Arab nations inch toward rehabilitating Syria's Assad
Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, meets with Sudan's President Omar Bashir in Damascus, Syria. (SANA via AP, File)
He has survived eight years of war and billions of dollars in money and weapons aimed at toppling him. Now Syrian President Bashar Assad is poised to be readmitted to the fold of Arab nations, a feat once deemed unthinkable as he forcefully crushed the uprising against his family's rule.
Gulf Arab nations, once the main backers of rebels trying to oust Assad, are lining up to reopen their embassies in Syria, worried about leaving the country at the heart of the Arab world to regional rivals Iran and Turkey and missing out on lucrative post-war reconstructive projects. Key border crossings with neighbors, shuttered for years by the war, have reopened, and Arab commercial airlines are reportedly considering resuming flights to Damascus.
And as President Donald Trump plans to pull out America's 2,000 soldiers from northeastern Syria, government troops are primed to retake the area they abandoned in 2012 at the height of the war. This would be a significant step toward restoring Assad's control over all of Syria, leaving only the northwest in the hands of rebels, most of them jihadis.
It can seem like a mind-boggling reversal for a leader whose military once seemed dangerously close to collapse. But Russia's military intervention, which began in 2015, steadily reversed Assad's losses, allowing his troops, aided by Iranian-backed fighters, to recapture cities like Homs and Aleppo, key to his rule.
Assad rules over a country in ruins, with close to half a million people killed and half the population displaced. Major fighting may still lie ahead. But many see the war nearing its end, and the 53-year-old leader is sitting more comfortably than he has in the past eight years.
"Rehabilitation by Arab states is inevitable," said Faysal Itani, a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
A key motive for Sunni Muslim Gulf countries is to blunt the involvement of their Shiite-led foe, Iran, which saw its influence expand rapidly in the chaos of Syria's war.
"Saudi Arabia tried briefly to help overthrow him when he seemed most vulnerable using proxy militants," Itani said. "With his regime likely to survive, however, Saudi Arabia would prefer to try and exercise influence over Assad to balance against Iran while avoiding escalation with Iran itself."
After Assad led a crackdown on protesters in 2011, Syria was cast out as a pariah by much of the Arab and Western world. It lost its seat at the Arab League and was hit by crippling sanctions by the international community, as the U.S. and European diplomats closed their diplomatic missions.
But Syria's isolation was never complete. China, Russia, Brazil, India and South Africa maintained diplomatic ties. In the Arab world, Lebanon, Iraq and Algeria never broke ranks with Syria. Propped up by Russia, China and Iran, Assad never really felt the pinch politically.
A Saudi attempt to patch up relations with Assad would be a public acknowledgement of the kingdom's failure to oust him. At the same time, the involvement of Gulf Arab governments and private companies is crucial for any serious reconstruction effort in Syria. Reconstruction costs are estimated between $200 and $350 billion.
Last month, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, himself an international outcast, flew to Damascus on a Russian jet, becoming the first Arab leader to visit Syria since 2011. The visit was largely seen as a precursor for similar steps by other Arab leaders.
On Dec. 27, the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus with a public ceremony, in the most significant Arab overture yet toward the Assad government, almost certainly coordinated with Saudi Arabia. The Bahrain Embassy followed the next day.
The debate now appears to be about when, not whether, to re-admit Syria to the Arab League. At a meeting in Cairo on Wednesday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri said Syria's return to the League is connected to developments on the political track to end the crisis. Some officials in Lebanon insist Syria should be invited to an Arab economic summit the country is hosting next week, although final decision rests with the League.
"It could happen slower or faster, but if Assad is going to stay where he is, then obviously countries in the region are going to try to make the best of that situation," said Aron Lund, a fellow with The Century Foundation. "American politicians can sit in splendid isolation on the other side of an ocean and pretend Syria isn't what it is," he said. "But King Abdullah of Jordan can't."
The Arab overtures come amid a shifting landscape in the Western world.
The planned U.S. pullout from Syria is part of Trump's "America First" policy. He has repeatedly said he was not interested in removing Assad from power or keeping American troops involved in "endless wars" in the region, most recently describing Syria as "sand and death."
Right-wing parties and populist movements on the rise in Europe are also on friendly terms with Assad, seeing him as a secular bulwark against Islamic extremists.
Even Turkey, whose president in 2012 famously vowed to pray at Omayyad Mosque in Damascus after Assad's ouster, has signaled it would consider working with Assad again if he wins in free and fair elections.
For Syrians who rose up against Assad's rule, it can seem like the country is right back where it started eight years ago, only with half a million dead and cities in ruins.
Analysts believe Syria under Assad will likely continue to face conflicts and sputter on in limbo for years to come, with only a partial recovery. But he will likely cling to power and do business with anyone who will do business with him.
"I don't imagine Assad's Syria becoming a fine upstanding member of the international community, but nor do I think it will languish in isolation," Itani said.