Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to the surprise of many, has been readmitted to the 22 countries of the Arab League, after 12 years of isolation from the international political scene. Like many such international organizations, including the UN, membership of the Arab League has great symbolic and moral value; being excluded from it represents condemnation. Assad’s readmission to the League coincides with his political rehabilitation, at least for most Arab countries, which thereby also implicitly recognize his victory in the long and bloody civil war that has ravaged the country since 2011, a conflict that continues.
It is well known that Assad, to keep himself in power, used brutal methods throughout the period of civil war. More than 300,000 Syrian citizens have died as a result of missile and chemical weapons attacks, as reported in UN investigations. In addition, the Syrian security apparatus in recent years has captured tens of thousands of political dissidents who were not terrorists. All this has been carried out methodically with the help of Assad’s allies, Iran and Russia (starting in 2015), who have experimented with the most destructive methods of warfare in Syria.
The return to the international stage of a president accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity undermines the entire system of rights and sanctions that the West has built since World War II, including Putin’s recent indictment for the deportation of Ukrainian minors. This rehabilitation of Assad by Arab countries and others raises political, legal and moral questions about the real effectiveness, in the long run, of the sanctions system so far adopted by the international community against dictators who commit serious crimes against their people.
In fact, the rehabilitation of Assad and his regime had been talked about for some time in several Arab countries. In February and March 2023 there were visits by the Syrian president to Muscat, in Oman, and Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates; during the same period the Egyptian foreign minister went to Damascus. On April 14 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a meeting was held at which representatives of nine countries in the region discussed Damascus’ return to the Arab League after years of exclusion. On May 7, the body agreed to readmit Syria and extended an invitation to President Assad to participate in the next summit, the 32nd, which was held May 19 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
At that summit, the Syrian president’s participation then faded, even in the news coverage, almost into the background; his presence, of no small importance, was overshadowed by President Zelensky’s visit to the Arab League summit. The Saudi visit, in fact, was part of the diplomatic tour that the Ukrainian leader undertook to gather aid of various kinds and support ahead of the counteroffensive in Ukraine, even though he was aware that some of these countries are siding with Putin. The event was strategically designed by Saudi Arabia and its leader, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, so as to re-enter the great game of international politics and to ensure the importance of the League’s summit.
In recent times, Saudi Arabia has prudently begun to distance itself from the U.S., its longtime ally, or rather, as Tahar Ben Jelloun writes, to practice in matters of foreign policy a kind of “multi-alignment,” where the geostrategic interests of the moment have the upper hand. Riyadh thus “aligns with Russia on its hydrocarbon interests, with the Americans on armaments and security, and with China on trade and diplomatic issues.” This new policy of alliances is also winning over other countries in the Arab world, which are trying to imitate its strategy.
The pan-Arab organization, however, was keen to point out that its decision did not entail the automatic restoration of diplomatic relations between Damascus and the rest of the Arab capitals. This is a choice that is up to the countries concerned, although some of them have indicated their intention to resume closer relations with Syria in the short term. In an interview with Al Jazeera, the Arab League’s deputy secretary, Hossam Zaki, justified the decision to admit Damascus into the organization, saying, “The Syrian crisis has had negative effects on neighboring countries. The region as a whole, and more specifically the Arab countries, believe that a solution must be found. That is why we have come to this point.” This has been interpreted by many commentators as a diplomatic victory for Damascus, which it had been working for over several months. Assad, as in the past, has exploited the League’s decision for propaganda purposes, calling for “Arab cooperation” and “an effective and constructive Arab approach based on dialogue and mutual respect to achieve common interests.”
Western states continue their harsh condemnation and corresponding economic sanctions against Assad and the Syrian regime. In reality, the government in Damascus has so far made no concessions leading to substantive political reforms: none of the directions set by the UN Security Council in its 2015 Resolution 2254: total ceasefire, free elections, renewal of the constitution have not been put in place, nor has responsibility for war crimes been admitted. Nor has any attempt been made to bring home the six million refugees, most of whom are still in neighboring countries, often living in very poor conditions. In truth, violence is being used in Syria as a tool of political struggle, as has running the drug trade to enrich the regime: Syria is ruled by a “kleptocracy that has been flooding the Persian Gulf with illicit drugs for years.”
