Syrian President Bashar al-Assad expected to return to Arab fold


Nicosia: March has been a month full of surprises in the Middle East, as after the shock created by the announcement that the formerly implacable arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed to restore diplomatic relations, the Reuters news agency reported on Thursday that Saudi Arabia and Syria agreed to reopen their embassies, after the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Fitr (21-22 April).

This means that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been shunned by Arab leaders, due to the crimes perpetrated by his regime against Syrian citizens, is now expected to be welcomed back to the fold and we may soon see him taking part in Arab summits and the Arab League from which he was suspended in 2011.

A few days ago, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud had hinted that the suspension of Syria from the Arab League could be lifted but hastened to add that it was too early to discuss this possibility, as the matter could be examined during the forthcoming meeting of the Arab League in Saudi Arabia in April.

Syria was suspended from the Arab League in November 2011, at the time of the Arab Spring, when the Syrian regime killed about 5,000 protesters and opponents. In the next ten years of the civil war that broke out in the country, various domestic and foreign forces were fighting the government and often each other, resulting in more than 600,000 deaths.

The Bashar al-Assad regime has committed repeated and massive violations of human rights and on some occasions used chemical weapons.

Most Arab countries imposed travel bans on senior officials of the regime and other sanctions, including limitation of investments and dealings with the Central Bank of Syria.

The only Arab governments that refused to apply any sanctions on the Syrian regime were those of Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, where Iran – the ally of Hafez al-Assad – exercises great influence.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, speaking before the UN General Assembly last year, said that the Syrian government was responsible “for massive violations of human rights and international humanitarian law” and added that “the perpetrators of these crimes and the use of chemical weapons against civilians must be held to account.”

Although at the beginning of the war, it seemed that the Assad regime will collapse, the intervention of Iran and mainly Russia, which has been carrying out airstrikes and ground operations in Syria, changed the whole picture and now it has become apparent that the regime will not be defeated.

It should be noted that Saudi Arabia and Qatar sided with some of the rebels, while Turkey fought Islamic State (ISIL), the Kurdish-Arab SDF and the Syrian Army and currently occupies large swathes of land in north-western Syria. The United States fought the ISIL terrorists and sometimes the pro-government forces in Syria.

A growing realization that the Damascus regime has prevailed, compounded by fatigue with the war, has led several Arab governments make second thoughts about the war in Syria and decide that it is in their national interest to restore relations with the Assad regime.

The first country that changed its mind about its relations with Damascus was Tunisia in 2015, followed by the United Arab Emirates which reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018, saying that Arab countries should be present in Syria and work hard to resolve the conflict. Jordan sent a charge d’ affaires to Damascus in 2019 and Oman followed suit in 2020.

Last month, at the prompting of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, announced that Cairo supported the normalization of relations between Arab countries and Syria.

The devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria last month, with tens of thousands of dead and millions of people made homeless, created a wave of sympathy for the victims all over the world and prompted several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, to send hundreds of tons of aid to the quake victims.

The announcement about the planned reopening of Embassies in Damascus and Riyadh made a few weeks after the devastating earthquake and the desperate need for the provision of international assistance to the victims, gave the Saudi Government an opportunity to change its policy on Syria, without losing face, and also to remove one of the reasons of confrontation with Iran, which has been a strong supporter of the Assad regime.

If the rehabilitation of Assad and his return to the Arab fold is made dependent on him accepting the safe return of millions of Syrian refugees from Turkey and elsewhere, it would be easier for many countries to accept that he would no longer be an international pariah for the violations of human rights committed by his regime.

The world opinion would more easily accept the bitter pill that he will not be punished for his crimes, if this will improve the plight of Syrian refugees seeking asylum in foreign lands and will allow them to return to their homeland in safety.

James Dorsey, in an article published in Responsible Statecraft, points out that the Arab proposition to bring Assad in from the cold potentially opens a way out of a quagmire because “it would enhance the leverage of the United States and Europe to ensure that political reform is the cornerstone of Assad’s engagement with elements of the Syrian opposition.

In other words, rather than rejecting any solution that does not involve Assad’s removal from power, the United States and Europe could lift sanctions contingent on agreement and implementation of reforms. Similarly, the US and Europe could make sanctions relief contingent on a safe, uninhibited, and orderly return of refugees.”

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( With inputs from )

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