Assad in Jeddah: Tangibly, what does this mean for Syria?

by Giorgio Cafiero, published on The Cradle, May 30, 2023

Twelve days after Syria regained its membership in the Arab League, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad addressed the pan-Arab body at its 19 May summit in Jeddah. This was Assad’s first Arab League meeting in 12 years. It was also his first visit to Saudi Arabia since October 2010, making the kingdom the third Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member – after Oman and the UAE – to welcome him for an official visit this year.

His participation at the gathering was a watershed in Damascus’s return to the region’s diplomatic arena and a sign of a collective desire by most Arab governments, with the notable exception of Qatar, to reintegrate Syria into the fold and ends it isolation.

During Assad’s first speech at an Arab League summit since his country’s November 2011 suspension, he lambasted the west and said that “for Syria, its past, present, and future is Arabism.” The Syrian president called for an end to outside interference in Arab countries’ internal affairs. His address centered on the recognition of a new multipolar geopolitical order and highlighted Syria’s reconciliation with various regional governments.

“Today we have an opportunity in a world with several poles as a result of western dominance, which lacks principles, manners, friends, and partners.”

“This Arab League summit is a historic opportunity to address regional issues without foreign interference, which requires us to reposition in the world that is forming today in order for us to play an active role in it as we take advantage of the positive atmosphere following the reconciliations that preceded the summit today.”

Reasserting Arab independence

The Syrian president also told summit attendees that he hopes the event will mark “the beginning of a new phase of Arab action for solidarity among us, for peace in our region, development, and prosperity instead of war and destruction.”

Commenting on Assad’s address, Dr. Joseph A Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Centre in Riyadh, tells The Cradle:

“It was ironic that Syrian President Bashar Assad thanked Saudi Arabia for promoting the reconciliation in the region… Still, much of what was discussed in public at Jeddah was superficial, although one assumed that far more substantial conversations occurred behind closed doors.

While embracing his fellow Arabs, Assad lashed out at Turkiye and Israel during his address. Despite Damascus and Ankara’s gradual movement toward reconciliation under Russian auspices, the Syrian president condemned Turkiye’s military deployment into northern Syria and its sponsorship of various anti-government militias.

By citing the “danger of expansionist Ottoman thought” and the Muslim Brotherhood, Assad likely resonated with some attendees whose governments share Syria’s view of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. He also declared that “there are many issues for which there are not enough words or summits, including the crimes of the Zionist entity [Israel]… against the resisting Palestinians.”

While Assad’s speech carried significant rhetoric and symbolism, the question remains whether Syria’s regained Arab League membership and its warm welcome in Saudi Arabia will deliver the tangible changes the country desperately needs.

Here are five of the most pressing issues facing Syria today, each of which can be solved inter-regionally, if western pressures are held at bay:

Sanctions circumvention

First, with Washington doubling down on its Caesar Act, Damascus will be looking to find Arab partner states to help circumvent or undermine these sanctions, and devise tactics to do so. Thus far, the US’s crippling sanctions on Syria have deterred the wealthier GCC states from investing in the country’s reconstruction and redevelopment.

Camille Otrakji, a Damascus-born, Montreal-based Syria specialist, tells The Cradle that, presently, Arab states find themselves benefiting from the temporary [sanctions] respite provided by the 180-day general license issued by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)” in response to the devastating 6 February earthquake.

“Additionally, these states have forged an understanding with the Biden administration, recognizing that engagement with Syria can yield mutually advantageous outcomes…Nevertheless, there exist indirect avenues through which the Arabs can extend support to the Syrian government without transgressing the boundaries of existing sanctions.”

The Syrian leadership is trying to loosen the US sanctions noose with help from fellow Arab League members, particularly those such as the UAE which have considerable clout in Washington. Arab states also have options for doing business with Syria in ways that could escape the US Treasury Department’s radar – in local currencies, for instance.

These include going through the Russians and Iranians or “construct[ing] barter-like relationships and buy[ing] into long-term shares of things that are constructed in the form of direct transfers of regional currencies,” as Dr. Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC, recently told CNN.

Regardless of how US President Joe Biden or his eventual successor approach Syria and the Caesar Act, officials in Damascus may conclude that time is on their side, even if patience is necessary. The Syrian government is banking on a new, less west-centric, and more multipolar world order emerging over the next few years.

As Otrakji tells The Cradle, “President Assad, during his address at the Arab summit, articulated Syria’s strategy as one of patient waiting, capitalizing on opportunities while the United States grapples with a diminishing hold on global affairs.”

Indeed, as the world moves toward de-dollarization, US sanctions will have less of an impact everywhere. Influential Arab capitals like Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, now openly engaging and transacting with US-sanctioned Russia, Iran, and China – may be less deterred from doing business with Syria. Others more aligned with or dependent on Washington may be hesitant to do so, which is why Damascus may be hoping for the Saudis and Emiratis to first blaze that path.

Iran’s role

Second, Arab governments eager to bring Syria back to the Arab League may try to leverage these relations to reduce Iran’s role in the war-torn country. For now, according to Arab League Assistant Secretary General Hossam Zaki, the institution’s members “put aside” their demand that Iranian forces withdraw from Syria.

If true, this would be a major concession on the part of GCC states – one that would add to Tehran’s sense of confidence in the region following the 10 March diplomatic agreement with Saudi Arabia that eased the Islamic Republic’s regional isolation.

