With Bashar al-Assad having outlasted his armed opponents, Syria’s neighbours have long since given up on trying to oust him. As Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Arab states normalise their relations with Damascus and welcome the Syrian strongman to his first Arab League summit in 13 years, Syria is no longer the regional pariah it once was – to the West’s dismay.
Syria, ravaged by a 12-year civil war and divided by a constellation of foreign forces, economic mismanagement, population displacement and political stalemate, has been pushed to the bottom of the international community’s agenda. The West, while strongly opposed to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s rehabilitation, has nonetheless become comfortable with the status-quo ante that has governed Syrian affairs since the collapse of the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate in 2019. Whereas the US was an early backer of the armed rebellion against Assad’s government, Washington now treats Syria as a counterterrorism problem. On 17 April, US special forces killed senior Islamic State leader Abd al-Hadi Mahmud al-Haji Ali during a helicopter raid in the northeast – just one of the dozens of counterterrorism operations the US has conducted in Syria this year.
Syria’s Arab neighbours, however, don’t have the luxury of ignoring what happens in the country or typecasting it as a security problem. In part due to the facts on the ground, the majority of the Arab world has slowly come to the realisation that perpetual isolation of the Syrian government is neither a wise nor a particularly effective policy. Even the Assad regime’s foremost opponents, most notably Saudi Arabia, have concluded that mending ties with Damascus – at least to an extent – holds a better chance of eliciting Assad’s cooperation on issues of mutual interest than a wholesale policy of pressure. The imperative to move in the direction of normalisation has only increased since the February earthquake in Turkey and northern Syria, which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people. As Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan remarked during the Munich Security Conference shortly after the earthquake, ‘in the Arab world there is a consensus growing that the status quo is not workable’.
The Arab World Moves on from Syria’s War
Even before the Saudi foreign minister’s comments, Middle Eastern governments were busy exploring whether a détente with Syria was possible – not necessarily because they approved of Assad personally or believed he could be turned into a reliable partner, but because the years-long policy of using diplomatic isolation and economic pressure to coerce Damascus into political reforms had few if any accomplishments to show for it. The UAE re-opened its embassy in Damascus in December 2018 after a six-year hiatus, a move quickly followed up by Bahrain. Jordan, Syria’s neighbour to the south, re-opened a major border crossing in 2018 after Syrian government forces wrested back control of the southern city of Daraa (the cradle of the anti-Assad revolution); the crossing’s closure had had significant economic ramifications for Jordanian businesses based in the border city of al-Ramtha, reportedly resulting in over 80% of stores shutting their doors due to a steep drop in commerce. Iraq, which viewed the anti-Assad rebellion warily, ended restrictions at the crossing between the Iraqi city of Albu Kamel and the Syrian city of Al-Qaim in September 2019, despite external pressure on then-Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mehdi to keep the area shuttered.
The diplomatic movement between Syria and its Arab neighbours has been even more dramatic than the economic front. In October 2021, Jordan’s King Abdullah accepted a phone call from Assad for the first time since the civil war began a decade earlier. The call was significant less for its substance than for the fact that it occurred at all; Abdullah was one of the first Arab leaders to call for Assad’s resignation after the Syrian army was placed on a war-footing and began utilising tanks and aircraft against peaceful anti-government demonstrations. The UAE, which eyed the growth and consolidation of Iranian influence in Syria warily, made a concerted decision years earlier to reach out to Assad in the hopes of coaxing him away from Tehran. UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed flew to Damascus to meet with Assad in November 2021, the most senior Emirati official to do so at the time. Assad has visited the UAE twice since then, most recently in March 2023, when he held meetings with UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and was given state honours, which included Assad’s plane receiving an escort by Emirati fighter aircraft. The Egyptians, meanwhile, welcomed Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad to Cairo in April 2023, the first such trip since 2011 and yet another sign that regional players were becoming more interested in putting relations with Damascus on a less adversarial footing.