The political motivations of the Arab League
What are the political and economic motivations that led Arab countries to abruptly rehabilitate the Assad regime, which they had bitterly fought for years, sending money and weapons to the rebels? According to some, the rapprochement is motivated by the strategy of distancing Iran from Syria or weakening its political influence. Indeed, after relying for years on Iranian military support, Syria is now a base for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and other armed groups linked to Iran. Their presence is considered harmful and disturbing to Sunni countries in the area, particularly Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
It seems quite unlikely that Assad will get rid of the forces that have kept him in power and are still willing to fight for him. Iran is well entrenched in Syria, and the relationship between the two regimes is too deep and solid for Damascus to abandon it to please the Sunni front without getting anything substantial in return. The recognition formally gained by the Syrian regime through its admission to the Arab League and its rapprochement with some countries is insufficient for Assad to distance himself from Tehran and other countries close to Iran. The bond between the two countries was reconfirmed with a visit in April by President Ebrahim Raisi to Damascus. It should also not be forgotten that the Syrian army, decimated by years of civil war, would not be able to overpower the Iranian militias that now surround the capital.
According to other analysts, the rapprochement is probably motivated by the desire to stabilize internal struggles in the Middle East region. It should not be forgotten that recent diplomatic events have changed the geostrategic balance in the region. The United Arab Emirates has normalized its relations with Israel, and other countries will follow them on this path. The Saudis, in March 2023, reached an agreement with Iran, through the mediation of China, to restore diplomatic relations and reopen their respective embassies. After years of proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, both sides are eager to lower tensions and reach an agreement in order to focus on domestic issues.
Moreover, in doing so, Mohammad bin Salman on the one hand has shown his “Sunni brothers” – particularly Egypt – that he is the true arbiter of the Middle East situation and, on the other hand, has pushed the Arab League to take an independent position from the two major blocs that have long been rivals for international leadership. On the one hand, independence from the United States, which until a few years earlier had been the Saudi kingdom’s true and loyal ally; on the other hand from China, which has recently engaged with Russia and Tehran “in a convergence of interests and authoritarianism.” This situation is the result of the strategic mistakes made in recent times by the U.S. administration, which, starting from Obama, has abandoned the Middle East to itself, or rather to its tyrants, in order to take care of matters at home and devote itself to geostrategic competition with China.
The first Arab countries to make contact with Damascus were the United Arab Emirates, which in 2018 opened diplomatic representation in Damascus and urged its allies in the Gulf to do the same. The strong earthquakes that struck Syria and Turkey in February 2023 then provided an opportunity for several Arab countries to become closer to Damascus, either by sending humanitarian aid or by resuming diplomatic contacts.
It should also be remembered that some countries, such as Algeria, have never completely severed relations with Syria. Egypt had done so briefly under the Muslim Brotherhood government, but restored them at the earliest opportunity, coinciding with al-Sisi’s presidency in 2013. However, for the past decade, Syria has been considered a pariah state by Arab countries. This isolation was broken when Assad paid an official visit to the United Arab Emirates in 2022; it was his first trip abroad after 11 years of civil war.
The earthquake and Syrian refugees
Some also believe that this rapprochement of Arab countries with Syria – after the disastrous earthquake last February, which caused immense damage and a very large number of victims (more than 50,000) in both Turkey and Syria – is a response, among other things, to issues related to the management of Syrian refugees present in many neighboring Arab countries. There are approximately 2 million refugees in Lebanon, a politically and economically unstable country whose total population is 5 million, and as many in Jordan. In Turkey Syrian refugees number nearly four million. In recent times, especially during the last election campaign, the mood of the population and the political class has changed regarding Syrian refugees, who are considered a source of instability. For some time now Erdogan has been talking about their relocation to Syrian territory, which is why he had even threatened military incursions into the border areas after a terrorist attack in Istanbul.
