After more than a dozen years of ostracism by regional Arab and western leaders, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is officially back in the Arab fold, he was warmly embraced by regional leaders at the Arab League summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, last week.
Apparently it seems that the Arab League has lost its meaning and purpose and it is demonstrated by the manner in which member states takes its sessions in a non-serious manner. Morocco declined to host a summit in 2016, calling the event a waste of time. The Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, skipped last year’s gathering in Algeria on medical grounds. Heads of state are sometimes spotted falling asleep at the fora meetings.
But it seems that at the moment no one would relish the regional Arab body more than the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who seemed euphoric to be invited to the Arab summit, last week. Syria was suspended from the league in 2011, when Assad began a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests that plunged the country into a civil war
Assad’s deployment of chemical weapons against his own people along with mass arrests, torture and disappearances and killing of more than 3 million civilians in the country have no parallel elsewhere. This is a legacy, which he inherited from his father, Hafez al-Assad, who reportedly massacred more than 10,000 people in the city of Hama during a 1982 siege.
On 7th May, however, the regional Arab body agreed to readmit Syria to its fold. Though an invitation from a dull talking shop crammed with dictators may seem unappealing to many but to Assad, it is the culmination of a long effort to end his Arab isolation – and, he may hope, another step towards acceptance in the West.
US stand on Syria
However, Assad’s regional Arab acceptance creates a “problem” for the United States, which continues to oppose any sort of normalising ties with the Syrian government but has not been able to force its Arab partners from restoring ties with Damascus.
US officials maintain that though they do not back normalisation with al-Assad, they share the objectives that restored relations could bring, including expanding humanitarian access to conflict-torn regions, combating ISIL/ISIS, reducing Iran’s influence and countering the trafficking of the drug Captagon.
Mona Yacoubian, vice president of the Middle East and North Africa centre at the US Institute of Peace (USIP), a think tank funded by the US Congress, told Al Jazeera that the US position under President Joe Biden reflects a “tricky, gnarly, complex challenge”.
But without accountability for Syrian government abuses, she added, Washington will not normalise its relations with Damascus or ease its heavy sanctions, including the blocking of foreign reconstruction funds.
Making the US stand quite clear, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week, “We do not believe that Syria merits readmission to the Arab League.”
Still, Blinken said Washington and its Arab allies have broader common objectives in Syria.
Last week, a group of bipartisan House representatives introduced a bill dubbed the Assad Anti-Normalisation Act, which aims to “hold the Assad regime, and its backers, accountable for their crimes against the Syrian people and deter normalization with the Assad regime”.
The bill is a sign that Congress will likely push Biden and future administrations to fully enforce Syria sanctions.
Syria was suspended from the Arab League and left isolated by regional power brokers in 2011 after its crackdown on protests during the Arab Spring, a wave of anti-government demonstrations across several countries in the region that year.
That heavy-handed security approach in Syria turned into a protracted war, killing hundreds of thousands of people and displacing millions.
In recent years, government forces recaptured much of Syria with the aid of Russia and Iran, and local ceasefires have maintained relative calm as parts of the country remain under the control of various rebels and armed groups.
Arab countries “believe that they can pursue these objectives through more direct engagement”.
While al-Assad’s re-admittance into the Arab League was on full display in Jeddah, the normalisation drive has been ongoing for years.
The United Arab Emirates — a top US ally in the Gulf region — reopened its embassy in Syria in 2018, and last year, it became the first Arab state to host al-Assad since the start of the Syrian war more than 10 years ago.
Regardless of the future of US policy on Syria, the fact that Arab states are normalising with al-Assad is also a sign of the receding US political influence in the region.
As to why Arab states are keen to bring Syria among their fold, there are many plausible reasons. One is to forge a broader spirit of detente. The Saudis struck a deal in March with Iran to restore diplomatic ties and reopen embassies. this came after years of proxy wars in Syria, Yemen by both and now both seems to have forgotten the past. Turkey and Egypt, mired in mutual economic crises, are trying to end a decade of animosity. Gulf states have ended their embargo of Qatar, which accomplished little. Old foes across the region are keen to pretend they are friends.
When it comes to Syria, however, they want something bigger in return. Its neighbours hope to get rid of millions of Syrian refugees. The 2 million or so in Lebanon, with a population of just 5 million, are seen as a burden, blamed unfairly for the country’s economic collapse. In Turkey the mood has also turned hostile. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the main opposition candidate in the election on 26th May has vowed vows to send Syrians packing within two years if elected.
In addition, the West hope that mollifying Syria may result in it controlling its Captagon trade. Syria has become the world’s leading producer of Captagon, an amphetamine that is a popular recreational drug in the Gulf. The scale of the Captagon trade is often exaggerated. Unconfirmed estimates put its annual value at $57bn. The real figure is probably an order of magnitude smaller – but that is still large enough to make it Syria’s top export.
Indeed, this seems to be a sad commentary on the Arab world and its dictatorial leaders who basically conspired to crushed the Arab Spring 12 years ago, instead of working for the betterment of their people. In reality the pro-democracy, pro-rights movement has not fizzled out, rather, it’s been clubbed to death by a conspiracy of the dictators.
Asad Mirza is a delhi-based senior political commentator. He can be contacted at www.asadmirza.in