Normalising Relations with Syria: How Significant?
Normalising Relations with Syria: How Significant?
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad arrives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to attend the Arab League summit the following day. Saudi Arabia, 18 May 2023. SANA/Handout via REUTERS
Commentary / Middle East & North Africa 6 minutes

Normalising Relations with Syria: How Significant?

The League of Arab States welcomed President Bashar al-Assad to its May summit, reinstating Syria’s membership, which it had suspended in 2011. The regime may look to have shrugged off the international opprobrium it earned for its brutality in repressing its opponents. But has it?

When Arab countries admitted Syria back into the League of Arab States in May, it looked as if the regime of President Bashar al-Assad had pulled off a successful bid for rehabilitation after years of brutally suppressing its opponents. By welcoming Syria back into the Arab fold, Arab leaders who once pushed for Assad’s ouster are stepping back from attempts to pressure him. Yet the Syrian conflict grinds on, and today these Arab states wield less leverage than other foreign powers that maintain sanctions, have a military presence on the ground or both. Moreover, the Arab states’ main tool of influence – investing money – faces major obstacles and yields only limited returns.

The League suspended Syria’s membership in late 2011, after it had offered several proposals to end the violence following Assad’s decision to crack down with extreme force on a popular uprising. While the regime signed off on most of these plans and allowed League observers to visit Syria, it continued to escalate its violence against protesters. Some Arab countries were appalled by the level of cruelty and how Assad made a mockery of their efforts to scale it back; and some used Syria’s banishment as a message of displeasure with the regime allowing Iran to increase its influence in the country. Syria would remain in the political wilderness for twelve years, enjoying support – indeed, critical military backing – only from Russia and Iran, as well as from Iran’s non-state allies such as Hizbollah in Lebanon.

Arab states see that none of their differences with the [Assad] regime have been resolved through ostracism and Western sanctions.

They are motivated by several factors. These include Iran’s growing role in Syria, directly and through allied Lebanese, Iraqi and Afghan militias; the enduring weakness of the Syrian state, which keeps it hostage to Russia and Iran; and unease about continuing to shun a fellow Arab leader whose tenuous hold on power they perceive as having contributed to the rise of jihadist groups, the large quantities of drugs emanating (with regime complicity) from Syria, and the socio-economic impact of the long-term presence of Syrian refugees in the Arab world. None of these issues is a top national security concern for the Gulf Arab states that have pushed for normalising relations, but together they are important enough to warrant a rethink. In the absence of indications that the U.S. or European governments are prepared to modify their Syria policy, or even make Syria a priority, they feel encouraged to choose their own path.

Officials in Arab capitals admit that they do not expect the approach to yield immediate dividends, except perhaps regarding the trafficking of Captagon, a drug that is wreaking havoc in the Gulf. Damascus appears to have agreed to curb the illicit trade, which is reportedly a leading source of income for key elements of both the regime and forces fighting on its behalf; one day after Syria’s return to the Arab League, the Jordanian air force reportedly bombed a drug factory in southern Syria, an event Syria’s official media downplayed or ignored despite the clear violation of national sovereignty. Otherwise, though, the regime has no record of budging in the face of either domestic opposition or external pressure, other than from its protectors. In 2013, it agreed to have its chemical weapons program dismantled under the credible threat of U.S. military strikes, but, in the end, it secretly retained part of the program.

The Arab League itself is largely impotent in managing regional affairs, due mainly to its deep internal divisions.

If Damascus welcomed the Arab states’ move as vindication – an acknowledgment by erstwhile adversaries that they have lost – it has only limited grounds for cheer. The Arab League itself is largely impotent in managing regional affairs, due mainly to its deep internal divisions. (Arab states were divided even over the decision to readmit Syria, but not to the point that the dissenters used their veto power.) While Gulf states wielded clout early in the Syrian civil war, it receded dramatically in recent years, eclipsed by the U.S. and Turkish military presence, as well as Western sanctions, plus of course the entry of Russian, Iranian and Iranian-backed forces. The recalibration of Arab states’ policy toward Syria might lead other non-Western capitals – in Africa or Asia, for example – to re-engage Damascus, but beyond the symbolic significance of such moves, none of those countries has much or any influence in Syria.

