Arab outreach to Assad raises Syrian hopes of a return to the fold

By and Sarah Dadouch,

Emirates News Agency EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, left, foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, speaks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a visit to Damascus earlier this month.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has received a significant boost in recent weeks, with key Arab countries indicating they are prepared to reengage with his regime after ostracizing it for a decade, raising hopes in Damascus for an influx of investments to help rebuild the country’s shattered infrastructure and economy.

A telephone call last month between Assad and Jordan’s King Abdullah II marked the highest-level contact between Syria and a U.S.-allied Arab country in years. The visit by the Emirati foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, with Assad in Damascus last week furthered the sense that Syria’s isolation from its neighbors could be coming to an end.

These contacts signal a new readiness to accept the inevitability of Assad’s survival among Arab countries that backed the anti-Assad uprising and expelled Syria from the Arab League, analysts say.

“After almost 11 years of boycotts and disconnect, it’s time to turn the page, start a new chapter in Syria’s history and bring back Syria to the Arab fold,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political analyst in the United Arab Emirates.

But many obstacles remain after a decade of war that polarized the region, destroyed Syria and still simmers on, though major fighting has stopped, and investment in the country remains largely unattractive.

Delil Souleiman

AFP/Getty Images

An aerial view this month of destruction in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, where life is slowly picking up.

Qatar reiterated last week that it would not contemplate reengaging with Syria without a meaningful process of reform and accountability. “Normalizing relations with [the] Assad regime is not a step that we are thinking of or considering right now,” Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told reporters.

In an interview earlier this month with CNBC, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud said that Saudi Arabia is also “currently . . . not considering” full re-engagement with the Syrian government, although Saudi and Syrian intelligence officials have exchanged visits on a number of occasions in recent months.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar were among the biggest Arab supporters of the Syrian rebels during the revolt against Assad’s rule. Egypt, which could play a key role in ensuring Syria’s full re-acceptance by the Arab world, never entirely severed diplomatic relations with Damascus and maintains regular contact with Syrian government officials. But Cairo has stopped short of full re-engagement, while pressing, without result, for progress in the seven-year-old U.N.-sponsored negotiations over a political reform process in Syria.

Some Arab countries are squeamish about engaging too energetically with a regime held responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in its efforts to crush the rebellion, said Abdulla.

But the UAE believes the imperative of countering Iran’s expanded influence in Syria — where Tehran maintains troops, bases and allied militias in support of the Assad government — overrides any other concerns, he said. He predicted that other Arab countries would soon overcome their reluctance and follow the UAE’s lead in reengaging with Assad, including by taking the symbolically important step of readmitting Syria to the Arab League.

“Morally, no one wants to reach out to this guy. He committed atrocities. But it is politically justified,” Abdulla said. “If this really goes according to plan, it will mean less of Iran in Syria and more of the Arabs in Syria.”

The State Department publicly conveyed its disapproval of the Emirati foreign minister’s visit to Damascus. “We will not normalize or upgrade our diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, nor do we support other countries normalizing or upgrading their relations, given the atrocities that this regime has inflicted on its own people,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters last week.

Although the United States has made clear that it does not support the UAE’s approaches to Assad, it has not tried to oppose them, said Abdulla, offering what he called a “yellow light” to Arab countries to proceed as they wish.

A senior U.S. official noted that many of the moves toward normalization, including the restoration of diplomatic relations between the UAE and Syria in 2018, started during the Trump administration, when the most draconian U.S. sanctions on Syria were imposed.

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These sanctions, designed to prevent any investment that might benefit Assad or his regime, are an immediate hindrance to the kind of Arab investments that Syria’s economy most badly needs. U.S. officials say the Biden administration is not softening its enforcement of the sanctions, though pace has slowed since President Biden took office.

“Unfortunately, this is a trend [toward normalization] that we’ve seen in the region . . . but we’ve certainly not changed our sanctions posture or our policy,” said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic matters.

Hassan Ammar


Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hold up national flags and images of Assad in Damascus in May.

Apart from sanctions, potential investors in Syria are deterred by the business climate, the dire state of the economy and the potential for instability, analysts and business executives say.

Chronic shortages of electricity and fuel and the lack of a functioning banking system make the country an unappealing investment destination. A drive by the Syrian government to coerce companies into handing over cash supposedly owed in taxes and fines has precipitated a fresh exodus of Syrian business executives, further deepening the economic gloom.

“This is going to discourage investment in the country, when you have [Syrian] business executives leaving the country,” said Jihad Yazigi, editor of the authoritative Syria Report, a business publication. “Certainly the mood is very pessimistic. And anyone who is not thinking of leaving is postponing their projects.”

Low-level engagement among security officials, diplomats and business delegations is likely to continue, helping Assad to bolster his legitimacy among Syrians, said Bassam Barabandi, a defected Syrian diplomat living in Washington. “They send the message that ‘we are winning, we are strong, we are coming back,’ ” he said. “But it’s empty, it’s hollow.”

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Source: WP