As West Asia diplomacy shifts, Syria’s Assad is no longer untouchable

Saudi Arabia, which once backed anti-regime rebels and led the regional efforts to isolate Syria, is now leading Damascus back into the Arab fold as part of a major foreign policy realignment

Published - April 20, 2023 04:13 pm IST

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad chats with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, in Damascus, Syria, on April 18, 2023

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad chats with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, in Damascus, Syria, on April 18, 2023 | Photo Credit: via Reuters

In 2011, when civil strife broke out in Syria following street protests, Saudi Arabia led the Arab efforts to isolate the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and expel the country from the Arab League. When the Sunni-majority country ruled by the secular Arab Baath party slid into a civil war, Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies in the Gulf backed different rebel groups that were fighting Mr. Assad, who belonged to the minority Alawite community (an offshoot of Shiism). One of such groups was Ahrar al-Sham, which wanted to overthrow the Assad regime and build an Islamic state in Syria based on Sharia.

But those days seem like a distant past. Recent weeks saw Arab countries and Syria trying to rebuild their lost bonhomie. Jordan and Egypt recently sent their Foreign Ministers to Damascus for their first top level visits since the civil war broke out. Mr. Assad travelled to the UAE last month where he was greeted by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the ruler of the seven Emirates. Earlier this week, Tunisia became the latest Arab country to normalise relations with Syria. On Tuesday, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan travelled to Damascus where he held talks with Mr. Assad. Saudi Arabia, which is hosting the next Arab League summit in May, is reportedly pushing for Syria’s re-entry into the grouping. Bashar al-Assad, who everybody wanted to go until a few years ago, is no longer untouchable.

Victory in the civil war

These changes are part of the larger realignments that are under way in West Asia, say experts. On March 10, Saudi Arabia reached a deal with Iran to reestablish diplomatic relations, in secret talks mediated by China. The Saudis are also holding talks with Yemen’s Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, to end the eight-year-long war in that country.

“The normalisation between Saudi Arabia and Syria shows that regional powers are reassessing their strategies after Assad retook control of most of Syria in recent years,” said Mohammed Soliman, director at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “It also reflects Riyadh’s approach vis-à-vis Tehran, which includes the China-backed Saudi-Iran agreement, the evolving ties with Baghdad, and now the restoration of ties with Syria,” Mr. Soliman told The Hindu.  

Iran and Saudi Arabia were at opposing sides in Syria’s civil war. While Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey backed different rebel factions in Syria, Iran and Russia supported the Assad regime. Iran mobilised Shia militias, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, to fight alongside Mr. Assad’s forces, while Russia came to the regime’s help in September 2015. They collectively turned around the civil war, leading to Mr. Assad recapturing most of the territories lost to the rebels and jihadists, from Aleppo to Homs. At present, the regime directly controls most of the country except Idlib, a province in the northwest that’s ruled by jiahdist Tahrir al-Sham (an al-Qaeda-linked group), the Kurdish regions and some enclaves on the Turkish border.

Mr. Assad’s victory made most Arab countries rethink their strategy. The UAE made the first move when it reestablished formal ties with Damascus in late 2018. Mr. Assad has visited Abu Dhabi twice ever since. The February earthquake that killed thousands of people in Turkey and Syria turned out to be a diplomatic opportunity for Damascus and its Arab neighbours. Syria wanted help and its neighbours seemed ready to bring this old Arab brother in from the cold.

Jordan immediately held talks with the Assad regime, which was followed by others. Once Saudi Arabia, arguably the most powerful and influential Arab country, warmed up to normalising ties with Damascus, it gave a fresh momentum to diplomacy. Now, re-accommodating Mr. Assad fully into the Arab mainstream is a matter of time. 

Failed policies

“Why did the Saudis change their policy towards Syria? The reason is that the previous policy did not work,” Foad Izadi, Associate Professor, Faculty of World Studies, University of Tehran, said. In an interview with The Hindu, Mr. Izadi said the Saudis spent billions of dollars on their Syria plan to topple the government. “The result was death, destruction and civil war in that country... all that money was not enough for them to achieve their goal.”

But engagement could help them find some stability in West Asia. In the case of Syria, other Arab countries have accepted the fact that Mr. Assad has won the civil war. The next step is to push for political reforms inside the country, create circumstances for the Syrian refugees, millions of them are still living in neighbouring countries, to return, keep the Islamist forces, whom the other Arab countries consider as a threat, under check, and roll back Iran’s growing influence in Damascus. None of these goals can be met if they continue to boycott Mr. Assad, who is not going anywhere.  

“It’s good news for everybody in this part of the world that the Saudi government is changing its policy towards Syria, Yemen, Iran, etc. They have realised that engaging and cooperating with these countries is going to be better for the Saudi government than confronting them or engaging in hostile activities,” said Mr. Izadi.

Remaining challenges

While Syria’s return to the Arab fold marks a turn of the page in West Asia’s tumultuous contemporary history, a return to the pre-civil war normalcy faces critical challenges. One, the wounds of the civil war, in which millions of people were killed, are still fresh for many Syrians. It is to be seen whether Mr. Assad would be ready for serious political reforms at home or how the Kurdish question or Idlib problem are going to be addressed. Mr. Assad, at least in public comments, maintains that he would take back the whole country, if needed, through force. Second, the U.S., the region’s traditional great power, is not happy with the Arab-Syria rapprochement as Damascus continues to remain under Western sanctions.

“Obviously, the U.S. and Israel encouraged the Saudi government to engage in the previous policy and it’s very clear that they don’t like the new policy. And given the fact that the U.S. has a lot of influence in Saudi Arabia, the fear is that the U.S. would use that influence to force the Saudi government to change the policy. The hope we have is that the Saudi government can resist this type of pressure,” added Mr. Izadi. 

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