Syria: From ostracism to the red carpet: earthquake accelerates Arab rapprochement with Bashar al-Assad | International

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In November 2011, half a year after the start of the war in Syria and after a failed mediation attempt, the Arab League expelled the country, while the vast majority of its members sided with the rebels trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. . Also turned into a pariah among the main Arab foreign ministries, the Syrian leader barely went abroad for a decade, except to thank his main allies (Russia and Iran) for their involvement on the battlefield that turned the relationship of forces upside down and allows him to control today two thirds of the country.

Twelve years and a deadly earthquake later, El Asad recently received Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Damascus, who in a press conference with his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, described the meeting as an "honor". Shoukry is not only the most relevant Egyptian visitor since the start of the war, but also represents a country with historical weight and a close ally of the United States (which opposes any normalization of the figure of El Asad and insists on the path of the sanctions). On the 7th, one day after the earthquake with its epicenter in Turkey, which claimed some 6,000 lives in Syria, the Egyptian leader, Abdelfatá al Sisi, telephoned El Asad for the first time since he took power almost 10 years ago. So did the King of Bahrain, Hamad Bin Isa al Khalifa.

The earthquake also led to the first visit to Syria by the head of Jordanian diplomacy, Ayman Safadi. It is a new step in the rapprochement embodied in the reopening of the border crossing. The Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, has received El Asad like any other leader, including the red carpet. Three years ago, the sultanate returned its ambassador to Damascus, who had withdrawn in 2012. The video summary of the visit to Oman -accompanied by epic music- that was broadcast by the official agency Sana shows the political and symbolic importance that Syria attaches to its return to the Arab fold.

Bashar al-Assad and the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, recently in Damascus.PA

“Damascus is trying to use the humanitarian catastrophe to break out of international isolation. Shortly after the earthquakes, the regime's public reaction was not to show condolences to all the Syrian people affected by the tragedy, but to use its leading figures to try to achieve legitimacy for Assad. de facto in the international arena”, recently argued Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Chatham House think tank.

Khatib stressed that El Asad did not comment on the earthquake until he visited Aleppo, on the 10th, but his office did list the messages or phone calls that he had received from foreign leaders beforehand. In 2011, Assad repressed the peaceful protests ―arising within the framework of the Arab Spring― until the crisis degenerated into an armed confrontation that has caused some 500,000 deaths and has driven 13 million Syrians from their homes, more than half of them. the population. Its forces have been involved in tens of thousands of disappearances and torture, used chemical weapons and dropped barrel bombs on civilian areas.

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The new handshakes do not represent a 180-degree turn, but the acceleration of a trend that has already been evident in recent years. “The earthquake confers a political opportunity because it provides an excuse. It is very difficult to oppose a show of solidarity in the face of a natural disaster," Dareen Khalifa, a senior Syria analyst at the think tank International Crisis Group. Beyond the logical solidarity in difficult times, several Arab capitals came to the conclusion years ago that El Asad has virtually won the war (he does not control the north, but he does control the most populated parts) and is going to continue in power, so it's time to hug the realpolitik. Others never turned their backs on him, such as Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria or Sudan, whose then president, Omar al Bashir, was the first from an Arab country to meet with him since 2011.

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, spelled out this new dynamic last month at the Munich Security Conference: "There is a growing consensus, not just within the Gulf Cooperation Council, but in [todo] the Arab world, that the status quo It's not viable." Bin Farhan stressed the need "to dialogue with the Damascus government at some point, so that at least the most important objectives are achieved, particularly from the humanitarian point of view and the return of refugees." What he did not mention - and also weighs heavily - is the will to distance Syria from the tutelage of Iran, Riyadh's great strategic enemy.

The key is in the concessions, says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma (United States) and a specialist in Syria. "They are trying to get a price to reintegrate the country, but it will not be easy," the analyst said by phone, who believes that "Washington is going to complain bitterly" about the approaches, "but it is not going to stop them," more even after having temporarily lifted the brake on transactions related to earthquake assistance. In 2020, the Donald Trump Administration extended sanctions on foreign individuals and companies trading with Damascus, further weakening a country with 90% of the population below the poverty line. "If you don't want to starve the Syrian people, you have to deal with Assad, because he is holding the country hostage," Landis points out to illustrate the dilemma.

A man cries over a dead body after a Russian bombardment hit the Syrian city of Aleppo in 2016.
A man cries over a dead body after a Russian bombardment hit the Syrian city of Aleppo in 2016.Anadolu Agency (Getty Images)

The United Arab Emirates is the spearhead in this turn. He was the Arab pioneer to go from supporting the rebels and avoiding the photo with El Asad to receiving it, in 2022, four years after reopening the Embassy. His foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, has already met him three times in Damascus.

Counter Iranian influence

Abu Dhabi champions the group of Arab capitals that has "decided to restore ties [con Damasco] unconditionally to counter Iran's influence,” says Khalifa, who distinguishes two other approaches. One, led by Egypt, is "those who would like to normalize relations, but do not want to stray too far from the position of the United States and Saudi Arabia." Washington gives Cairo more than 1,000 million euros every year and turns a blind eye to human rights violations, while Riyadh is one of its major financiers. When asked in Damascus about the possible reestablishment of ties, the Egyptian foreign minister clarified that his visit was "primarily humanitarian."

The analyst places Qatar ―one of the main supporters of the rebels― and Saudi Arabia in a third group. They are betting on a "conditional normalization" that Khalifa sees as unlikely because El Asad "neither wants nor can reduce Tehran's influence or accept many refugees back", two key issues in the process. Qatar, for example, continues to keep its distance and has only channeled humanitarian aid through Turkey and into the rebel zone.

As a background is the feeling in the Arab world that international sanctions are causing more pain to the civilian population than weakening El Asad and that a new scenario is approaching in which it is convenient to take positions. On the one hand, because of another rapprochement with Syria: the one undertaken by the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, years after calling El Asad a "murderer" and "fascist". On the other, due to the suspicion that, when Joe Biden's presidency ends, the United States will complete the chaotic withdrawal that Trump began in 2019 and will return the 900 soldiers it maintains in Syrian Kurdistan to their homes, just as it abandoned Afghanistan in 2021.

The voice of the Syrian regime before the foreign press, Bouthaina Shaaban, made it clear this week in an interview with RT that El Asad "still believes in good relations" with all Arab countries because "they share a destiny." A message similar to that of Mohammed al Halbusi, the president of the Iraqi Parliament at the head of a parliamentary delegation from the Maghreb and the Middle East that recently visited him: "We cannot be without Syria, nor Syria without its Arab environment, to which we hope it can return ”.

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