Whereas Bashar al-Assad remains to be shunned by the West who blame him for a decade of brutal battle in Syria, a shift is below manner within the Center East the place Arab allies of the US are bringing him in from the chilly by reviving financial and diplomatic ties.
The extension of Assad’s two-decade-old presidency in an election in Could did little to interrupt his pariah standing amongst Western states, however fellow Arab leaders are coming to phrases with the truth that he retains a strong grip on energy.
The chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan has firmed up a perception amongst Arab leaders that they should chart their very own course. Anticipating a extra hands-off strategy from Washington, now preoccupied by the problem of China, Arab leaders are pushed by their very own priorities, notably rehabilitate economies hammered by years of battle and Covid-19.
Political issues additionally loom giant in Arab capitals comparable to Cairo, Amman and Abu Dhabi. These embrace their ties with Assad’s strongest backer, Russia, which has been urgent for Syria’s reintegration, and counter the affect carved out in Syria by Iran and Turkey.
Turkey and its assist for Sunni Islamists throughout the area – together with a swathe of northern Syria that is still exterior Assad’s grasp – is of specific concern to Arab rulers who could make widespread trigger with Damascus towards Islamist teams.
However whereas the indicators of Arab rapprochement with Damascus are rising — King Abdullah of Jordan spoke to Assad for the primary time in a decade this month — US coverage will stay a complicating issue.
Washington says there was no change in its coverage in direction of Syria, which calls for a political transition as set out in a Safety Council decision. US sanctions concentrating on Damascus, tightened below President Donald Trump, nonetheless pose a severe impediment to commerce.
However in Washington, analysts say Syria has hardly been a international coverage precedence for President Joe Biden’s administration. They notice his concentrate on countering China and that his administration has but to use sanctions below the so-called Caesar Act, which got here into drive final 12 months with the intent of including to the stress on Assad.
After being warned towards coping with Damascus by the Trump administration, Arab states are urgent the problem once more.
“US allies within the Arab world have been encouraging Washington to raise the siege on Damascus and permit for its reintegration into the Arab fold,” mentioned David Lesch, a Syria skilled at Trinity College in Texas. “It seems the Biden administration, to some extent, is listening.”
It marks a shift from the early years of the battle when Syria was expelled from the Arab League and states together with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates backed among the rebels that fought Assad.
Breaking down limitations
The last decade-long battle, which spiralled out of a well-liked rebellion towards Assad throughout the “Arab Spring”, has killed a whole lot of hundreds of individuals, uprooted half the inhabitants and compelled thousands and thousands into adjoining states and Europe as refugees.
Anti-Assad rebels nonetheless have a foothold within the north, with assist from Turkey, whereas the east and northeast is managed by Kurdish-led forces backed by the US.
However whereas the battle is unresolved, Assad is again in command of most of Syria thanks largely to Russia and Iran, which have been all the time extra dedicated to his survival than Washington was to his elimination, even when chemical weapons have been fired on insurgent areas.
Jordan, Syria’s neighbour to the south, has been main the pack on the Arab coverage shift with an ailing financial system and a rocky patch in relations with its rich Gulf neighbour Saudi Arabia.
The border between Syria and Jordan was absolutely reopened for commerce final month, and Amman has been a driving drive behind a deal to pipe Egyptian pure gasoline to Lebanon by way of Syria, with an obvious US nod of approval.
“When Jordan breaks these limitations and establishes ties and it’s at this tempo, there can be international locations that can comply with swimsuit,” Samih al-Maaytah, a former Jordanian minister and political analyst, advised Al Mamlaka, a state-owned broadcaster.
The crossing was as soon as plied by a whole lot of vehicles a day transferring items between Europe, Turkey and the Gulf. Reviving commerce can be a shot within the arm for Jordan and Syria, whose financial system is in deep disaster. It also needs to assist Lebanon, now struggling one of many sharpest financial depressions in fashionable historical past.
“I’m completely certain the Jordanians really feel that the US won’t sanction them,” Jim Jeffrey, former US Particular Envoy for Syria below Trump, advised Reuters.
“There’s an incredible buzz amongst media, amongst pals within the area, that the US is not aggressively sanctioning Assad below the Caesar Act or different issues.”
The temper was mirrored ultimately month’s U.N. Basic Meeting, the place Egyptian and Syrian international ministers met for the primary time in a decade, and on the Expo 2020 Dubai exhibition, the place the Syrian and Emirati financial system ministers mentioned the revival of a bilateral enterprise council.
Saudis hesitant however may very well be subsequent
The UAE had invited Syria to Expo 2020 regardless of makes an attempt to “demonise the regime”, mentioned Syria’s ambassador to the UAE, Ghassan Abbas, chatting with Reuters on the Syria pavilion the place the theme was “We Will Rise Collectively”.
“Is there a brand new strategy in coping with Syria? Sure.”
Aaron Stein, Director of Analysis at International Coverage Analysis Institute, mentioned the Biden administration “isn’t concerned about expending diplomatic capital to stop regional governments from doing what they assume is finest vis-a-vis the regime”.
US coverage in Syria is now centered on combating Islamic State militants and humanitarian support, he mentioned.
A US State Division spokesperson mentioned: “What we now have not completed and won’t do is categorical any assist for efforts to normalise or rehabilitate the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad, raise a single sanction on Syria, or change our place to oppose the reconstruction of Syria till there may be irreversible progress in direction of a political answer.”
Whereas many US allies within the area pursue contemporary ties with Damascus, regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia nonetheless seems hesitant.
“The massive effort is to get Saudi Arabia and Syria into some form of reconciliation, and I feel Saudi is coming round, they’re simply ready for the US,” mentioned Joshua Landis, Syria specialist on the College of Oklahoma.