Gulf nations bloc moving to welcome Syria back into the fold after Bashar al-Assad’s brutal repression of protests
Gulf nations are moving to readmit Syria into the Arab League, eight years after Damascus was expelled from the regional bloc over its brutal repression of peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad.
At some point in the next year it is likely Assad will be welcomed on to a stage to once again take his place among the Arab world’s leaders, sources say. Shoulder to shoulder with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and Egypt’s latest autocrat, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the moment will mark the definitive death of the Arab spring, the hopes of the region’s popular revolutions crushed by the newest generation of Middle Eastern strongmen.
Syria was thrown out of the Arab League in 2011 over its violent response to opposition dissent, a move that failed to stem the bloodshed that spiralled into civil war.
Now though, a regional thaw is already under way. This week, the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, became the first Arab League leader to visit Syria in eight years, a visit widely interpreted as a gesture of friendship on behalf of Saudi Arabia, which has shored up ties with Khartoum in recent years. Pro-government media outlets posted pictures of the two leaders shaking hands and grasping each other’s arms on a red carpet leading from the Russian jet that ferried Bashir to Damascus along with the hashtag “More are yet to come”.
Diplomatic sources have told the Guardian there is a growing consensus among the league’s 22 members that Syria should be readmitted to the alliance of Arab nations, although the US is pressuring both Riyadh and Cairo to hold off on demanding a vote from members.
The move comes despite Assad’s intimate ties to Iran, to whom the regime owes its survival. For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, re-embracing Syria is a new strategy aimed at pivoting Assad away from Tehran’s sphere of influence, fuelled by the promise of normalised trade relations and reconstruction money.
Both Syrian and external estimates say around $400bn (£315bn) is needed to rebuild the country, but the UN will refuse to send a penny until Assad engages with the UN peace process.
The full sum will probably never materialise and much of Syria is likely to remain in ruins – but Riyadh’s pockets are much deeper than Tehran and Moscow’s. Any forthcoming Gulf reconstruction money will be directed to areas that stayed loyal to the government throughout the war as a reward.
“Arab leaders in the Gulf have long acquiesced to the idea of Bashar al-Assad surviving in power. In the end, in the big scheme of regional revolution and counter-revolution, Assad was one of them – an Arab autocrat fighting against what especially Emirati and Egyptian leaders consider subversive revolutionary and Islamist forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Tobias Schneider, a research fellow at Berlin’s Global Public Policy Institute.
“Assad will be angling to pragmatically extract as much out of the regional powers’ ambitions as he can … Incremental steps towards normalisation without risking his own survival in a new bout of regional competition.”
Assad himself told a Kuwaiti newspaper in October that Syria has reached a “major understanding” with Arab states after years of hostility. His foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, was seen warmly shaking the hand of his Bahraini counterpart, Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, on the sidelines of the United Nations general assembly earlier this year.
“What’s happening in Syria concerns us more than anybody else in the world. Syria is an Arab country, after all. It is not right for its affairs to be handled by regional and international players in our absence,” Khalifa told reporters.
Calls in Egyptian and Gulf media for Syria’s reinstatement were backed by the Arab Parliament, a toothless Arab League auxiliary, earlier this month, and have been boosted by rumours about the reopening of the Emirati embassy in Damascus, which observers believe would serve as a backchannel for Saudi diplomatic overtures.
A source in the city said that cleaners, decorators and other tradespeople have recently been seen entering the building, shuttered since relations were cut off in 2011. Barbed wire and concrete barriers at the front of the building have been removed.
Jordan has reopened a southern border crossing, Israel is working with Russia to reduce tensions in the disputed Golan Heights, and even Turkey – the sponsor of the last pocket of Syrian rebels in the country’s north-west – has suggested it will work with Assad if he is returned to office in “free and fair” elections.
However, for the west, Syria is likely to remain a pariah state. “There is of course always the question of how long international isolation lasts and in what ways it could start to break down. It will probably start within the region,” a European diplomat said.
“Our position remains firm, however. There’s no credible, genuine settlement process under way yet in Syria, so fundamentally there’s still no incentive for reconciliation with the regime.”
Assad may no longer care: his political horizons have been secured by Iran and Russia, and now Arab neighbours are clamouring to recover lost influence.
The remains of the Syrian political opposition have stuck to their demand for the regime to engage with the UN sponsored peace process. Privately, however, one member expressed frustration at the Arab countries who threw their weight behind Syria’s revolution in 2011.
“The regime should only be allowed to regain its seat at the table anywhere when [a 2015 UN ceasefire resolution] is implemented. We know this. It is not new. Our Arab brothers do not act like brothers.”