Long treated as an international pariah for the brutality of his regime, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has recently assumed a different role: host to Arab dignitaries.
A flurry of visits in recent months suggests Assad’s 12-year regional isolation could be drawing to an end, with little redress for the unsparing abuses of his forces when crushing an uprising and fighting the ensuing civil war.
Within the region, officials and analysts say the debate is moving from whether Assad’s rehabilitation is at all plausible, to what concessions it will seek from Damascus. Normalisation with Assad looks increasingly inevitable, said Joseph Daher, a Syria expert at the European University Institute in Italy.
“Arab states might have some differences, but these have been diminishing significantly, while their common interest to consolidate a form of regional authoritarian stability has grown,” he said.
Leading the charge have been the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, whose foreign minister met Assad in Damascus in April, the first public visit by a Saudi official since 2011. This followed a trip by his counterpart to Riyadh to discuss “the return of Syria to its Arab surroundings”.
Meanwhile, Assad is feeling confident. At a recent meeting of foreign ministers debating Syria’s readmission to the Arab League, officials said he had shown no interest in compromise. “The Syrians want total surrender,” an official said. “Some are joking that they might even ask for an apology.”
Some Arab countries remain hesitant, with Qatar and Kuwait among those that baulked at Saudi-led plans to invite Assad to the Arab League summit this month.
But senior officials from several Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, have begun work on issues to raise with Syria. One diplomat said such a negotiation would test whether Assad was “serious or not” about returning to the Arab diplomatic fold.
Most Arab countries cut ties with Assad in 2011 when he began bombing, torturing and gassing Syrians as part of efforts to defeat the nascent rebellion. More than 14mn people have been displaced internally or sought refuge abroad.
But, backed militarily by Russia and Iran, Assad held on and eventually regained control over most of the fractured country. The push to re-engage him soon followed, led by the UAE, which reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018, then by Bahrain.
Pressure from the Trump administration stopped others from following, said Andrew Tabler, an ex-US official and senior fellow on Arab policy at the Washington Institute think-tank.
At that point the region was consumed by the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, so there was little appetite to re-engage with Assad. Gulf states had long backed opposition groups and opposed Iran’s increasing presence in Syria.
But attitudes towards Tehran have shifted, driven partially by what regional officials say is a lack of clear direction from the US and a desire by the UAE and Saudi Arabia to de-escalate tensions with Iran and its proxies. This paved the way for last month’s China-brokered detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
One senior Saudi official said that while re-engaging Syria was not a “requisite” of the deal, “one has an effect on the other”, adding: “I don’t think we would have reached out to Syria if we hadn’t reached out to Iran.”
Even Turkey, a critical backer of the anti-Assad rebels, has shown tentative signs it could shift its position.
Following the massive February earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria, the US temporarily eased sanctions restrictions to facilitate aid flows into Syria, creating a moment for Arab leaders to seize on, to the surprise of US officials, said Tabler.
Unlike in 2018, the recent moves have not been met by strong pushback from Washington. “Syria has not been a top priority for the Biden administration,” said Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, head of policy for the Syrian American Council, a lobby group that opposes Assad.
“The US went from, ‘don’t you dare normalise with Assad’ to, ‘if you normalise with Assad make sure to get something out of it’,” Ghanem said. He referred to recent remarks by a senior US official who said while Syria should be “treated as the rogue that it is”, if Arab states wanted to re-engage Assad, they should “get something” for it.
Indeed, even Riyadh, which has led the recent diplomatic overtures to Damascus, has yet to commit to full normalisation with Assad without some movement from the Syrian side.
“Just because you’ve opened up the channel of discussion doesn’t mean that’s it,” the senior Saudi official said. “It’s not opening totally, but without that engagement . . . you can’t negotiate what you need.”
Another Arab diplomat said Syria’s re-entry in to the Arab League “should be an outcome of an effort”. Following the Riyadh meeting of foreign ministers, the diplomat said a committee of high-level officials from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq met to work on next steps.
“We came up with a consensus on which issues to focus on”, including drugs, humanitarian issues and refugees, the Arab diplomat said. “These are issues we want the regime to deliver on.”
The initiative gained momentum on Monday, when foreign ministers from those countries met in Amman to discuss those issues, this time with Syrian foreign minister Faisal Mekdad. A spokesman for Jordan’s foreign ministry said the meeting aimed to discuss his country’s initiative “to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis”.
After Monday’s talks, Jordan’s foreign ministry said Damascus had agreed to work on steps “to end drug smuggling” on the borders with Jordan and Iraq, and address refugees as well as the missing and internally displaced.
Substantial progress may be hard. Experts said Arab leaders would not press Assad on wartime abuses to avoid drawing attention to their own records. The millions of refugees abroad, who fear rapprochement with Assad could force them back to Syria, is also an intractable problem. Many remain fearful of returning.
So the focus has turned to Captagon, a highly addictive amphetamine whose trade has become an economic lifeline for Damascus. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan have been heavily affected by the trafficking of the drug across their borders.
“Captagon has now ascended to the top of the agenda in normalisation discussions,” said Caroline Rose, director at the Newlines Institute think-tank, who researches the trade.
“The regime has used the Captagon trade as leverage,” Rose said, adding: “But it’s a fool’s errand to think they will stop it.”
Meanwhile, it is unclear what rehabilitating Assad would mean for the pockets of Syria beyond the regime’s reach, including the north-west, which is either under rebel or Turkish control, and the north-east, held by US-backed Kurdish forces.
“The restoration of political ties with Assad . . . leaves key questions unaddressed,” said Dareen Khalifa, Syria analyst at Crisis Group. “Damascus has proven over and over again that it’s unwilling to engage in a political solution. That’s not how Assad works.”