well as the sanctions regime imposed under the Caesar Act. While Washington may be powerless to stop Assad’s diplomatic reintegration, it can exact a significant cost, if it chooses, on anyone seeking to rebuild and reintegrate Syria economically.

Millions of Syrian citizens are still refugees in neighbouring countries, Turkish and American troops and their armed supporters occupy parts of the territory, Israeli regularly conducts airstrikes on Syrian and Iranian targets inside the country and a range of longstanding international sanctions remains in place. Exactly what practical benefits regional normalisation will bring in the short term is debatable. We do know that whatever benefits there are will go first and foremost to the regime and its closest supporters.

At a time when US diplomatic influence in the region is waning, however, the Syrian regime knows that time is on its side, and in the long term, regional recognition and engagement are the first steps in fracturing international unity. It worked on the military front and Assad has cause to believe that it will work on the diplomatic and economic fronts, too.

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[1] first visit to Syria: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/2/27/egypts-foreign-minister-visits-syria-for-first-time-since-war

[2] visited Saudi Arabia: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/4/12/syrian-fm-makes-first-visit-to-saudi-arabia-since-2011

[3] discussed: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20230411-gcc-holds-consultative-meeting-to-discuss-syria-return-to-arab-league/

[4] Islamic State: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_State

[5] Caesar Act: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caesar_Syria_Civilian_Protection_Act