For Syria, it was a proud moment. For president Bashar al-Assad, it was a happy homecoming. The pangs of isolation were firmly behind. Foreign ministers of member nations voted for Syria’s return to the Arab League on May 7th, paving the way for inviting Mr Assad to Saudi Arabia. Soon, Mr Assad was seen in the 32nd regional bloc summit of the League in the port city of Jeddah on May 19th. This is the first summit for Mr Assad since the League suspended Syria’s membership in 2011 for its brutal crackdown on anti-government protests. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/5/19/assad-gets-warm- welcome-as-syria-welcomed-back-into-arab-league
Protests were Spontaneous
At once, Syria’s re-entry into the 22-member Arab League failed to end embattled Syrians’ travails. As president Assad basked in the warmth of welcome hugs and handshakes, roiled Syrians were spewing scorn over the re-admission. Syrians had wanted the Arab League and the rest of the world to reject Mr Assad, who they consider a criminal worthy of outright condemnation. Across Syria, inflamed Syrians thronged cities of Afrin, al-Bab, Azaz, Idlib and Jarabulus with scathing banners. https://npasyria.com/en/98186/
As angry Syrians turned their streets into theatres of mass protest, their plaintive cries “Criminal al-Assad never represents Syria” pierced the air. Arab nations regularising their ties with Mr Assad was not acceptable to Syrians. The protests were not sporadic, they were spontaneous and were seen as far as in Europe – in Amsterdam, London, Lyon, Stockholm, Vaile and Vienna. The protests brought back memories of the Great Syrian Revolution.
Video Courtesy: YouTube/Al Jazeera English
Determined to Free Syria
That revolution was born in response to Mr Assad’s attempts to constrict Syrians’ liberal space. Gasping Syrians had then dived in to fight for their freedom. As the pains of that struggle continue to paralyse the lives of Syrians to date, they couldn’t just reconcile to the idea of Mr Assad’s Syria re-entering the Arab League. Their anti-Assad banners, denouncing the re-entry and normalisation of ties with other Arab nations, echoed their pains of 12 years.
Agonising Syrians are irreconcilably angry over Mr Assad’s pre-meditated genocide. They are not ready to accept the Arab League’s laboured attempt to embrace their dictator, who is singularly responsible for the murder, displacement and imprisonment of more than 23m Syrians in the past 12 years. They seemed impatient for Syria’s freedom from Mr Assad’s tyranny and thuggery, and the endless cycle of violence. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/11/6/at-least-six- killed-after-syrias-attack-on-displaced-camps
Qatar’s Resounding Disapproval
Protesting Syrians are clearly miffed with the Saudi-led Arab nations for shaking Mr Assad’s bloodstained hands. Many Syrians knew the re-entry was work in progress, as covert normalisation was happening since 2011, despite the murder and displacement of millions. In Idlib alone, half of its 3m people are victims of the civil war. Reason why Syrians are protesting against the League’s normalisation with Mr Assad’s toxic regime.
Not all Arab nations are helplessly enamoured by Mr Assad. Qatar is unhappy over Syria’s re-entry into the League. Soon after his arrival, Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani left Jeddah with his delegation. This was a resounding disapproval of Mr Assad’s authoritarian regime and the Arab League’s decision to re-admit Syria. Mr Thani left the summit even before Mr Assad’s speech. Qatar has long been against Syria’s return to the Arab League. https://www.reuters.com/article/saudi-arab- summit-idAFS8N37402Z
The View from a Larger Lens
Mr Assad is undaunted however. In his speech, he termed the summit a ‘historic opportunity’ to address all issues. He looked unmoved by the protests against Syria’s re-admission. He went on to denounce all efforts at meddling in the internal affairs of Arab nations. He took potshots at those he viewed as Syria’s enemies, which includes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Muslim Brotherhood, who are sympathisers of Syrian rebels.
