Why you should care
Regional neighbors are slowly rekindling relations with Assad. Are they playing with fire?
Umar Lateef Misgar is a freelance journalist and Ph.D. researcher based in Kashmir.
Inspired by the Arab Spring, Syrians rose up to demand an end to President Bashar Assad’s regime in 2011. Facing a state crackdown, the protesters soon resorted to military means in a bid to overthrow the decadeslong brutal dictatorship. The armed opposition, the loosely organized Free Syrian Army, went on to gain military and financial patronage from Assad’s regional rivals, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Turkey, among others. In Jordan, a joint military operations command center was set up, manned by military advisers from across the region as well as the United States, which organized and armed the rebel forces operating in southern Syria.
This Arab response to the Syrian crisis was shaped by opportunistic power dynamics, geostrategic calculations, sectarian loyalties or a combination of all three. Also marked by the severance of diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, many of the neighboring Arab countries quickly demanded that Assad let the Syrians decide their political future. Compared to efforts by Iran and Russia in favor of the regime, the anti-Assad effort remained highly divided, with different countries often backing rival rebel groups. Now, after years of fierce fighting and devastation inside Syria, the armed opposition has nearly disappeared, and Assad is in control of almost the entire country.
An increasing realization of the Syrian regime’s staying power has prompted the capitals across the Arab world to start trying to mend fences with Assad, who stands accused of heinous war crimes and crimes against humanity. Examples include the UAE recently reopening its embassy in Damascus, and the Egyptian Parliament’s call on the Arab League to reinstate Damascus after years of suspension. Also, in October last year, Jordan reopened a vital commercial border crossing, Nasib, with Syria.
A return to normalcy in Syria will not be possible without addressing the systematic and widespread violations that have taken place over the last eight years.
Lama Fakih, deputy director of Middle East and North Africa division, Human Rights Watch
The U.S. has tried to push back and continues to have the support of the House of Saud and Qatar. But they are up against a few strong motivations for the rapprochement. First, neighboring countries want a chance to dive into the lucrative reconstruction projects that the war-ravaged country will invariably need. Then there’s the need to counter Iran’s growing regional influence. In past years, Tehran has managed to make extensive inroads into Syria and expand the establishment and patronage of informal militia networks across the region.
Besides, as successive administrations seem to be gradually pulling back from the Arab world, its allies in the region can no longer solely rely on Washington to safeguard their interests. In this scenario, Arab states are bound to enhance individual capabilities and forge new alliances with states other than the U.S., particularly Russia, and Syria is a key link toward that end.
Also, while the firms based in Russia and Iran have already secured some major contracts for reconstruction projects inside Syria, the Arab Gulf must be vying for a piece of the pie too. The war-torn country could also heavily benefit from the Gulf largesse in the form of reconstruction aid. Recently speaking to the Carnegie Middle East Center, Su’ad Jarbawi, Middle East regional director at Mercy Corps, predicted that Arab Gulf states will, in fact, take a lead in financing reconstruction in Syria. “More important, this is an opportunity for these states to renegotiate Iran’s influence in Syria and expand their interests in the region,” Jarbawi added.
This gradual normalization can also have a positive impact on repatriation of the almost 5 million Syrian refugees who remain scattered in the region, including in Jordan and Egypt, many of whom have been living in squalid conditions for years, crammed inside refugee camps and regularly subjected to xenophobic violence.
Considering Assad’s horrific human rights record, especially since 2011, one is bound to cringe at Arab countries extending an olive branch. In a bid to suppress the uprising, the Syrian regime has been repeatedly accused of carrying out extensive human rights abuses, including war crimes and crimes against humanity against its own people. This not only puts the credentials of Assad and his supporters in leading the country forward in serious doubt but could also hamper transition toward any sustainable peace. A path to normalcy for Syria “will not be possible without addressing the systematic and widespread violations that have taken place over the last eight years,” says Lama Fakih, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “The same officers responsible for war crimes and other violations are still heading up intelligence branches,” she adds, noting that Arab countries should push the Syrian government to reform its security sector to boost chances for stability.
But this appears to be of no concern for the Arab governments cozying up to Assad, many of which are themselves fraught from accusations of human rights abuses and resist any calls for meaningful democratic change. Assad, meanwhile, seems to be firmly back in business, but his country will remain a tinderbox until meaningful justice is delivered to the people of this country scarred by unfathomable violence, mostly at the hands of a state that refuses to compromise an inch toward even minimum reform or accountability.