It should be noted that not all refugees who left Syria as a result of the war are willing to return. In the various countries where Syrians found refuge, many of them have managed to build a decent life for themselves, notably those who found refuge in Europe. In other countries, on the contrary, and they are in the majority, they live in tents and lead precarious lives. In any case, they would be willing to return to their homeland if the regime were to make major reforms, both political and economic. At the moment this seems highly unlikely. Assad and his entourage are not willing to relinquish the reins of power, especially since they are convinced that they have won the civil war, nor are they willing to hold free elections with a broad participation of different parties.
One might ask: Would this “reintegration” of Syria, promoted by Arab countries, into the Middle East political-diplomatic game benefit Syrian citizens who have suffered all forms of deprivation since 2011? According to Syrian dissident writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh, this decision will not affect people’s daily lives. “Unfortunately,” he writes, “supporters of normalization have not bothered to say a word about the fate of the 11,000 missing people, nor about the safe return of refugees from different countries.”
Syria and Russia
What about Russia, Assad’s historical ally? Right now, to break out of its political isolation and rebuild the country, Assad cannot count on Russia, mired in Ukraine in a war that Putin provoked and wanted. Russia, through its intervention in 2015, effectively saved the Assad regime sending thousands of troops and many planes that for months dominated the skies over Syria. Recall that in 2019 and 2020 Putin had announced projects worth billions of dollars to rebuild Syria’s war-torn infrastructure: the construction of a modern power grid, a grain hub in the port of Tarsus, which the Russian navy accesses, and a railroad that would serve the entire country. These are projects that have remained on paper, and will remain so for some time. Russia has lately stopped making promises. Syria still suffers from constant blackouts, since electricity is reliable only for a few hours a day, food supplies are at a minimum, and trains are not running. All this means that right now Assad can only rely on Arab countries for reconstruction aid. For example, the UAE is working on a project to modernize Syria’s power grid. Other countries have promised to invest in reconstruction.
The Syrian economy over the past 12 years has collapsed; the only people who have become rich in that time have been drug dealers and war profiteers, usually belonging to clans with links to those in power. Annual inflation appears to be over 100 percent. Syria, which exported $11 billion worth of goods before the war, now exports less than $1 billion. In short, Syria today is a “failed” country economically, yet it is trying to enter the game of the Middle Eastern powers as a player. These powers, for their part, still see it as a country not to be neglected, indeed to be rehabilitated diplomatically, not least because Assad in recent years has championed the fight against Islamist terrorism, such as ISIS and al Qaeda. The Gulf monarchies, some due to a lack of democratic legitimacy, are terrified of such threats.
We mentioned earlier that drug trafficking is still practiced in Syria today. The gains are considerable, although less than the estimates in some studies. However, Syria is the world’s leading producer of Captagon, an amphetamine that is sold cheaply and is widely used in Gulf countries. Authorities in the United Arab Emirates in 2020 seized 36 million tablets, hidden inside a shipment of electrical cables. Saudi Arabia, the following year, seized more than 20 million pills in a shipment of grapefruit; Jordan and other countries have been active in seizing illicit drugs. According to some analysts, using the drug issue, for years now Syria has tried to blackmail other countries in the Arab world, and recent rehabilitation aims have included trying to stop the illegal trafficking of this amphetamine. If it is left “isolated,” it has been said, the Assad regime poses a threat to the entire Arab world. This is an argument that should not be underestimated, considering the harm that the use of this drug is inflicting on the younger generations in those countries. But it should also be said that, if this analysis is accurate, it would give Assad a very powerful tool to threaten other states, rather like migrants in the case of Erdogan in Turkey, Assad could at any moment stem the flow of Captagon, but could easily let the supply resume if he needs further concessions from the Arab countries.
