The Arabs Are Back on Their Road to Damascus

The growing lack of US interest in the Middle East has prompted several Arab capitals that had broken with Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria to undertake a normalisation of their relations with his regime. All the more so as the prevailing diagnosis around the region is that he will remain in power for a good while yet.

Damascus, 17 July 2021. Bashar Al-Assad arriving at the swearing-in ceremony after his controversial re-election
Syrian presidency/Facebook

Have we been observing over the last few months a radical recomposition of the political landscape in the Middle East? Many signs tend in any case to indicate that time and events are eroding alliances which seemed quite solid. The Syrian dossier is proof of this. Regarded as the pariah of the region ever since 2011 when it launched the fierce repression of an oppositional movement that had become a countrywide armed revolt, the incumbent regime now sees its Arab “brethren” rethinking their position in positive terms. President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s Egypt, another regime controlled by the military, has been arguing in favour of this rehabilitation for several years. Today, few seem prepared to challenge such a scenario, and the return of Damascus to the Arab League is likely to be no more than a matter of months at the most. In the Persian Gulf, several Sunni monarchies, which for some months had been backing various factions of the armed or political opposition, have done an about-face. And the first signs of this are not new. The United Arab Emirates, staunch advocates of the counter-revolution at the time of the “Arab Spring” with its democratic aspirations which they viewed with outright hostility, had already reopened their embassy in the Syrian capital on 27 December 2018, immediately imitated by Bahrain. Saudi Arabia, however, the Gulf heavyweight, had not yet wished to follow suit, or had not yet dared to do so.

Jordan, rapprochement pacesetter

Since this summer, the tendency to rehabilitate Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria has been building momentum. And it is through the efforts in this direction of its most discreet Arab neighbour, the Kingdom of Jordan, that the most spectacular progress has been made. King Abdullah II waited until US President Joe Biden had taken office to make his move. The time was long past when the Hashemite monarch demanded Assad’s departure in December 2011: today, on the contrary, he is pressing the USA, of which he has always been a faithful ally, to stop putting pressure on the Syrian potentate whom he again considers respectable.

In July 2021, on the occasion of his first visit to Joe Biden in Washington, the King of Jordan sought to convince the US President not to apply the sanctions contained in the “Caesar Act” passed by Congress in December 2019 and which took effect in June 2020, under Donald Trump’s presidency. This law provided for sanctions against individuals, entities or companies which had economic relations with Damascus. In the event, Jordan was asking for a dispensation to carry out a regional project: the regular provision to Lebanon, where the economy is in a shambles, of Egyptian natural gas via Jordan and… Syria. Following this conversation, the King gave an interview to CNN to reveal his new way of thinking: “The Syrian regime is here to stay,” he declared (…) “Better to move the dialogue forward in coordinated fashion than to leave it as it is.”

In September, the Jordanians had many ministerial and security-focused contacts with Syrian authorities. And, above all, on 3 October 2021, King Abdullah, for the first time—officially, at least—had a phone conversation with Bashar Al-Assad. “This rapprochement is a matter of realpolitik, where there is no room for moral considerations,” Oraib Al-Rantwi, director of the Al-Quds Centre for political studies in Amman, explained in Le Monde on 6 October 2021. “There are no signs of regime change in Syria. Assad will stay in power and we must deal with Syria, our neighbour. There is also a regional readjustment going on, involving major changes, such as the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.”

“The US sanctions have not been lifted”

Joe Biden granted the Jordanian request not to apply sanctions on the delivery of Egyptian gas to Lebanon via Syria. But the US does not expect its Arab allies to deduce from this gesture that it is preparing to declare the Caesar Act null and void. The Biden administration is well aware that that law was passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress. “What we have not done and what we do not intend to do is to express any support for efforts to normalise relations or rehabilitate Mr. Assad or lifted a single sanction on Syria or changed our position to oppose the reconstruction of Syria, until there is irreversible progress toward a political solution.”

Statements of this kind do not convince everyone in the Middle East. “The Biden administration has said that it will not normalise relations with Assad, but does not appear any longer to be dissuading Arab partners from doing so;” David Schenker decoded for Newsweek on 12 October 2021. Until January 2021, he was Assistant Secretary of State for Middle Eastern Affairs and is now senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Caesar Act sanctions, if applied, may prevent Arab states from resuming ‘normal’ relations, including trade, with Assad’s Syria. But the increasingly senior [Arab] engagements are undermining the isolation of the Assad regime and what is left of the Trump-era policy of pressuring the regime. Until now, this policy has prevented the Assad regime from achieving a full victory, As Arab states move to re-embrace Assad, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain the sanctions.”

Thus, the United States is cultivating ambiguity. “If the Biden administration,” writes Anthony Samrani in L’Orient—Le Jour on 21 October 2021, “continues to demand Bashar Al-Assad’s departure and maintains that its position in the matter will not change, it is nonetheless not opposed to a rapprochement between Amman, its ally, and Damascus. Washington seems to feel it is in its interest to let Damascus set foot in the Arab fold without, for the moment, paving a way back onto the international scene.”

