Nearing a Mundane Finality: Bashar Al-Assad’s Return to the Arab League Might Set in Motion a Regional Pandemonium

An opportunity in disaster was spotted by the Syrian president, Bashar Al-Assad when the country was struck by an earthquake in February. He called for an end to international sanctions on his country and within days, some were suspended. Other Middle Eastern states sent planeloads of aid and senior officials from those countries soon followed for the first high-level visits in years. Thus, witnessed was Al-Assad’s remarkable comeback, going from more than a decade of near-total global isolation after a series of atrocities, to being welcomed back into the Arab League by Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman for the first time in 12 years. While countries like Qatar and Turkey opposed it, 13 out of 22 made the decision of accepting the “political realities” and approaching the situation with efforts to “normalize” the relations and view the issue in a more pragmatic and realistic manner.

However, the Assad regime’s global perception is predominantly unfavorable and known to criticism, particularly when examined through the lens of human rights and democratic principles. As reported by Human Rights Watch, the Syrian government and associated militias persist in unlawfully detaining, disappearing, torturing, and murdering civilians throughout the nation. Additionally, the regime imposes limitations on humanitarian aid and essential services, affecting millions of Syrians who are enduring the country’s most severe economic and humanitarian crisis in history. Furthermore, allegations have been made against the regime for employing chemical weapons against its own citizens and committing crimes against humanity. According to UNHCR since 2011, more than 14 million Syrians have fled their homes, and about 6.8 million remain displaced in their own country, where 90% of the population live below the poverty line. About 5.5 million Syrian refugees live in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. Moreover, the regime is also known for employing various systematic methods to redirect aid for its own benefit. Yet, in the present day, the regime controls the majority of the Syrian territory, including main cities like Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Latakia, Tartus, Deraa, and Deir al-Zour. 

In 2016, the UN was accused of aiding the regime by diverting billions of dollars in aid to government-held regions while leaving besieged areas without food and medicine. “There’s really no way for us, as independent consultants, to know the full extent of how aid is spent inside the country … We just wanted to flag that, even through this limited portal to understanding how much is spent, it’s already tens of millions of dollars which is hoarded.” 

The question is raised then why don’t these countries establish mechanisms to ensure transparency? And now after the normalisation of ties with Assad is happening, will they stop caring about transparency altogether? According to Sara Kayyali, of HRW, “there was no due diligence in terms of human rights” within UN procurement to avoid bankrolling Syria. This should be a wake-up call to the UN … they need to revise the way they provide aid and revise how they consider their obligations to respect human rights in light of this because it’s difficult to justify the idea that hundreds of millions of dollars are going to an abusive state apparatus (Assad regime ‘siphons millions in aid’ by manipulating Syria’s currency | Global development | The Guardian). According to the United Nations, the cost of reconstruction is at $250 billion (about four times Syria’s pre-war GDP, or roughly the size of Egypt’s economy) or $1 trillion according to other sources. 

The shift in relations (Syria-Saudi and Syria–Iran) and policies and the setback of the United States 

“Doshman mara be man doost mikonad, chon be ham niazmandim” (The enemy befriends me, for we are in need of each other). 

The sudden shift in Saudi-Syria relations stems from several factors. Firstly, Saudi Arabia seeks to ease tensions with Iran, a Syrian ally and regional rival, by engaging with Syria and potentially persuading Iran to withdraw forces and play a leading role in Syria’s reconstruction, accessing lucrative contracts and investment opportunities, reflecting Vision 2030. Secondly, to counter the influence of Turkey and Qatar in Syria, as both countries are regional rivals and have supported different opposition factions. Thirdly, Saudi Arabia aims to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees and alleviate pressures on neighboring countries and lastly, to achieve an Arab world that is based on Strategic autonomy through the Arab league. The objective started to shape after US’ perceived “withdrawal” or its “de-prioritization of the Middle East and particularly of the Syria portfolio” which led regional actors to deal with Damascus in their own way. 

Nevertheless, the US passed the “Assad Anti-Normalization Act” which emphasis on holding the Assad regime accountable. However, the bill remains conspicuously silent on the matter of removing President Assad or outlining strategic plans to resolve the crisis. Instead, its primary objective appears to be the prevention of diplomatic engagement with the Assad government in the absence of concessions. It is imperative to underline the fact that sanctions do not harm Al-Assad or his regime but the Syrians who the US intentionally abandoned to their own fate.

The future Saudi-Iran-Syria relations are contingent upon numerous factors. The countries’ willingness and ability to trust, different paths to the same aim of power and influence over the region and most importantly the dynamics of relations that Iran and Saudi Arabia shall witness when it comes to their confrontation on issues like their stance on Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon etc. Top of Form

Future for Israel and the Lack of attention to the Syrians and their public opinion

Syrian relations with Israel have continued to be tense and they have been subjected to even frostier winds, especially after the Abraham Accords in 2020 between Israel and Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain. Iran has also expressed strong displeasure with this move, citing it as a “betrayal”. Syria has repeatedly demanded the return of Golan Heights, which was captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967 and then subsequently annexed in 1981. Israeli apprehension of Syria may be affected by this new development since over the last few years the violence has increased; According to Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant “The number of Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria has doubled”. Although Israel may feel displeased and could engage in dialogue with the Arab nations, its policy against Syria shall not deter. If Assad’s reintegration strengthens Iran’s position and emboldens its allies, Israel instead may only intensify its strikes or even launch a wider military operation against Syria. The issue of Golan Heights will present the future realities of each nation. Saudi Arabia’s view of its rapprochement policy with Israel may be influenced by the recent rapprochement with Iran and Syria and If Saudi Arabia continues its efforts to improve relations with Iran and Syria, it could potentially lead to more assertive and stringent diplomatic approaches towards Israel. The support for Palestinians may also become a factor towards a more cautious and persuasive diplomatic stance towards Israel. 

As the interests of the government take centre stage, the concerns and opinions of the Syrian public once again appear to be disregarded or overlooked. In the Arab League, Assad argued that “The most important thing is to leave internal affairs to their peoples, as they are capable of managing their own affairs, and our role is only to prevent external interference in their countries and assist them exclusively upon request.” He did not mention any concrete steps to address the humanitarian crisis, the political transition, or the reconstruction of Syria. He also did not acknowledge any responsibility for the violence and atrocities committed by his regime during the war. Surrounded by dismay and fear, protests have yet again erupted in Syria against Al-Assad and his reintegration into the Arab League. The personal policy of ignoring the Syrians shall only pave the way for future marginalization and isolation of the citizens and eventually, greater chaos and disaster. 

All remains to be seen until November as Assad plans on attending the World Climate Conference in Dubai.

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