Nearly four months ago Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad basked in the region’s spotlight as he received outpouring support from fellow Arab leaders who took the surprising step of re-embracing his regime despite growing international isolation.
Today, however, Al-Assad does not seem to be in a rush to show his gratitude for the Arab overture that capped what has been a dramatic recovery for him and his regime.
He also does not seem to see the need to address or even to acknowledge the challenges to Syria’s stabilisation that demand outside support.
In a striking development, Al-Assad has refused to make any major concessions in exchange for his regional rehabilitation, widely anticipated since the Arab nations restored normal relations with his regime in Jeddah in May.
In a rare TV interview this week Al-Assad played down expectations of closer ties with the Arab world following Syria’s return to the Arab League, which has ended 12 years of the Al-Assad regime’s isolation since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011.
The rapprochement was seen as a precursor to the end of the conflict in Syria and raised the prospect that the oil-rich Arab countries could provide badly needed funding to rebuild the war-ravaged nation.
But Al-Assad used his first public appearance before the Arab public in years to dial down any such expectations. “I cannot expect. I can hope,” Al-Assad told the UAE-owned Sky News Arabia TV channel.
Speaking as Syria’s economy has been coming under severe pressure, Al-Assad even went on to stress that it would be “unrealistic to expect that normalisation with the Arab world would lead to economic results within months.”
In the final communiqué issued after the Jeddah Summit, the Arab leaders said their resolution to bring back the Al-Assad regime to the Arab fold aimed to “preserve Syria’s territorial integrity and independence” and to “help end the Syrian people’s suffering”.
They also signaled a desire to see Al-Assad’s rehabilitation reverse several aspects associated with the crisis in Syria, including the regime’s compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 that calls for a comprehensive and credible political solution to the conflict in the country.
By reestablishing normal relations with the Al-Assad regime, the Arab countries are signaling their desire to work out a roadmap that will prioritise addressing drug-trafficking networks, the refugee crisis, weakened border security, and Iran’s growing political and military influence in Syria.
The dramatic shift signaled at the Jeddah Summit appeared to be Al-Assad’s greatest chance to end Syria’s isolation in years and to launch a new beginning to settling the country’s protracted and bloody conflict.
But Al-Assad’s remarks to the UAE-owned TV channel painted a vivid picture of the extraordinary lengths he could go to in order to deliver on the Arab desire to see a breakthrough in the Syrian conflict.
Al-Assad actually dismissed the Arab League, as “not an institution in the full sense of the word”. He described inter-Arab relationships as “impractical” and mere “rhetoric” and “formalities.”
On more tangible issues, he told the TV channel that the worsening living conditions in Syria had discouraged displaced Syrians, who number in the millions, from returning to their homeland.
He shunned as “illogical” accusations that his regime is behind the flourishing trafficking in the amphetamine-like drug Captagon across the region.
One issue that has remained absent from Al-Assad’s post-normalisation narrative is Iran’s increasing engagement in Syria and the question of whether he will make any effort to mitigate the Arabs’ concern about Tehran’s influence in Syria and its encroachment into the wider region.
This is a typical blunder by Al-Assad, who has always tried to weather the horrendous consequences of the savage civil war that has wrecked Syria by pointing fingers at others.
The embrace of his regime by the Arabs at the Jeddah Summit is being viewed by him as a triumph, and he remains strenuously opposed to any attempts to blame him for his regime-made mischiefs.
Since Syria was readmitted to the Arab world more than three months ago, there have been no signs that the Al-Assad regime is re-engaging or making the concessions sought by the Arab countries under a step-by-step roadmap ironed out in Jeddah.
Following the summit, a liaison committee of high-level officials from Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia was formed to follow up on next steps in the normalisation.
The approach was aimed at confidence-building with a view to finding a political solution to the conflict in the country.
The group was tasked with carrying out contacts with Syria on steps to be taken to address the Arabs’ concerns on drug-smuggling, border security, refugees and the internally displaced, and a political settlement to the crisis.
