Return of Assad: Has the Syrian dictator won?
Thousands of Syrians in the north of their country protested about it. Syrian activists and human rights organizations are staunchly opposed to it. Yet, despite the outcry and ongoing protests, Syria’s authoritarian leader, Bashar Assad, is slowly being groomed for rehabilitation on the regional, if not the global, stage.
Shortly after the beginning of the revolution in Syria in 2011 and the Assad government’s brutal repression of peaceful anti-government protests, most Arab nations cut ties with Assad. But just over a decade later, the tide appears to be changing as regional leaders reconsider ties to Damascus with a view toward migration as well as their own security and economic affairs.
Last week, the United Arab Emirates foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was in Damascus to meet with Assad. Also last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — known as a longtime Assad foe — said he too might soon meet with the Syrian ruler and his Russian allies. For years, Syria has enjoyed support from the UAE. In late December 2018, the UAE and Bahrain reopened their embassies in Damascus, after both were closed in 2011. Since late 2018, support for Assad’s government, which is accused of a wide variety of war crimes and crimes against humanity, has been gradually building.
Among various milestones: In September 2021, energy ministers from Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt agreed that Lebanon would import Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity via Syria.
In October 2021, the Jordanian king, the first Arab leader to call for Assad to step down, telephoned the Syrian leader. It was the first such conversation between the two in a decade and came after several months of Syrian-Jordanian cooperation on security and trade.
Several countries, including Iraq, Lebanon, Oman and Algeria, have also called for Syria to be welcomed back into the Arab League, which has 22 members and fosters regional ties. Syria was suspended from the body in 2011. But, as Christopher Phillips, a professor of international relations at the Queen Mary University of London, wrote in a Washington Post analysis in 2019, following a flurry of pro-Assad gestures in the Arab world, “Assad’s road to full rehabilitation remains blocked by three significant obstacles: the United States, the European Union and NATO-ally Turkey.”
However, this month, as Turkey’s Erdogan speculated about a high-level meeting, Phillips’ final point looked as though it might not be a barrier much longer.
Erdogan’s comments about meeting Assad came after senior Turkish and Syrian officials had already met in Moscow. Russia, an important Syrian ally, has been heavily involved in its civil war and pushing for better relations between Turkey and Syria. The three countries’ foreign ministers will likely meet later this month.
But one should be careful about seeing Erdogan’s overtures as a genuine reconciliation, Phillips said.
“There’s a big difference between security ministers and foreign ministers agreeing to see each other and a full reconciliation,” he explained. “There are huge obstacles to that, most notably in Idlib and northern Syria, the areas that Turkey is currently controlling.” Turkey has continuously supported the Syrian opposition during the conflict, and Idlib, the last rebel-held territory in Syria, is protected by Turkey as are other, smaller areas in northern Syria. Turkey is unlikely to want to withdraw from these parts of Syria anytime soon.
This article was provided by Deutsche Welle