After Shunning Assad for Years, the Arab World Is Returning Him to the Fold

Saudi Arabia, like many other Arab states, had refused to engage with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria for more than a decade after he violently crushed his country’s Arab Spring uprising — bombing, gassing and torturing his own people in a conflict that morphed into a long-running war that is still in progress.

So when Syria’s foreign minister arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, it seemed to put to rest any notion that Mr. al-Assad’s regime would remain isolated in the Middle East.

The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, welcomed Mr. al-Assad’s emissary, Faisal Mekdad, with a smile. In a joint statement, the countries said they had discussed steps to facilitate “the return of Syria to its Arab fold,” and would start procedures to resume consular services and flights. Also this week, Tunisia formally re-established diplomatic relations with Syria, naming an ambassador to Damascus.

“Assad remaining in power and Arab normalization with Damascus seems to be a foregone conclusion at this point,” said Anna Jacobs, a senior Gulf analyst for the International Crisis Group. “The U.S. and Europe have made it clear that they do not agree with Arab states normalizing with the Assad regime, but there doesn’t seem to be much they can do about it.”

On Friday, officials from the Gulf countries, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq will meet in Saudi Arabia to discuss Syria, attempting to coordinate policy ahead of an Arab League summit next month hosted by Saudi Arabia. A Syrian representative could be invited for the first time since the Syrian conflict began 12 years ago.

Arab states cut ties with Mr. al-Assad years ago as he laid siege to entire neighborhoods and towns in an effort to defeat the rebels, oversaw a prison system rife with torture and mass executions and sent millions of refugees fleeing to neighboring countries.

There is little consensus among them about how they should deal with Syria — and what concessions they might demand in return for rebuilding relations — but the direction is clear.

A gradual shift actually began years ago, as the Syrian war dragged on and Mr. al-Assad clung to power. Some regional rulers saw the reset of relations with him as inevitable as early as 2018, when the United Arab Emirates re-established diplomatic ties.

U.S. pressure helped stop more countries from following suit, said Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, head of policy for the Syrian American Council, a Washington-based advocacy group that opposes normalization with the Assad regime. In 2019, the United States passed legislation imposing additional sanctions on the Syrian government, creating another barrier.

And crucially, the region’s political heavyweights, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, were still reluctant to engage with Mr. al-Assad.

Saudi Arabia had initially supported some Syrian rebel groups fighting against Mr. al-Assad’s forces, supplying them with funding and weapons in covert coordination with the United States and hosting Syrian opposition members in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. The kingdom’s officials viewed Mr. al-Assad as a pawn of Iran, their longtime regional rival and one of Mr. al-Assad’s closest allies.

Since then, the Middle East has gone through a geopolitical reordering.

A series of Iran-backed attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — combined with a perception that the United States was either incapable of, or uninterested in, protecting its Gulf partners from Iran — pushed both countries to deal with Iran more directly. Their effort to de-escalate tensions and shield their economies culminated last month in Saudi Arabia and Iran striking a deal to resume diplomatic relations after seven years of open enmity.

Now, instead of trying to isolate Iran, Saudi Arabia is pursuing a multifaceted strategy that mixes engagement with Iran with efforts to counter its influence across the region, including in Syria — where Iran has supported Mr. al-Assad throughout the war. This week, Saudi officials traveled to Yemen for peace talks with the Houthis, Iran-backed rebels who have been fighting a Saudi-led coalition since 2015.

Middle Eastern states have various interests in Syria.

Millions of Syrian refugees fled to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Some countries, like Iraq, would like to open trade routes through Syria. Others would like to curb illegal ‌trade; the drug Captagon, an amphetamine, is trafficked from Syria to the rest of the Middle East, with a large market in Saudi Arabia. ‌

“Every country in the neighborhood has outstanding issues with Syria that need to be discussed and negotiated,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Even political figures in Turkey — for many years the most stalwart backer of the rebels seeking to drive Mr. al-Assad from power — have signaled a potential turnaround. Senior Turkish officials, including the defense minister and the intelligence chief, met with their Syrian counterparts in recent months.

The change in tone is underpinned by Turkish domestic politics; many Turks have grown frustrated with the large number of Syrians in their country. In the run-up to the Turkish presidential election scheduled for May 14, all four candidates have spoken about finding ways for Syrians to return home.

The prospect of losing safe havens in Turkey or the Gulf states is a frightening one for many Syrians, particularly those who oppose Mr. al-Assad.

“We meet with the various regional and international parties and remind everyone of the dangers of hastening unconditional normalization with the criminal regime of Bashar al-Assad,” said Riyad Hijab, a former Syrian prime minister and the most senior politician to defect during the war. He is now based in Qatar, one of the few Arab countries that still strongly opposes re-establishing ties with Syria.

The Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman, said on state television on Thursday that his country won’t take any steps toward Mr. al-Assad without a political solution to the conflict there.

“The Syrian people are still displaced; innocent people are in prison,” he said.

A devastating earthquake that hit northwestern Syria in February turned out to be a political boon for Mr. al-Assad, triggering fears from his opponents that it could be the start of his reintegration in the international community with virtually no consequences for abuses during the war.

In the aftermath of the quake, Arab officials met with Mr. al-Assad and sent planeloads of aid. And the United States eased banking restrictions for six months to allow relief to flow freely to Syria.

But so far, there is no unified Arab position on Syria, Mr. Hijab said. Each country is following its own calculus.

On Wednesday, Mr. Mekdad and Prince Faisal discussed humanitarian aid, prerequisites for Syrian refugees to return to their homes safely and cooperation to combat drug trafficking, according to the joint statement. They also addressed the need for the Syrian state to end “external interference,” likely a veiled reference to Iran.

Egypt appears hesitant to embrace Mr. al-Assad. But earlier this month, Mr. Mekdad met with his Egyptian counterpart in Cairo — the first visit to Egypt by a Syrian foreign minister in more than a decade.

As the attitude toward Syria in the region has shifted, the administration of President Biden has taken a more hands-off approach.

The United States has no plans to normalize relations with Syria itself or to lift the sanctions it has imposed. In a briefing last month, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Barbara Leaf, said that Mr. al-Assad’s government “deserves to be treated as the rogue that it is.”

Nevertheless, if Arab states are reaching out to Mr. al-Assad, the American strategy is to urge them to “get something for that engagement” in return, she said. She cited ending the Captagon drug trade from Syria as one demand countries should make.

Other requests could include reducing the Iranian military presence in Syria and setting conditions that allow Syrian refugees to safely return home — although American officials are skeptical that Mr. al-Assad would comply.

“Assad is famous for promising but not delivering,” said James Jeffrey, who was the U.S. special representative on Syria during the Trump administration.

In March, Mr. Jeffrey along with a group that included former American officials sent a letter to President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken that accused the American government of “neglecting Syria policy.” It criticized the Biden administration for not forcefully dissuading Arab nations from re-establishing relations with Syria.

“Opposing regime normalization in word only is not enough, as tacitly allowing it is shortsighted and damaging to any hope for regional security and stability,” the letter said.

Anwar al-Bunni, a Syrian human rights lawyer based in Germany, said it did not surprise him when countries like the Emirates and Saudi Arabia — authoritarian monarchies that have crushed domestic dissent — changed their approach to Syria.

“They were always against establishing democracy in Syria,” he said. “The difference is that yesterday they were wearing a mask. Today they removed it.”

Hwaida Saad, Vivian Yee and Ben Hubbard contributed reporting.

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