Assad Is Friends With the Arab World Again

Foreign Policy, 01.06.2021
Anchal Vohra, columnista basado en Beirut y corresponsal independiente sobre el Medio Oriente

After 10 years of war, Syria’s erstwhile enemies are welcoming it back in from the cold

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sits and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah at the Presidential Palace in Baabda-Beirut, on July 30, 2010. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

A vote in Syria is neither secret nor sacrosanct. On May 26, as the regime-orchestrated elections were held, there was little doubt over the return of the incumbent. President Bashar al-Assad would win a fourth term; no one in the country dwelled on the foregone conclusion.

“The election, it’s a joke,” said Mohammad from the Midan neighborhood of Damascus. Ahmad, a Syrian lawyer who fled Deir Ezzor, Syria, for Sweden, called it a “fake election,” devoid of legitimacy in the absence of international observers. Yara, an Alawite Syrian who sought refuge in Italy, described it as “a puppet show” that Assad was pulling the strings of. All three asked to be quoted with pseudonyms, fearing a vindictive regime and the long arm of its security apparatus.

For 10 years, Assad used brute force to quell an uprising that started with calls for liberty, democracy, and freedom. Those in regime-held areas are now preoccupied with how to procure bread, feed their families, and survive the economic collapse that has worsened over the last year. Those who have since fled Syria are rushing to integrate into host countries to reduce their chances of deportation. Syrians everywhere have given up hope that democracy is a short-term possibility for their country or that they will soon be rid of a president who has proved willing to turn much of his country into rubble just to stay in power.

Assad, meanwhile, smiled as he cast his vote in Douma near Damascus. While Syrians had no expectations for the election, Assad used the campaign—including his slogan, “hope through work”—to signal his regime’s shift in focus from war to reconstruction. By holding the elections, he tried to show the world that Syrian institutions are functioning well and that a country that can conduct safe elections is also safe place for refugees to return to.

It is, of course, a charade—but one to which Arab countries, especially in the Gulf, seem sympathetic. Syria’s Arab friends are even starting, now that the elections have strengthened Assad’s grip on power, to lobby for a loosening of sanctions in the United States. Assad’s isolation is already ending in the Arab world; the question remains whether rapprochement will follow elsewhere.

Until a few years ago, Assad was still persona non grata in the Arab world. Now he is almost entirely rehabilitated. It seems only a matter of time until he returns as a member of good standing to the Arab League, which suspended Syria’s membership in 2011. Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, and Sudan had always been his supporters and sought revocation of the ban. But now Syria’s erstwhile opponents, which once rallied against Assad, are also treating him as an ally against the ambitions of non-Arab countries in the region, including Turkey and Iran.

The United Arab Emirates and Egypt have consolidated ties with Syria. The UAE unlocked the doors to its embassy in Damascus last year. But even during Syria’s war the UAE offered refuge to Syrian elites, including business leaders and even Assad’s family members. It provided aid to the rebels but steered clear of providing arms. As Russia militarily backed the regime and the United States retreated from the region, ensuring Assad’s survival, the Emiratis saw him as a useful member of an anti-Turkey and anti-Muslim Brotherhood coalition. “Arab states that are worried about their own populations becoming restive and turning to armed opposition against them,” said Nicholas Heras, a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute, are now “interested in learning authoritarian tradecraft from the Assad regime.”

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has made overtures to lure Assad away from his strategic partnership with Iran. Arab countries have also found common cause with Assad in taking on the political Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab organization that organized much of the opposition against the regime and presents the most lethal threat to the continuation of many monarchies in the Gulf. Syria’s Arab friends are also hoping to team up to restrict the influence of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, historically a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Saudis and Emiratis want to pay for Syria’s reconstruction and seek intelligence cooperation with Syria’s security apparatus to contain their domestic political Islamists, as well as to use the financial assistance as leverage to contain Iran’s footprint in Arab lands. Sami Hamdi, a United Kingdom-based geopolitical risk consultant, said Assad is already frustrated at having his agency undermined by Moscow and even Tehran. More allies would give him room to play them against each other. “Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has increasingly begun to adopt an Arab nationalist rhetoric and believes that it might be possible to break the bonds between Iran and its Arab allies by appealing to ethnocentric Arab commonalities,” Hamdi said. “Turkey’s expansion has also altered the priorities of the Gulf states and rendered Assad a potential asset.”

The detente between Syria and its former Arab rivals may have been a long time in the works. In 2017, on a visit to Syria, I was told by several Syrian officials that their “Arab brothers” would pay the millions needed for reconstruction. It had baffled me then, as some of the Saudi-supported groups were still fighting the regime in areas near Damascus. A year later, Lebanese sources close to the Syrian regime suggested to me that the Saudis had started intelligence cooperation with Assad. If it was then too early to believe them, it isn’t now. Early last month, a meeting between the head of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Directorate, Lt. Gen. Khalid al-Humaidan, and his Syrian counterpart, Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, indicated a rapprochement. Qatar is the only Arab country holding out against Assad, but experts say that even Doha understands there isn’t much to gain by resisting the inevitable, although officially Qatar maintains its disapproval.

Assad’s ostracization in the Arab world may be over, but that will not necessarily translate into reconstruction funds. Saudis and Emiratis had influence over former U.S. President Donald Trump but have struggled to remain in the good graces of his successor Joe Biden.

Giorgio Cafiero, the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy, said he did not think the Biden administration would punish Arab governments for accepting Syria back into the Arab League. But he added that he also did not think Biden would lift sanctions under the Caesar Act and allow for investment in Syria. “As a result of these crippling U.S.-imposed sanctions on Damascus, I think Iran will be in a strong position to exploit the situation and further consolidate its influence in Syria,” Cafiero said. “This is a major reason why some states in the Gulf Cooperation Council are not happy that the Biden administration continues imposing these Trump-era sanctions on Damascus.”

A growing number of Washington observers also contend that as the Biden administration is keen to pivot to Asia and do as little as possible in the Middle East, it has decided to hand over most of the decision-making to regional actors, so long as it can secure its own and interests. “The U.S. has already resigned itself to the reality that there are no viable ways to oust the Assad regime and is now exploring the viability of creating an ‘Iraq model’ in which the Kurds are granted autonomy and thereby act as U.S. leverage on the politics in Damascus, in the same manner Iraqi Kurdistan acts as U.S. leverage on Baghdad,” Hamdi added.

The very fact that elections were held in a divided Syria displayed that Assad might be consenting to the status quo, a three-way split, if that ends his pariah status. In the end, just as the West prioritized stability over democracy in other Arab nations, Assad and his allies hope that the United States might look the other way as they rebuild the war-torn nation. But it’s not clear yet whether the Biden administration will even consider a gradual approach to easing sanctions in return for reform. Either way, Arab nations that are engrossed in their own security concerns and nurturing their own regional aspirations have their own reasons to continue standing by Assad.

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