It is fairly certain that Arab states will continue trying to leverage their reengagement with Damascus in ways aimed at reducing Syria’s strategic dependence on Iran, regardless of whether this is realistic or not. But many experts are doubtful about Saudi Arabia and other GCC/Arab states succeeding on this front.

History matters,” explains Dr. Marina Calculli, a Columbia University research fellow in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies, to The Cradle.

“The alliance between Syria and Iran has an ideological origin. It is grounded in the conviction that Syria and Iran do not have the space they deserve in the international order. Internal opposition to this alliance within the Assad [government] has been obliterated. It is unlikely that Syria will trade its alliance with Iran for some business investments lightly.”

The Captagon trade

Third, is a regional desire to stem the illicit Captagon trade, which Washington and others have largely attributed to Syria and its government. Although Assad did not address this topic in his 19 May Jeddah speech, it is an important agenda item for Arab states flooded with the illicit “war drug.”

The hope is that reestablishing relations with Damascus can mobilize the Assad government to target drug trafficking. With the country still under heavy US sanctions, including the CAPTAGON Act, trade in the highly-addictive amphetamine provides Syrian and other regional dealers with billions in revenue each year.

The Caesar Act has not worked: impoverishing Syria further inhibits access to financial resources that can target the drug trade. Regardless, Iraq and Jordan have reportedly agreed to cooperate with Syria’s government in tackling the Captagon trade across their borders. Whether Damascus’s cooperation on this front has just been about optics and short-term political calculations or reflects a genuine desire to work with other regional states on the issue is unclear.

Captagon is Assad’s golden card, its strategic asset in the normalization game. He would be willing to take down the Captagon trade only in exchange for meaningful restoration of economic relations with Arab countries and beyond,” argues Dr. Calculli.

The illegal US occupation

Fourth, is the glaring issue of the illegal US military presence in northeastern Syria. Damascus has consistently called on US forces to leave the country, and now Assad’s government is obtaining stronger support from other Arab states – along with Russia, Iran, and China – when making this demand.

In early May, Egyptian, Iraqi, Jordanian, and Saudi officials met with their Syrian counterparts and expressed their collective desire to see Assad’s government take full territorial control of Syria. Whether these US-friendly Arab states supporting the Syrian government’s position on the US occupation of Syria will have any effect on Washington’s policies remains an open question.

Yet, some experts doubt that the Syria’s return to the Arab League will impact the US military presence in Syria where American troops persistently exploit the country’s natural resources. Fatima Alghool, a Damascus-based Syrian journalist, believes what will matter most for the future of the US occupation of Syrian land is the outcome of the 2024 presidential election. She explained to The Cradle that there are two likely scenarios whereby the US military would retreat from Syria:

“The first is an agreement with Damascus, which is unlikely in the foreseeable future. The second is the repetition of the Iraqi scenario, and the withdrawal of the American forces due to the high costs they pay, whether financially or morally.”

Syrian refugee crisis

Fifth, is the conundrum over what to do with more than 5.5 million externally displaced Syrian refugees in the region. As underscored by the way the Syrian refugee issue played out in this month’s Turkish elections, those countries hosting millions of displaced Syrians since 2011 have had to deal with extreme economic challenges in doing so. Today, there is much pressure on these governments to push ahead with plans to repatriate Syrian refugees.

Within the context of normalization talks, Jordanian officials have emphasized the need to bolster the Syrian economy and issue amnesty for refugees – many of whom distrust Assad’s government – so that they are assured of safety and a home to return to. But given the stark reality of economic conditions and political dynamics in Syria, the proposals will require a lot more planning, investment, and wrangling of guarantees than currently exists.

Alghool tells The Cradle that while Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkiye are pushing for repatriation, “Damascus always links the return of refugees to reconstruction as a precondition for their return, arguing that these refugees must find homes to live in.” But how to do this without lifting or bypassing western sanctions aimed at Syria’s reconstruction sector?

“The Saudi vision in this regard coincides with the vision of Damascus, which links the return of refugees to securing the necessary infrastructure and improving living conditions in Syria, indicating Saudi intentions to contribute to the reconstruction of Syria,” she adds.

A Republican win in the next US elections may pave the way forward, suggests Alghool. She points to the “good relationship” between the GOP and the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, and says Riyadh can apply certain pressures on a Republican president to ease up on Syria “and ensure that Washington will not oppose it.”

Concessions, rehabilitation, and rivalries

Today, most Arab states regard Syria in ways that starkly diverge from Washington’s goal of isolating and sanctioning Damascus into collapse.

There does remain a divide in how far these states may be willing to proceed with Syria. Arab League members like Egypt and Jordan are taking very incremental steps forward, trying to wrest concessions from Damascus for each move along the normalization path. Others like Tunisia and the UAE, on the other hand, seem to demand nothing from Assad’s government in exchange for reconciliation.

There are yet others, such as regional mediator Oman, which never split with Damascus even when the Sultanate’s fellow GCC members did. It comes as no surprise then that Muscat, “the city of secret negotiations,” has recently hosted direct secret talks” between Syrian and US officials to discuss a variety of pressing issues.

Following Assad’s speech in Jeddah, the Syrian government feels emboldened and will try to push for further reintegration into the Arab world’s diplomatic fold while making as few concessions as possible.

But things are moving quickly in both regional and global geopolitics. How the different Arab League members choose to engage Damascus and how their own rivalries play out in relation to Assad’s government – and western pressure on Syria – will become clearer this year and next.

*Featured Image Src: The Cradle

 

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