Nor can Assad expect to gain real benefit from the Arab states. If he believes that this rapprochement could lead Western capitals to scale back sanctions and thus allow Gulf countries to invest heavily in Syria’s reconstruction, he is almost certainly mistaken. It may even do the opposite, because their move has precipitated a bipartisan effort in the U.S. Congress to further strengthen sanctions. No Gulf country is likely to want to spend significant sums in support of his regime. Syria is far from their top priority, and it offers poor returns on investment. They cannot realistically hope to compete with the influence Iran has built through years of military engagement. Western sanctions limit potential economic gains, and U.S. sanctions in particular impose major legal barriers and political costs. Moreover, investing large amounts in a Syria with a devastated infrastructure, an impoverished population with little purchasing power, a predatory regime and dismal security in the areas it nominally controls would be like pouring money into a bottomless pit. Without substantial changes to the way Syria is governed, the country will remain an economic basket case, as well as the site of a humanitarian disaster, for years to come, leaving Assad and his cronies unscathed and a large part of the population food-insecure.

Türkiye … appears to be taking a more conditional approach to normalisation than Arab states.

Nor, rhetoric aside, can Arab states meaningfully help the regime recover parts of the north that it lost during the war, thereby restoring the country’s territorial integrity. In addition to the sanctions holding back its economic recovery, getting this land back is the regime’s second main concern. The swathe of territory outside its control, with its long borders with Iraq and Turkey, holds most of Syria’s natural resources – oil, water and wheat – as well as millions of displaced people, thousands of paramilitary and rebel fighters, and jihadists of various shades. Turkish soldiers patrol parts of it, and the U.S. and Russia have troops on the ground in other parts. Any attempt to get any of it back will require either a regime offensive backed by Russia and Iran that would run up against Turkish and U.S. resistance, or a negotiated deal between the regime and either Türkiye or the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF leader visited the United Arab Emirates in May in an apparent Emirati attempt to mediate, but both Kurdish-led and Syrian opposition forces present in these areas are unlikely to acquiesce to a regime return without international guarantees for their safety, which no external actor may be willing or able to offer. Türkiye, for its part, appears to be taking a more conditional approach to normalisation than Arab states; overall, the gaps between its positions and those of Damascus remain wide, and Ankara has little incentive to compromise for now.

The Arab states’ initiative may do little to change the geopolitical equation in which Syria finds itself, but it could have second-order effects. Readmitting Syria to the Arab League without a major concession from Damascus has undermined even the potential for a future coordinated process based on a collective bargaining position. That said, the UN-led political process has been largely ineffective, if not moribund, for years and it is far from clear that such a collective position in reality could ever have unblocked it, given Assad’s intransigence. Just as importantly, millions of Syrian refugees fear that Arab states bringing Assad in from the cold may come at their expense – that they will be forcibly repatriated, especially from Lebanon but also from Jordan, to face risk of detention or death at the hands of a vindictive regime. Even Western countries like Denmark that have long pushed to declare Syria safe for refugee return may feel emboldened in this pursuit. Ideally, countries sheltering Syria refugees would make it explicitly clear that they do not expect them to return to Syria until their safety can be assured. These countries should be clear-eyed that return is unlikely to be safe as long as Assad is in power.

For now, Syria’s readmission to the Arab League is significant in the recalibration it illustrates in Gulf capitals, but how much it matters more broadly remains unclear, given the obstacles to wider changes. While the normalisation wave shows the effectiveness of Damascus’s survival strategy, its narrow support base, its incomplete control of Syria and the unstable geopolitical environment suggest that neither a negotiated end to the war nor true rehabilitation for the regime is likely anytime soon.   


Senior Adviser for Dialogue Promotion
Program Director, Middle East and North Africa

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