The ambiguity of the US position cannot hide the fact that Syria is breaking out of its diplomatic isolation. A sign of the times: during the last session of the UN General Assembly in September 2021, no less than ten foreign ministers of Arab countries met with their Syrian counterpart. For the first time in a decade. And that is not all: Damascus is not just making headway in the Arab world, as is shown by its forthcoming inclusion in Interpol’s information exchange system, whence it was ousted in 2012. This return came about without any fanfare, but it is more than symbolic.

Who really wanted the downfall of that regime?

Some people will say, of course: here is a regime accused of countless war crimes, from massive bombings of civilian targets (hospitals, schools, markets, etc.) to the use of chemical weapons, and including the systematic torture of prisoners by the thousands, crimes that have driven millions of citizens into exile, and yet this regime is heading, in all impunity, toward a return to the community of nations. This indignation makes sense. But are we forgetting that the United States, whether presided over by Barack Obama, Donald Trump or Joe Biden, has ever sought to bring down that regime? The armed forces deployed in Syria were mostly dedicated to fighting the only terrorist group there, the Islamic State Organisation (ISIS), whose bloody exploits petrified every tenant of the White House, as well as—and we must not forget this—all the rulers of Europe. Nor could anyone reasonably believe that sanctions were going to put an end to the Damascus regime, all the more so as Bashar Al-Assad and his entourage never ceased to benefit from the firm, concrete and efficient backing of Russia and Iran.

And now, moreover, that the USA is having more and more difficulty concealing its determination to pull out of the Middle East in order to deal with other challenges such as, first, the aggressive geopolitical ambitions which it ascribes to China, this was enough to prompt a number of Arab countries to undertake an in-depth reconsideration of their options and alliances.

The goals of each Arab capital in the region are not always identical. While Amman is trying to re-establish relations with Damascus for economic and commercial reasons, at the same time hoping the pro-Iranian groups active in Syria will move back from its border. Cairo and Abu Dhabi no doubt perceive Syria’s return to the Arab fold as strengthening the counter-revolutionary axis after the episode of the “Arab spring”, which they recall with horror.

As for the ruling Saudi family, which has to cope with a public opinion greatly worked up against the Damascus regime by its own media, it has most certainly approved Abu Dhabi’s and Manama’s attitude. And in fact, there has been a resumption of high-level contacts between Riyadh and Damascus.

Riyadh’s elaborate calculations

The Saudis, like several other Sunni regimes, intervened in Syria at the start of the uprising because of the alliance between Bashar’s regime and Iran, regarded as their number one enemy. Yet for some time now, the notion—the wishful thinking? — has been gaining ground that if Assad’s Syria could be brought back into the Arab family, it would drive a wedge between that country and its Iranian mentor.1

In Riyadh, the behaviour of its US ally is viewed with increasing mistrust. Already under Trump, Washington had not seen fit to punish Iran for the attacks on its petroleum facilities, nor is the US Congress about to forgive “MBS”, de facto Crown Prince, for the atrocious murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018. Taken together, these elements have convinced MBS not to rule out the unthinkable: a reconciliation with Tehran. In 2021 there have been many contacts to this end, behaviour on which Israel has, of course, cast a jaundiced eye.2

On this increasingly complicated Middle Eastern chessboard, from which “Uncle Sam” is gradually backing away, where Bashar Assad is no longer persona non grata and where alliances are revised in real time, Vladimir Putin is keeping score with undisguised satisfaction. In just a few years, the master of the Kremlin has become a player who cannot be ignored, thanks to his decisive military intervention on the side of the Syrian regime starting in September 2015. In this respect, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey was the first to see the light, having made overtures to Moscow as early as 2017 to defend its interests in Northern Syria against the Kurds, whose de facto autonomy was regarded as a potential threat to national security. Yet the tensions in these North Syrian provinces, occupied by Turkish troops for the past few years, is still very great, especially around Idlib, last bastion of the armed rebellion, led by jihadists. Right now, the alliance between Putin and Erdogan in this area is being put to a severe test of fiability: who knows whether it will hold up?

As for the European Union (EU), until now it has played no prominent role in the Syrian affair. It refuses to share in the efforts of reconstruction so long as a credible political transition has not begun. Similarly, it refuses to envisage the return of the refugees until the security situation is right. On 27 May 2021, the European Council of Ministers extended for another year, until 1 June 2022, its restrictive measures against the Syrian regime, “in view of the continued repression against the civilian population of that country.” These measures—an oil embargo, restrictions concerning the export of equipment and technologies likely to be used for domestic repression as well as the freezing of assets belonging to 300 individuals and some 70 entities, measures taken in 2011. The EU countries, unanimous on this issue, declare themselves “determined to find a durable and credible solution to the conflict in Syria,” an attitude which barely hides their inability to act.

Meanwhile, in his palace on Mount Qasiun overlooking Damascus, Bashar Al-Assad may breathe easy. In his eyes, he is over the hump. True enough, he rules a country (actually only two thirds of its territory) which is bankrupt and partly in ruins, and he has come to depend on his Russian and Iranian allies. But he has survived and so has his regime. And the Arab World, including those false friends who nearly helped to bring him down, has again found its way to Damascus.

1Michael Young, “Pivoting Away From America”, Carnegie Middle East Centre, 4 October 2021.