The most consequential shift, however, involves Saudi Arabia, one of the biggest backers of the anti-Assad insurgency during the civil war’s deadliest years. No policy change moves quickly in Riyadh, but it appears as if Syria policy is an exception. In March 2023, the same month Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to resume diplomatic relations after a seven-year freeze, the Saudis announced that a similar effort was ongoing with the Syrian government. The bid was likely accelerated due to the February earthquake, which prompted Riyadh to dispatch planes carrying humanitarian assistance to Syrian government-controlled airports. Saudi Arabia and Syria arrived at an agreement in April to resume consular services in one another’s countries and to restore direct flights. To underscore the point, Syrian Foreign Minister Mekdad flew to Saudi Arabia on 12 April, the first trip by a Syrian official to the kingdom in more than a decade; Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal returned the favour with his own trip to Damascus six days later. On 9 May, Saudi Arabia and Syria officially confirmed the mutual re-opening of diplomatic facilities in one another’s countries; days earlier, the Arab League agreed by consensus to re-admit Syria after a suspension of nearly 12 years.
In part due to the facts on the ground, the majority of the Arab world has slowly come to the realisation that perpetual isolation of the Syrian government is neither a wise nor a particularly effective policy
The reasons for the Arab world’s outreach to Syria vary depending on the specific country involved, although a healthy dose of realism can explain much of the momentum. There is a general recognition in the region that while Assad is a weak head of state governing a country split between US and Kurdish forces in the northeast, Turkish forces in the north and northwest and pro-Syrian militias at key border crossing points, he nevertheless controls most of Syria’s population centres, airports and highways and all of its ports. There is no notable opposition within the Syrian government to Assad’s continued rule, or at least not enough to warrant a threat to his position, and whatever political opposition that exists on the outside doesn’t have a strong constituency within the Syrian public at large. Assad retains strong military, economic and political support from his benefactors in Iran and Russia, and despite the Russian military’s formidable challenges in Ukraine, Assad’s state visit to Moscow in March suggests Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t going to cut off that support anytime soon – saving Assad from being overthrown and solidifying the Syrian government’s position has been a significant Russian foreign policy achievement in the Middle East. Armed opposition to Assad still exists, but it’s limited to a jihadist faction hemmed into the north-western Syrian province of Idlib and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeast, which have expressed a desire for their own talks with Damascus.
Jordan and Saudi Arabia have even more of an incentive to end frosty relations with Damascus. Both countries are primary markets for the illegal captagon trade that is booming inside Syria. The Saudi and Jordanian security forces don’t have the capacity to tackle this scourge on their own and have concluded that the Syrian government needs to be brought in as a partner if they are to have any chance of stemming the drug’s flow. The fact that the Syrian security forces are directly involved in the production and distribution of captagon is either brushed aside or ignored. Assad has in effect created yet another regional problem that only he can solve.
The West’s View of the Syria Rapprochement
The US, the UK and the EU remain staunchly opposed to any reconciliation with Assad, a man who has committed unspeakable acts during the course of Syria’s civil war, including but not limited to the use of chemical weapons in highly populated areas to quash the insurgency against his rule. The collective Western position is one of begrudging acceptance: while Assad will continue to serve as Syria’s president for a long time to come, it would be a fundamental mistake to reward him for shooting, bombing, gassing and starving his way to victory. In Washington, any hint of normalisation with a war criminal is a political non-starter, particularly in the US Congress, which was the principal force behind the comprehensive Caesar Act sanctions regime.
