Rehabilitate Syria’s pariah president

Abu Dhabi | Saturday May 6, 2023

Arab nations are set to re-admit Syria into the Arab League despite repeated objections from the United States to ending the decade-long isolation of a regime that it holds accountable for the deaths of more 300,000 civilians and displacement of millions in the country’s brutal civil war.

Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, told CNN’s Becky Anderson on Thursday that he thinks there are enough votes among Arab League members for Syria to rejoin the organization and that Jordan has kept the US updated on its efforts to mend relations with the regime.

According to officials and observers, President Bashar Al Assad’s international rehabilitation and perhaps the lifting of debilitating sanctions against his regime could be facilitated by Syria’s re-admission into the Arab League, which is not merely symbolic.

In the end, Safadi stated, “we will have to make sure that the entire world community is on board if we are to actually end [the crisis]. “Because at the end of the day there are sanctions, European sanctions, American sanctions, and there will be a huge need for a global effort for reconstruction,” the speaker explains.

But as recently as this week, Vedant Patel, the deputy spokesperson for the US State Department, made it clear that Washington is not in favor of such plans. The US “will not normalize relations with the Assad regime and we do not support others normalizing with Damascus either,” he declared at a State Department briefing in Washington, DC.

We have been quite open about this with our partners, Patel added. The United States considers Resolution 2254 of the UN Security Council to be the only workable solution to the Syrian conflict.

Resolution 2254 supports a plan for a Syrian peace process involving negotiations mediated by the UN between members of the opposition and the Syrian government.

The current quo in Syria, according to Arab states, is unsustainable and is giving them domestic problems. Over the past ten years, Syria has transformed into a narco-state, trafficking extremely addictive amphetamines to Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Arab powers have insisted on finding a regional solution in the absence of what they perceive to be a lack of movement from the international community in its efforts to put an end to the war there, even if that means making peace with a leader whose regime has been accused of heinous war crimes.

Since “there was no effective effort” to resolve the Syrian situation up to this point, Safadi told CNN that the Arab world is now taking the initiative.

Hossam Zaki, assistant secretary-general of the Arab League, stated that the May 19 summit is “a step on the road toward finding and activating Arab solutions to Arab problems and crises” in an editorial article published in the Saudi publication Arab News on Wednesday.

A new modus vivendi

The re-admission of Syria to the Arab League “paves the way for member states who might have been holding back to engage more directly with Assad’s regime,” HA Hellyer, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Cambridge University, told CNN. It also makes it simpler for non-member nations to argue that a new modus vivendi is necessary, such as Turkey and others.

Since years, Syria has been subject to crushing Western sanctions, the most notable of which being the US’s 2019 Caesar Act, which imposed extensive penalties and barred people, businesses, or governments from engaging in economic activity that supported Assad’s war effort. By doing this, the entire economy became untouchable.

According to the UN, Syrians are currently experiencing previously unheard-of levels of poverty and food insecurity. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), more than 12 million Syrians, or more than half the nation’s population, would experience food insecurity by the year 2022.

It is unknown if the US will obstruct Arab states’ efforts to reintegrate Syria into the neighborhood. According to Safadi, who spoke to CNN, Jordan and other Arab nations have ongoing discussions with Washington about the issue and are seeking to find a resolution that complies with UN Resolution 2254.

Analysts claim that while Western powers would complain to the normalization, it is unlikely that they will take any form of action against the Arab states in response because of other pressing international concerns and their general exhaustion with the Syrian situation.

When it comes to normalizing relations with Assad, the US won’t give its friends a veto, according to Hellyer. “The political will for such a move doesn’t exist in DC, especially when there are so many other files that are consuming bandwidth for the US, both in (the Middle East), as well as more broadly internationally, with Ukraine and other issues,” says the author.

According to Qutaiba Idlbi, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, US normalization with the Assad regime is unlikely to benefit the Biden administration in terms of foreign policy or security and will therefore not be pursued, especially in light of the upcoming presidential elections. Despite the public criticism, he said that Washington would view Arab normalization favorably since it “strengthens regional leadership on regional issues.”

However, analysts warned that given the extensive nature of the sanctions on the regime, Syria is more likely to get a political than an economic lifeline from normalization – at least until Arab states can persuade the world community to accept the Syrian president. Analysts predict that’ll be difficult to sell.

The sanctions have left both the American and European governments “handcuffed,” putting a legal barrier to dialogue with the regime, according to Charles Lister, a senior scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.

“I don’t think we are going to be seeing much more than political contact as we watch these regional steps, which are at least symbolic significant,” he said CNN. “There won’t be a significant change in investment in Syria, for sure… Without financial and diplomatic assistance from the West, none of that will be possible. And that just isn’t an option at all.

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