The mechanism gained momentum on Tuesday when foreign ministers from the five countries and Arab League Chief Ahmed Abul-Gheit met in Cairo to discuss the issues with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad.
No progress was reported at the meeting, but Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri told journalists that the participants had listened to a briefing by Mekdad on “efforts to resolve the crisis”.
He said the committee had stressed the “importance of complying with all UN Resolutions relevant to the conflict in Syria and in particular Security Council Resolution 2245”.
Shoukri said the group had also urged Damascus to resume discussions with the Syrian opposition on drafting a new constitution for the country, as mandated by the UN Resolution aiming to find a political solution to the crisis.
In its reports of the Cairo meeting, Syria’s state-controlled media highlighted points in the final statement that underscored maintaining Syria’s sovereignty and integrity and the need to end the suffering of its people.
Ostensibly, the flurry of visits and meetings over recent months suggests that Al-Assad wants to mend fences with the Arabs on his own terms without making meaningful concessions on key issues regarding Syria’s future.
Neither in the final communiqué of the Jeddah Summit nor in their unscripted remarks about Syria’s readmission to the League did the Arab leaders make any public commitments in return for rapprochement.
In addition to breaking his global isolation and working to end the US and EU sanctions against Syria Al-Assad would hope to see economic gains from renewed ties with the Arab world and specifically help from the oil-rich nations in rebuilding the country’s ravaged economy.
After 12 years of conflict, Syria’s economy is in ruins. It faces enormous challenges after the civil war destroyed infrastructure, hurt businesses, and disrupted daily life.
The reconstruction should go well beyond rebuilding infrastructure and take in restarting the economy, stabilising the currency, and renewing public services, in particular education, healthcare, electricity, and water.
Over the past month, the Syrian currency the lira has plummeted to unprecedented levels. It now stands at 15,000 lira to the dollar, marking a 30 per cent loss in value within a single month.
The rapid erosion of the value of the currency has plunged Syrians already living in impoverished conditions into a deeper abyss and made them unable to withstand any further deterioration in their circumstances.
Syria’s economy has suffered largely because of the sanctions imposed by the European countries and the US since 2011, which led to the suspension of all bilateral economic ties and the provision of loans and technical assistance.
The measures were intensified by the US Caesar Act of 2020, seen as the toughest and widest round of sanctions on Syria yet. The Act has deprived the regime of the resources it needs to prop up the country’s economic output.
The US and its western allies are clear that they do not support restoring ties or lifting economic sanctions on an unapologetic and unreformed regime in Damascus.
The refugee and displacement crisis is another major challenge faced by Damascus that the Arab countries would also like to see serious efforts made by the Al-Assad regime to tackle in all its political, economic, social, and security aspects.
According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, more than 14 million Syrians have fled their homes, with millions believed to have sought shelter in neighbouring countries, straining their economies and public services.
A key challenge for Al-Assad is his lack of control over a large swathe of Syrian territory that remains either under the control of foreign powers like Russia, Iran, and Turkey or under the control of Kurdish militias or the radical Islamist groups that are in control of most of northern Syria.
It is unclear, therefore, what rehabilitating Al-Assad would mean for the Arab world while he is still ostracised by most of the rest of the world. Syria remains in crisis, with nearly one third of the country beyond the regime’s reach and most of its population either in the diaspora or opposed to his rule.
For Al-Assad, the embrace at the Jeddah gathering was a significant symbolic victory. In his speech to the Summit, he boasted that “Syria is the beating heart of pan-Arabism” and “he who is the heart cannot be placed in the folds.”
Since then, he has shown over and over again that he is unwilling to engage even in a token effort to compromise on a political deal to end the conflict in Syria that continues to sharply divide and wreck the nation.
By reestablishing relations, a fatigued Arab world is courting Syria partly because it has itself been consumed by numerous conflicts and wants to restore normality and stability to the region.
But with little or no progress made on a step-by-step solution to the Syrian crisis, there are plenty of reasons to believe that the rapprochement with Al-Assad will begin to look increasingly fragile and even meaningless.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 24 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly