Syria: Why the Arab League is reinstating Assad


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Assad is back on the world stage – why the Arab League is rehabilitating the dictator

On the road again – Syria's dictator Bashar al-Assad is welcomed internationally again On the road again – Syria's dictator Bashar al-Assad is welcomed internationally again

On the road again – Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad is welcomed internationally again

What: AP

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The Arab League has reinstated Syria’s president. This ends the ten-year isolation of the regime. This is a defeat for the West – and an admission by the Arab states that there is no way around Assad. But they had practical reasons for their step.

EHe killed civilians with poison gas and barrel bombs, bombed cities to rubble, put his compatriots in torture prisons and triggered the largest flight since World War II: the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was one of the most ostracized and isolated politicians in the world – but now he is returning to the world stage.

The 22-member Arab League on Sunday voted in favor of returning Syria to their circle. This means that Assad can now again take part in regional summit meetings, twelve years after the start of the Syrian civil war. The next is scheduled for May 19 in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

The Arab family rejected him when he initially had peaceful demonstrations against his corrupt regime shot down. Like the West, most member states of the League called for Assad’s resignation and supported groups fighting against his troops. Recently, however, some Arab states have sought contact with him again. Why are they rehabilitating the mass murderer now?

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Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, bids farewell to Bashar Al Assad, President of Syria, at the Presidential Airport in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates March 19, 2023. Abdulla Al Neyadi/UAE Presidential Court/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.

Behind this is a new, independent realpolitik in the Arab world, led by the regional power Saudi Arabia. The resumption of diplomatic relations with Assad is an admission that there is no getting around the dictator. Iran and Russia helped him retake most of the country and consolidate his power. Various peace initiatives have failed, the opposition is fragmented, and all opposing forces have been enormously weakened.

Arab neighbors accept that Assad won and are working with him again to mitigate the effects of Syria’s civil war on their own countries. Especially Jordan and Lebanon, the majority of the Syrians who have fled – far more than Europe – and are themselves suffering from economic crises, refugees want to bring them back. Also the escalating smuggling of the drug Captagon from Syria to the region they want to contain. This, according to the calculation, can only be achieved through cooperation with the Syrian regime.

The United Arab Emirates had pushed ahead with their rapprochement with Syria; but sees the driver behind the inclusion in the Arab League Middle East expert Andreas Krieg from London’s King’s College in Saudi Arabia: “The Saudis are currently trying to handle many conflicts themselves and are thus signaling to the other major powers, above all the USA, but also the Chinese, that they are the governors in the region.”

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For the West, the Arab resumption of Assad is a defeat. Because it makes it clear that his Syria strategy has failed. The US and to a lesser extent the EU imposed sanctions on Assad’s Syria and supported opposition forces. But they were not willing to provide military support that could have brought about the overthrow of Assad they had been calling for. Obama’s speech by his is unforgettable “red line” in Syria, which the then US President had trampled on without consequence when Assad killed around 1,000 people in the Ghouta region with poison gas. Meanwhile, Russia, Iran and Turkey were ruthlessly pursuing their economic and geopolitical interests in Syria.

The West is once again being shown its loss of importance in the region. For years, Russia and China have been filling the vacuum left by the US withdrawal from the region. Arch-rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia recently resumed relations. This was solemnly announced in Beijing. A great diplomatic success for China, which presents itself as an alternative broker to the USA. And a slap for Washington. Exuberantly, the Chinese also offered their help in mediating the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Washington withdrew from the affair

For some time now, the Middle East has been forging alliances on its own, alternating between using Chinese, Russian and US aid wherever it is convenient. The fact that Saudi Arabia is diversifying its relations is also due to a realization of realpolitik: Relying solely on the West does not pay off. And: You can’t rely on the “protective power” USA. The key experience for the Saudis was that Iran-led attack on its oil refineries in Abkaik with drones and cruise missiles in 2019, which paralyzed half of oil production. The strong response from Washington that Riyadh had hoped for did not materialize.

Since neither Trump’s strategy of “maximum pressure” on Tehran nor the Vienna negotiations to contain Iran’s nuclear program led to noticeably more security in the region, Riyadh now took its fate into its own hands and approached Tehran.

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support for Russia

The considerations that led to the rapprochement with Assad’s Syria are likely to be similar. Western initiatives and sanctions have Assad’s war against his own people and can hardly influence its consequences, which are particularly noticeable in the neighborhood. So now the Arab League wants to have its own Syria policy.

Wishful thinking is already spreading in the Arab media that, in return, Assad could be given conditions such as a political renewal process and curtailing Iran’s influence in Syria. Neither seems realistic at the moment.

But the West has no better idea either. The Federal Foreign Office announced that the sanctions would continue to be adhered to.

“I don’t see any initiative in either Washington or Brussels that could compete with what the Arab League has now put on the table,” says Middle East expert Krieg. “It’s all very passive and reactionary. The only ones who are really proactive are the actors in the region.”

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