Despite the latest regional developments, the Biden administration’s position hasn’t changed. The White House is adamant that while cross-border aid flows will continue in cooperation with the UN, diplomatic recognition and reconstruction assistance are off the table until Damascus satisfies a list of demands, most crucially UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for a ‘Syrian-led political process’ leading to the formation of a new constitution on the road to free and fair elections. The US Congress is even more hard-line than the White House; a bill mandating additional sanctions on the Syrian government and prohibiting any US funds from being used in a way that implies US normalisation of Assad’s government quickly cleared the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Even so, it’s highly unlikely that Biden administration officials and US lawmakers believe demands on political reform will ever be met. Given the facts on the ground and dwindling support for the Syrian opposition from even its traditional backers, Assad has no incentive to negotiate a political transition, which he sees as an unnecessary concession to Syrians he views unapologetically as traitors who deserve no reprieve, let alone a stake in the Syrian power structure.
The Biden administration would prefer not to sanction partners like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE for investing in Syria or financing its reconstruction, but such sanctions may be inevitable given US law
Europe has largely followed the US lead on the Syria file. Indeed, the EU’s Syria policy is almost identical to Washington’s. ‘There will be no end to sanctions, no normalisations and no support for reconstruction until a political transition is underway’, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told the European Parliament in March 2021. This position was ratified again in January 2022 by the EU Foreign Affairs Committee. One year later, during a UN Security Council debate on Syria, the French delegation reiterated the EU’s general stance: ‘Any shift in French and European positions regarding the lifting of sanctions, normalisation and reconstruction is conditional upon the regime’s commitment to a credible and inclusive political process’. Upon learning of Syria’s re-entry into the Arab League, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly emphasised London’s disapproval of the move: ‘we cannot just wish away the actions of the Assad regime over the last few years; the brutality against Syrian people cannot just be ignored. And the UK certainly won’t brush that under the carpet’.
The West and the Arab World at a Crossroads
With respect to Syria policy, the West and its partners in the Middle East are increasingly singing from a different song sheet. The former wishes to preserve and build upon the economic sanctions regime that was established years ago, with the expectation that a lack of foreign investment and reconstruction assistance will over time compel Assad to seriously re-engage with the UN-facilitated dialogue process. The latter, with different priorities and interests at play, want to distance themselves from an approach that relegates Syria to the status of an international outcast until an unlikely democratic system emerges. This juxtaposition was on display during US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s 2 May call with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, in which he advised Cairo that ‘those engaging with the Assad regime should weigh carefully how those efforts are addressing the needs of the Syrian people’.
Caught in the middle of the two poles are the Syrian people. More than 12 million, or 55 percent of Syria’s population, are food insecure. An astounding 90% of Syrians are living below the poverty line. More than 14 million have fled their homes since the outbreak of conflict in 2011 – nearly 7 million of whom remain internally displaced despite fighting between Syrian government and opposition forces plummeting since 2020, when Turkey and Russia backed a ceasefire in the Idlib region that largely froze the fighting. Estimates of Syria’s reconstruction costs vary but are usually pegged in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
Managing these differences will only become more difficult as the divergence in policy between the West and Syria’s Arab neighbours grows wider. The Biden administration would prefer not to sanction partners like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE for investing in Syria or financing its reconstruction, but such sanctions may be inevitable given US law. The Caesar Act states that the president ‘shall impose’ financial penalties on any foreign person who ‘knowingly provides significant financial, material or technological support to, or knowingly engages in a significant transaction with’ the Syrian government or an entity owned or controlled by it. The Syrian government’s extensive involvement in the Syrian economy means that any financial assistance would presumably incur repercussions from Washington. The US sanctions regime is likely to deter any large-scale foreign investment in Syria for the foreseeable future.
However, investment from the Gulf states cannot be entirely excluded over the long term, particularly if economic activity is crucial to making diplomatic rapprochement with Damascus a success. In such a contingency, the West will have to determine if sanctions are appropriate – and if so, whether the costs of a breach with partners in the Gulf are worth the benefit of sticking to principle. Over time, the US and Europe could discover that maintaining a stringent sanctions regime on Syria in perpetuity, on behalf of wholly unrealistic goals, is an unsustainable or unnecessary obstacle in pursuit of its wider objectives in the region.