The Long Isolation of Syria’s al-Assad Is Over

When a devastating earthquake struck in February, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria spotted opportunity in disaster. He called for an end to international sanctions on his country and within days, some were suspended. Other Middle Eastern states sent planeloads of aid and senior officials from those countries soon followed for the first high-level visits in years.

In the three months since, Mr. al-Assad has made a remarkable comeback, going from more than a decade of near-total global isolation after a series of atrocities, to being welcomed back into the Arab fold with virtually no strings attached. And on Friday, he is expected to attend an annual summit of Arab leaders for the first time in 13 years, the most definitive sign yet that he is returning to the region’s embrace.

Mr. Assad was shunned for brutally suppressing his country’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011, which morphed into a civil war that has ground to a standstill, but has still not ended. His government stands accused of widespread torture, the use of chemical weapons against its own people and forced population transfers in a conflict that left some half a million people dead.

“The fact that Assad is coming back strong and untouched, it is sending a signal to Arab leaders,” said Dareen Khalifa, a Syria expert at the International Crisis Group. “At the end of the day, it has a huge impact, Assad having this victory lap in the region and dictators knowing you can get away with it.”

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates, left, with Mr. al-Assad in Abu Dhabi in March, in a photo released by the Emirati presidency.Credit…Hamad Al Kaabi/UAE Presidential Court, via Reuters

Analysts said the Syrian war helped set the stage for what the world is now witnessing in Ukraine. The government’s vicious crackdown on its own people and the survival of Mr. al-Assad’s regime came in large part because of extensive military support from Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. But Russia was never held accountable for the attacks it carried out in Syria, including the targeting of hospitals.

And since the early salvos of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, the legacy of Mr. Putin’s role in the Syrian war has loomed large. The Russians have used some of the same military tactics used in Syria, such as sieges and starvation. The Syrian war offered other potential lessons for Mr. Putin, analysts said at the time, reinforcing that international norms could be violated without serious repercussions.

The Biden administration has sent mixed signals about Arab countries re-establishing relations with Syria, while making it clear that the United States has no plans to do so. Last week, a group of American congressmen introduced the Assad Anti-Normalization Act, a bid to hold Mr. al-Assad’s government and its backers to account.

“Syria’s readmittance to the Arab League signals to Assad that his barbaric behavior is acceptable,” Representative French Hill, a Republican from Arkansas, said recently.

In February, Human Rights Watch urged Arab countries that were rushing to normalize ties with the Assad government to at least push for accountability and reforms. Without that, the group warned, the Arab states risk endorsing and supporting the Syrian government’s widespread abuses.

Residents in Syria’s Aleppo province searching through rubble after the earthquakes in February, which prompted several Middle East states to ease Syria’s isolation.Credit…Emily Garthwaite for The New York Times

Friday’s meeting of the Arab League, hosted by Saudi Arabia in Jeddah, will be the first one that Mr. al-Assad has joined since 2010. And while his government is still subject to American and European sanctions, he does not appear to have paid a heavy price for readmission into the club of Arab leaders.

Mr. al-Assad, who arrived in Jeddah on Thursday evening, could face a tepid welcome at the summit, with members divided over whether and how to rebuild their relationships with the Syrian dictator. But his attendance alone is a powerful symbol.

Most Arab governments cut ties with Syria early in the war, as Mr. al-Assad’s government laid siege to entire towns and sent millions of refugees fleeing to neighboring countries. The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership in 2011 and Saudi Arabia, one of the leading regional powers, supported some of the rebel groups fighting Mr. al-Assad’s rule with funding and weapons supplied in covert coordination with the United States.

But as the years passed and Mr. al-Assad clung to power, regaining control over large parts of Syria, regional leaders shifted their approach.

Now, many deal openly with his government, arguing that shunning him accomplished little. This way, officials say, they can at least try to influence developments in Syria that affect the entire region, such as the flow of drugs across its borders and the fate of the millions of refugees who remain in neighboring countries, where officials say they have strained their resources and stirred resentment from citizens.

“For the past 11 or 12 years, there was this policy of maximum pressure and isolation to get some concessions from the regime,” said Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian journalist and senior diplomatic editor for Asharq Al-Awsat, a Saudi-owned newspaper. “Now, the new approach is the other way around: Let us give more incentives to the regime, like legitimacy and political normalization, and in return we hope the regime will move on these fronts.”

Families displaced by the civil war at the al-Nasr camp in northern Syria, with a wall marking the border of Turkey in the background, in 2020.Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

At a gathering in Jordan on May 1, a group of Arab foreign ministers pledged to convene a series of meetings with the aim of resolving the many problems stemming from Syria’s long war. A week after the meeting,Arab League members voted to readmit Syria.

Their decision mentioned the importance of resolving “the burden” posed by refugees and the “danger of drug smuggling.” Yet addressing those issues was not laid out as a precondition for Syria’s return, which came into effect immediately.

“I don’t think there are even asks, let alone conditions,” Ms. Khalifa said.

The Syrian foreign minister, who attended the meeting in Jordan, agreed to take immediate steps to facilitate “the voluntary and safe return of refugees,” according to a statement from the meeting. Syria also agreed to cooperate with Jordan and Iraq to stop the flow of illegal drugs across its borders — including the amphetamine captagon — and to “determine the sources of drug production and smuggling in Syria.”

However, it is unclear whether Arab countries have any mechanism to enforce Syria’s compliance with its promises.

Combating drug smuggling is of particular concern to Saudi Arabia — a major market for captagon — where officials declared a countrywide “war on drugs” last month. But in 2021, an investigation by The New York Times found that much of the production and distribution of captagon is overseen by the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian Army, an elite unit commanded by Mr. al-Assad’s brother, one of the most powerful men in the country.

Gulf powerhouses Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, longtime regional rivals of Iran, would like to see Mr. al-Assad curb the influence of Tehran, his close ally. But there is little indication so far that the Syrian government will oblige.

Delegates at a preparatory meeting of foreign ministers ahead of the Arab League summit, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday, in a photo from Saudi state media.Credit…Saudi Press Agency, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Proponents of readmitting Syria say that the status quo was unworkable.

Syria’s absence from the Arab League was a “strategic mistake,” Libyan columnist Jibreel al-Obaidi wrote in Asharq Al-Awsat on Monday. Reintegrating it into the region is necessary to reduce foreign influence in the country — including that of Iran, Russia, Turkey and the United States, he argued.

All four of those countries intervened in the Syrian war, backing either the government or various opposition groups.

Even in the Gulf, where re-engagement with Syria is well underway, many are uncomfortable with normalizing relations.

“Hopefully we remember the torment of the Syrian people when meeting al-Assad,” read the headline of an opinion article in the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas, by the columnist Hamed al-Humoud.

However the only government that has openly expressed opposition to normalizing relations with Mr. al-Assad is Qatar’s.

“The Syrian people are still displaced, innocent people are in prison,” Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said last month. “Qatar’s decision as a country, individually, is to not take any step unless there’s political progress.”

Ahmed Al Omran in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and Hwaida Saad in Beirut contributed reporting.

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