Syrian Tourism Minister Mohammed Rami Martini (center) attends a tourism conference in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh on May 26. It was a rare visit by a representative of Syria’s Bashar Assad government to an international forum hosted by Saudi Arabia.
https://www.npr.org-Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images
BEIRUT — There is a slow march back to Damascus by Arab nations that cut relations with Syria’s authoritarian leader Bashar Assad during the country’s decade-long civil war.
Arab countries — including states that invested millions in backing an armed uprising against the Assad regime — are among the first to be building back diplomatic ties with the government. A few European nations, including Greece and Hungary, have also reportedly reopened embassies in Damascus in some capacity.
The United States says it still stands against normalization with the regime, whose war crimes have been widely documented, but it has stopped short of publicly criticizing others — including key U.S. partners in the Middle East — that are moving in that direction.
“Fundamentally, there is this sense of inertia that Bashar al-Assad is the once and future president of Syria, and that no one is willing to remove him from power forcibly now,” says Nicholas Heras, a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, D.C.
In the Middle East, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are among the countries that have reopened embassies in the Syrian capital, Damascus. Oman has reinstated an ambassador.
Saudi Arabia, which funneled money and guns to the rebels in the war, has reportedly sent intelligence officials to meet with their Syrian counterparts. In March, Syrian tourism minister Mohammad Rami Martini attended a conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh, becoming the first Syrian official to publicly visit the kingdom in a decade.
Article continues after sponsor message
The UAE’s overtures to the Assad regime
The most prominent example of Arab rapprochement with Damascus comes from the UAE, a key U.S. partner in the region. Once an opponent to the Assad regime, the Gulf state now openly supports it.
The UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018. The chargé d’affaires, Abdul-Hakim Naimi, has publicly praised Assad’s “wise leadership” and said the UAE’s relations with Syria are “solid, distinct and strong.”
In April, the Emirates sent a planeload of food and medical aid, including COVID-19 vaccines, to Damascus to help the government cope with the pandemic. The UAE has also reportedly offered the Syrian regime significant assistance behind the scenes. As far back as 2019, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad thanked the UAE for “standing by Syria in the war against terrorism.”
Several political analysts with deep expertise and connections in Syria tell NPR the UAE’s support also seems to include releasing money frozen in Emirati banks due to sanctions, sending planes filled with aid and cash to Damascus and even offering to fund a Syrian military operation against Turkish-backed rebels in Syria.
“It seems that the Emirates are helping Damascus tremendously in all means and in all fronts,” says Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian journalist in London who has been tracking relations between the UAE and Syria.
The UAE’s ministry of foreign affairs did not respond to NPR’s request for comment.
By engaging with Syria and its backer, Russia, countries like the UAE hope they can influence Syria’s future and contain the power of their rivals. The UAE’s priorities include trying to counter the influence of Iran, which backs the Syrian regime, and Turkey, which funds and trains militia groups in Syria’s northern Idlib province.
“The thinking in Gulf capitals is that they are not sitting at the table to shape the future of Syria,” says Emile Hokayem, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. They want to change that.
But, Hokayem says, even as Gulf countries open communications with Damascus, there is still real hesitancy over the prospect of full normalization. Syria’s finances are in ruin and Hokayem says there are not obvious financial incentives to normalizing. As long as Western sanctions remain in place, lucrative construction projects, for example, remain mostly out of reach.
And so far, the Assad government has shown itself unwilling or unable to make significant changes, such as in limiting the influence in Syria of Iran, its strong ally, or in releasing political prisoners from jails notorious for torture and executions.
What the U.S. silence may mean
James Jeffrey, who served as special representative for Syria engagement under former President Donald Trump, says Trump’s White House to some extent pressured countries not to normalize with Syria. But the U.S. now is staying quiet: “What we are not doing now,” he says, “is discouraging the Emiratis and others from doing these openings to Assad.”
This may be because the Biden administration is reevaluating its Syria policy, Jeffrey says.
In an emailed statement, a State Department spokesperson told NPR that the U.S. urges countries in the Middle East to “consider carefully the atrocities visited by the Assad regime on the Syrian people over the last decade, as well as the regime’s continuing efforts to deny much of the country access to humanitarian aid and security.”
Jeffrey and Heras both say there’s a split in the Biden administration between those wanting to continue to isolate the Syrian government and those who, in Jeffrey’s words, want to “disengage and move on.”
The administration’s recent focus was to keep open the United Nations’ cross-border aid operations in parts of Syria not controlled by the Assad government. Mark Lowcock, who recently stepped down as the U.N. humanitarian chief, has described this entry point as a “lifeline” for almost 3 million Syrians in the country’s north. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution last week to continue these operations for another 12 months.
Hokayem says much will depend on the U.S. approach to Syria. The U.S. still keeps an estimated 900 troops in the northeastern part of the country, protecting oil fields as part of its stated mission to continue to oppose ISIS in this region.
A grand bargain with Russia?
Jeffrey says that since America is not working to set clear limitations on other countries’ engagement with the regime, other nations are simply forging ahead with their own approaches to Damascus.
“It’s one of the excuses that the administration is using, or at least some in the administration are using: ‘Well, the Arabs have all given up,'” Jeffrey says, on efforts to maintain pressure on Assad. “No. To some degree, they’ve given up because nobody in Washington is pressuring them to keep Assad out of the Arab League, keep the diplomatic and economic pressure on him.”
Strict U.S. sanctions still prevent countries from engaging in any meaningful dealings with the regime. Contributing to Syria’s reconstruction, for example, remains off the table for now.
Some analysts have suggested the Biden administration may choose to selectively wind down sanctions in a grand bargain with Russia to shape Syria’s future. Days before President Biden’s summit last month with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the U.S. Treasury lifted sanctions on two Dubai-based firms belonging to Samer Foz, a top Syrian businessman aligned with Assad.
A State Department spokesperson says this decision was not politically motivated and tells NPR the removal of these two companies from the sanctions list “resulted from a technical determination that there was a verified change in circumstances or status on the part of the sanctioned companies.”
Normalization will be a bitter pill for Syria’s opposition
For the Syrian opposition, the willingness of other countries to engage with the Assad regime and the absence of U.S. criticism about their doing so are bitter pills to swallow.
Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian author and pro-opposition commentator on the U.S.-based Arabic-language Alhurra satellite TV channel, says allowing the Syrian regime to come in from the cold will set a dangerous precedent.
“The least we can do is keep this regime isolated and de-legitimized,” he says. “Because once you accept them as OK, you’re basically saying genocide is OK or mass murder, crimes against humanity on a mass scale, systematic torture and prison, mass rape — all of these crimes, basically, are acceptable.”
He says this sends a signal to other dictators in the world that human rights no longer matter.
Nada Homsi contributed reporting to this story from Beirut.