Syria and the West
The Arab League’s rehabilitation of Syria has been challenged by most Western countries, particularly the United States, the EU and several humanitarian organizations working on the ground. The director of the organization The Syria Campaign, Laila Kiki, called the Arab League’s decision a “catastrophic setback for justice and human rights in Syria and throughout the region.” She went on to say that by their action, Arab countries have placed their cynical economic and diplomatic interests “above the most basic principles of humanity.”
Officially, the United States has opposed the Arab countries’ decision to rehabilitate Assad and his regime. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, said on May 4 that the U.S. would not recognize the Syrian regime. EU countries have also expressed this view, although some Central and Southern European countries would prefer to re-establish some relationship with the Damascus government in order to settle the refugee problem.
It appears, however, according to some Arab diplomats, that Washington has given a “yellow light” to a possible negotiation on the reduction or elimination of sanctions. According to The Wall Street Journal, “the U.S. and its allies would have lifted sanctions against Damascus if Assad had agreed to negotiate power-sharing with his opponents and organized free elections,” which is what U.N. Resolution Number 2254 called for. But, the paper continued, “the Syrian president has shown no interest in implementing political change and the Arab League has not demanded any political reform in exchange for Syria’s reintegration.”
Clearly, for Western countries, lifting sanctions against Assad would greatly diminish the deterrent effect of the sanctions system usually employed by those countries against those that violate international law, starting with Russia. Yet the prospect of Syria indefinitely remaining a failed state, where people enrich themselves through illicit activities while citizens suffer all kinds of deprivation, is hardly appealing.
The Syrian case could also serve as a test case for other pariah states. It should not be forgotten that today a substantial number of countries ignore the sanctions imposed by the West on certain regimes that are considered “rogue.” The case of the numerous Western sanctions against Russia not enforced by many countries (even by a NATO member such as Turkey) is relevant. Moreover, in this regard, several states move on the international chessboard contrary to the rules, preserving or promoting diplomatic relations with dictatorial regimes. The Chinese foreign minister in May held talks with the Taliban, while a conference of Latin American countries in April discussed possible recognition of Venezuela’s regime.
According to some observers of international politics, the U.S. and its Western allies should rethink the sanctions system and provide more flexible criteria that reflect each nation’s situation. With regard to Syria, it is believed that personal sanctions against Assad should remain in place; those, however, that affect the lives of the civilian population and concern the repair of public services or the reconstruction of schools and hospitals and more should be limited or eliminated, making sure that local mafias do not take advantage of them. Beyond these cases, the lifting of sanctions should be accompanied by serious changes in the political, economic and social spheres, in accordance with the directions given by the 2015 UN resolution.
At the beginning of this century, the Western powers, particularly the U.S., viewed economic sanctions as a cheaper and safer alternative to war because they allowed these economically dominant powers to cripple regimes that violated international law without firing a shot. Such predictions were too optimistic, as the case of Syria shows today. At least on the level of deterrence, sanctions, according to an editorial in The Economist, “should be thought of as a dial that can be turned up and down over time. They cannot depose despots like Assad, but perhaps they can give them incentives to behave a little less badly. For people suffering under rogue regimes, even small mercies are worth grasping.”
. Cf. D. Raineri, “Il ritorno dell’ex paria. La Lega Araba riammette Assad”, in la Repubblica, May 8, 2023.
. Cf. B. Stefanelli, “Dieci anni dopo Assad sul tappeto rosso apre la porta all’impunità dei tiranni”, in Corriere della Sera, April 28, 2023, 3.
. Cf. Y. H. Saleh, “Perché i Paesi arabi si avvicinano ad Assad”, in Internazionale, April 28, 2023, 20.
. Zelensky asked Arab leaders for help in saving Ukrainians “from Russian prison cages. Unfortunately, there are some in the world, and even here among you, who turn a blind eye to those cages and illegal annexations, and I am here so that everyone can think honestly, no matter how much the Russians will try to condition you” (D. Raineri, “Zelensky alla Lega Araba ruba la scena ad Assad”, in la Repubblica, May 20, 2023). These words were mainly addressed to Assad, Russia’s great ally.