Demonstrators in Syria and Europe refused to believe Mr Assad’s words. Furious Syrians were seen holding aloft banners screaming ‘Normalising with the Assad regime is a betrayal of God, his prophet and Muslims.’ Viewed from a larger lens, Syria’s re-entry into the Arab League is a clear sign that Mr Assad’s isolation is over now. Syria’s re-entry reflects on how much the Arab nations value Mr Assad, his regime and their survival. https://www.theguardian.com/global- development/2023/may/18/assads-regime-took-my-father- normalising-relations-feels-like-an-attempt-to-rewrite-history
The More-Than-Symbolic Hug
The tragedy however is this. The Arab League’s benevolent attitude fails to conform to the West’s rules. Like any other regional satrap, Mr Assad too evokes regionalism often to downplay the West’s Syria philosophy. He loses no opportunity to talk about ‘Arab identity’ and he did so in the Jeddah summit. In a limited sense, Mr Assad was able to forge some sort of a quick-fix Arab identity. Many Arab nations seem to veer around the belief now that Syria’s re-entry marks the beginning of a new era.
Is this why the Arab nations are busy rehabilitating Mr Assad? Yes, if Saudi Arabia is proof. The country was once an ardent supporter of armed anti-Assad groups. Now, it is not only hosting the Arab League summit in Jeddah, it is the prime inspiration for other Arab nations like Egypt to back Mr Assad and his regime. Saudi crown prince and strongman Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) hugging Mr Assad was more than symbolic. https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20230519-syria-s- assad-arrives-in-saudi-arabia-in-first-visit-since-war
In the League’s Best Interest
MBS is not an inconsequential swallow. In fact, he represents the swarm. Saudi Arabia was a former ally of the United States, but now MBS is playing the role of a geopolitical initiator within the Arab world. He has taken many significant diplomatic leads, from reviving relationship with Iran to mediating in the Sudan conflict to re-admitting Syria to hosting the Arab League’s summit in Jeddah now. Not surprising that the rest of the League followed the pied piper of Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi Arabian flip-flop is convincing the United States that isolating Syria is not a pragmatic thing to do. Ideological somersaults of MBS are making the West realise the Isolate-Syria strategy is not working. Meanwhile, the League is apprehensive over an isolated Syria’s temptation to move under Iran’s umbrella. It was thus in the League’s best interest that its members decided to engage Mr Assad all by themselves. https://arabcenterdc.org/resource/arab-states-are-normalizing- with-syrias-assad-regime/#:~:text=On%20March%207%2C%20Saudi%20Foreig n%20Minister%20Faisal%20bin,was%20still%20too%20early% 20to%20discuss%20that%20possibility.
Keep Away from Iran and Russia
Will the re-entry benefit Syria financially? No, in the short term. It will take considerable thought before the West could lift the sanctions slapped on Syria. Washington’s Caesar Act will continue to apply brakes on investments flowing into Syria. The Act and the sanctions will continue to obstruct capital moving into Syria. Reason why the Gulf Cooperation Council members are sure they should invest in Syria now to keep an impulsive Mr Assad away from the evil influences of Iran and Russia.
The fear is real. Mr Assad’s violent crackdown on his own people was made possible largely by huge military backing from Russian president Vladimir Putin. Enthused by the success of his experiment, Mr Putin went on to employ the same Syrian military strategies and tactics in Ukraine later. However, the United States seems not keen on reviving its ties with Syria. The recent Assad Anti-Normalization Act of the United States is aimed at holding Mr Assad to account. This proves the theory that the West may give him a cold shoulder. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy- analysis/treacherous-triangle-syria-iran-and-russia
Resolving Captagon Trade Issues
Syria’s re-entry into the League was a geopolitical necessity for Arab nations. With Syria in the Arab League now, they can hope to resettle millions of Syrian refugees in neighbouring nations and control flow of drugs from Syria, particularly the illegally-produced amphetamine Captagon. With its penetration beoynd Syria’s borders, Captagon is a serious drug issue in Saudi Arabia and its distribution is controlled by Mr Assad’s brother. Worse, Captagon is a major source of export revenue for Mr Assad and the Captagon trade has been spiralling of late. https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20230519-war-on- captagon-key-to-syria-s-return-to-arab-league
These may ultimately prove to be hollow hopes. As Mr Assad is not interested in reforms, he is keen on sustaining Syria’s half-a- century-old dynastic dictatorship and his unending Captagon revenues. Tragically, the Arab League has overblown visions of leveraging Syria to check Russocentric re-alignments and find speedy resolutions to the festering refugee and Captagon trade issues. The ploy of isolating Mr Assad was a proven failure. Now, a similar fate may be in store for end-the-Assad-isolation strategy.