Ten years after the outbreak of the civil war and the beginning of its international isolation, Syria is experiencing a normalization momentum. Syrian ministers and officials have resumed participating in bilateral meetings with their regional counterparts, and Damascus has been included in the talks on Lebanon’s energy crisis. Furthermore, in the past months, a series of symbolic gestures proved that many Arab leaders are now ready to re-engage with Syria. The last of such events was the visit paid by UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed to President Bashar al-Assad on November 9th. These developments are particularly relevant because they signal several Arab states’ intention to go all the way in normalizing relations with Syria, despite the formal opposition from both the US and EU. In a period characterized by the redefinition of Washington’s engagement towards the Middle East, key US allies have taken the lead in rehabilitating Bashar al-Assad.
Recognizing Assad’s endurance
Most Arab states cut their diplomatic relations with Damascus in 2011, a few months after the beginning of the protests in Dara’a and the ensuing repression by regime forces. In November 2011, Syria was suspended from the Arab League, and for more than six years, its government remained almost completely isolated at the international level. However, as the tide of the civil war moved in the regime’s favour, countries in the region started to acknowledge that Syria’s future would include Bashar al-Assad. Between late 2018 and early 2019, the UAE and Bahrain reopened their embassies in Damascus. Sudan’s former President Omar al-Bashir made an unprecedented visit to Syria, and regional leaders started to discuss the possibility of readmitting the country to the Arab League. However, despite this initial opening, the process stalled due to the Trump administration’s tough stance on Syria and the outburst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The process of Syria’s return to the Arab fold has recently accelerated. Over the past few months, Syrian ministers and officials have resumed holding meetings with their regional counterparts, and Syria has been integrated into the regional talks on Lebanon’s energy crisis. The United Arab Emirates and Jordan have been at the forefront of this attempt at rehabilitating Assad on the regional scene. On the one hand, Amman has played a pivotal role in laying the groundwork for Syria’s inclusion in Lebanon’s energy deal and has started pushing Washington to ease the terms of the Caesar Act. The phone call King Abdullah II had with the Syrian president at the beginning of October, the first in ten years, is further evidence of the improving relations between the two countries. On the other hand, in October, the UAE announced a deal to enhance economic cooperation with Syria, while in early November, the Emirati Foreign Minister travelled to Damascus, once again for the first time in a decade. Other countries in the region have also shown interest in re-establishing ties with Damascus. In late September, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry met his Syrian counterpart on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, while Saudi Arabia has started considering a reconciliation with Assad. At the same time, talks for the readmission of Syria into the Arab League are ongoing, and this possibility is considered by many as imminent. So far, Qatar has been the only country to express opposition to the prospect, but Doha’s resistance might not be sufficient to prevent this outcome.
Several factors have contributed to determining Syria’s normalization momentum. First, the inauguration of the Biden presidency contributed to changing the political environment in which Assad’s readmission to the Arab world would unfold. The Middle East has become less of a priority for the US administration, and Biden has adopted a hands-off approach to Syria. Second, the recovery from the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic has become a priority for almost every government in the Middle East. For instance, the re-establishment of ties with Damascus is a pressing issue for Jordan, a country whose economy has suffered profoundly from the consequences of the pandemic and the backlash caused by the presence of some 650,000 registered Syrian refugees in its territory. The political and economic partnership that Amman established with Cairo and Baghdad – the so-called “New Levant” – would benefit in the medium and long term from Syria’s participation. Third, Lebanon’s crisis represents a source of concern for many Arab countries and especially for Jordan. Damascus’ reintegration in the Arab fold might be pivotal for revamping Lebanon’s broken economy. Finally, the normalization of ties with Damascus represents an additional step in the path towards regional stabilization. It would unfold in a period characterized by regional détente and the dialogue channels recently established between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The road ahead for Syria
For the Syrian government, the recent developments are particularly relevant at both the political and economic levels. They mark the end of Assad’s international isolation and represent an opportunity to foster economic cooperation with a view on the upcoming reconstruction. The discussions on the energy deal with Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon were a critical step in this sense. Aside from sanctioning its return to regional bargaining tables, they provided Damascus with an opportunity to restore economic ties with the rest of the region. At a technical level, the project still presents a few critical points. After ten years of war and mismanagement, the Syrian government will have to carry out extensive work to repair its infrastructure in the South. Nevertheless, Syria’s participation in the deal is already evidence of a changed regional environment.
What remains unclear in this scenario is how the United States will react to Syria’s reintegration into the Arab fold. On the one hand, Washington has provided King Abdullah with the political cover necessary to push forward the normalization of relations with Syria. It has indirectly sponsored the inclusion of Damascus in Lebanon’s energy deal and has closed an eye to Jordanian and Emirati plans to restore economic ties with Syria. On the other hand, Washington has expressed concern about the meeting between Assad and the Emirati Foreign Minister and has declared its opposition to Syria’s readmission in the Arab League. So far, the Biden administration has shown no intention of revoking the Caesar Act, but the absence of a well-defined Syria policy risks endorsing the normalization. Nevertheless, how the process will unfold in the following months depends to a large extent on what Washington will decide.
Albeit relevant at the international level, Damascus’ return to the Arab fold will not necessarily improve the situation on the ground. It will not provide a political solution for the conflict, nor will it define the future of the over six million refugees who left the country over the past ten years. In the medium-term, the normalization might sustain the reconstruction, but it will not solve the dysfunctions of the Syrian economy. What is clear is that it will enshrine Assad’s hold on power and mark the end of the quest for justice and accountability for ten years of war and unprecedented violence. Until today, the normalization process has mainly regarded countries in the region, but Syria’s readmission to Interpol’s communication network in October signals further steps could also be taken at the international level. Against this backdrop, the rehabilitation of the Assad regime might be just around the corner.