. T. B. Jelloun, “Zelensky nel gioco saudita”, in la Repubblica, May 25, 2023. On May 24, 2023, Saudi Arabia normalized its diplomatic relations with Canada, which had been severed in 2018 when Canadian government representatives criticized the Saudi Kingdom for human rights violations.
. “La Syrie de Bachar El-Assad réintègre la Ligue arabe”, in Courrier international, May 8, 2023.
. “After 12 years of blood, Assad’s Syria rejoins the Arab League”, in The Economist, May 9, 2023.
. Previously, the Saudis had “reconciled” with Qatar, which was guilty of protecting the Muslim Brotherhood. Western countries are largely excluded from such “recompositions.” The United States, having left the Middle East, no longer has the ability to influence, one way or another, these processes, which are altering the whole region. Cf. P. Haski, “Il regime siriano riacquista credibilità tra i suoi vicini”, in Internazionale, January 19, 2023.
. By receiving Zelensky in Jeddah on May 19 at the 32nd Arab League summit, the Saudi crown prince succeeded in putting the pan-Arab organization “on the world map” and at the same time assigned himself the role of undisputed arbiter of the Sunni Arab world. The Ukrainian president’s visit was also strategically designed to accredit the organization (often regarded as a club of dictators) with Western world leaders, and thus overshadow Assad’s return to the League. Cf. “MBS prend ‘une dimension qu’aucun leader arabe n’a eue depuis Nasser’”, in Courrier international, May 22, 2023.
. B. Stefanelli, “Dieci anni dopo Assad sul tappeto rosso apre la porta all’impunità dei tiranni”, op. cit., 3.
. Cf. P. Haski, “Il regime siriano riacquista credibilità tra i suoi vicini”, op. cit.
. Cf. Y. H. Saleh, “Perché i Paesi arabi si avvicinano ad Assad”, ùùùop. cit., 21.
. “After 12 years of blood, Assad’s Syria rejoins the Arab League”, op. cit.
. There is talk of trafficking that, according to experts, earns Syria billions of dollars a year, which is “more than the value of the operations run by the Mexican cartels” (M. Motamedi, “L’anfetamina che aiuta il regime di Assad”, in Internazionale, May 26, 2023, 32).
. According to some experts, Assad will not deprive himself of this amphetamine flow, and he is only pretending to fight the drug trade. “The best the Arab countries can hope for,” says scholar Lina Khatib, “is that the regime elements involved in the drug trade will decide to divert some of it to other markets,” so as to reduce its flow into the Middle East region.
. “After 12 years of blood, Assad’s Syria rejoins the Arab League”, op. cit.
. “La Syrie de Bachar El-Assad réintègre la Ligue arabe”, op. cit.
. S. Said – B. Faucon, “Syria Readmitted to Arab League, Bringing Assad Back Into the Fold”, in The Wall Street Journal (https://tinyurl.com/5a8mb9yc), May 7, 2023.
. See “The rehabilitation of Syria’s dictator raises awkward questions for the West”, in The Economist, May 11, 2023.
. The U.S., as well as many Western countries, has been active in sending humanitarian aid to Syria, devastated in some of its regions by the recent earthquake. However, they have not agreed to negotiate with the incumbent regime on the distribution of aid, making sure that it is sent directly to humanitarian organizations working on the ground. “U.S. policymakers do not want to provide any legitimacy to the Assad regime. They will try to make sure that Washington does not grant exemptions to the Caesar Law, enacted by the U.S. Congress to target individuals or companies that finance or give assistance to the regime, and also to harm Iranian and Russian entities that support it” (R. Dergham, “Terremoto: le ripercussioni nella regione e nel mondo”, in Internazionale, February 17, 2023). Cf. F. Mannocchi, “Terremoto in Siria, il ricatto degli aiuti”, in La Stampa, February 13, 2023; L. Mirakian, “La Siria dimenticata ora riemerge tra le macerie”, in la Repubblica, February 14, 2023.
. “The rehabilitation of Syria’s dictator raises awkward questions for the West”, op. cit.