Once frozen out, Bashar Assad is back in
Over the past decade, few Arab leaders have been willing to go anywhere near Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Sure, he managed to hold on to a few friends – like Iran and Russia – but for the most part, the Syrian president, broadly dubbed “The Butcher” for waging a war on his own people, has been considered persona non grata by regional bigwigs.
But Assad is now being embraced by many who had once vowed to continue treating him as a pariah. In recent weeks, Assad enjoyed the royal treatment when he attended an Arab League summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for the first time in over a decade, while a top Syrian official also rubbed shoulders with international diplomats at a World Health Organization summit in Geneva last week.
In a big win for Assad, the Syrians have also been invited to attend the COP28 climate summit in Abu Dhabi later this year, giving renewed meaning to what many have called the Age of Impunity.
To be clear, this development is not so much a reflection of collective amnesia as it is of Realpolitik. Grappling with changes at home and abroad, many Arab states are now betting that embracing Assad will better serve their respective political and economic aims. But at what cost?
Recap: Assad was never supposed to rule. The second son of Syria’s longtime despotic leader, Hafez Assad, Bashar was summoned back from the UK in 1994 after his elder brother – the rightful heir – was killed in a car crash. Bashar, who trained as an ophthalmologist, ultimately took over as head of the government and military when his father died in 2000.
But the younger Assad failed to amass the widespread loyalty enjoyed by his father, and he exploited sectarian tensions to solidify his rule. In true authoritarian style, Bashar Assad, who belongs to the Alawi ethnoreligious minority, elevated loyalists from his clan and purged those deemed disloyal.
Then in 2011, he launched a brutal crackdown against mostly peaceful protesters encouraged by the Arab Spring. What started as violent suppression morphed into a civil war that to date has killed more than 500,000 people and displaced around 13 million – half of which remain in Syria.
Images of heaps of dead children frothing at the mouth from sarin gas poisoning have become a symbol of Assad’s depravity after he used chemical weapons hundreds of times during the war.
In an alliance led by the US, Gulf states poured millions of dollars into propping up Syrian opposition forces. So why are some of them now bucking their own investment?
Riyadh’s change of heart. One of the most consequential shifts paving the way to normalization with Assad has come from Saudi Arabia. While the Saudis were once one of the most vociferous anti-Assad choruses – they didn’t much appreciate Assad accusing them of birthing ISIS – the de facto Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman recently kissed Assad’s cheeks as greeted him at the Arab summit on Saudi home turf.
There are several reasons for this change of heart, which is likely linked to the belief that regional instability undermines Riyadh’s grand economic ambitions of diversifying the economy away from hydrocarbons. Regional de-escalation, according to the Saudis, is key to luring the investment needed to get new industries off the ground and also helps explain why the kingdom recently (sort of) patched things up with archnemesis Iran.
Consider that upon assuming the role of defense minister (2015) and crown prince (2017), MBS adopted a pugnacious approach to foreign policy, as demonstrated by having launched a war in Yemen, ordered the slaying of a prominent journalist, and conducted a blockade of Qatar. But it now appears that the de facto Saudi leader has reasoned that this approach hasn’t necessarily yielded great results and that de-escalating tensions across the region will better serve his political and economic ambitions.
The recent devastating earthquake in southern Turkey and northern Syria provided the Saudis a reasonable opening to formally begin engaging with Assad on humanitarian grounds.
For Riyadh, it is also about asserting itself as a regional – and global – leader capable of fixing intractable issues that others can’t.
“Saudi Arabia wants to steal the thunder from the UEA and Turkey over who’s the mediator here and who's taking the lead on addressing the core issues in the Middle East,” says Qutaiba Idlbi, a senior fellow and Syria project manager at the Atlantic Council. For MBS, it is as much about sending a message to regional competitors – and to the US – about Saudi’s diplomatic bonafides as it is about stabilizing Syria itself.
Once Riyadh, arguably the most influential player in the Arab world, jumped on board, several states appeared more comfortable backing Assad’s reintegration into the Arab League, a largely toothless but symbolic regional bloc. Meanwhile, others, like the Jordanians, say that while they are open to the idea they want to see tangible concessions from Assad first.
Returning refugees. Syria’s civil war has given rise to one of the world’s largest refugee crises. Around 3.6 million Syrians remain in Turkey, followed by hundreds of thousands in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. Turkey, in particular, has made no secret of the fact that it wants to return millions of refugees back to Syria, a populist message so resonant with voters that even Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the mild-mannered opposition figure who just ran and narrowly lost to populist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, recently joined the chorus of those calling for Syrians to be repatriated.
Jordan and Egypt, both facing deep economic pressures at home, have also emphasized the need to strengthen Syria’s economy to facilitate refugee returns from neighboring countries.
Beating the drug habit. Blocked off from financial markets and searching for alternative revenue streams, Syria has emerged as the Middle East’s foremost narcostate. The regime’s star product, captagon, a speed-like amphetamine, has been funneled throughout Lebanon, Jordan, the Gulf, and beyond. Consider that more than 250 million captagon pills have been seized around the world so far this year. Meanwhile, a UK government report revealed that the Syrian drug trade is worth roughly three times that of all the Mexican cartels combined.
And the ripple effects are reverberating throughout the region. In Jordan, for instance, drug-related crimes are now the most common offenses and are causing what authorities have labeled a youth epidemic. This is such a high-stakes issue that Jordan last month launched air strikes inside … Syria, targeting a high-profile drug smuggler.
The Assad regime, for its part, recently pledged to crack down on the drug scheme, but it’s hard to take it at its word given that Assad cronies run the trade and make a mint from the stuff to the tune of more than $5.7 billion in 2021. The US, for its part, recently sanctioned two of Bashar Assad’s cousins for involvement in drug trafficking.
But at the end of the day, there’s no greater unifying force than a mutual aversion to democracy. “Ending the Arab Spring and the democracy movement’s aspirations in the Arab world” is a common theme for many Arab states in reaching out to Syria, Idlbi says. He points out that “Syria remains the only open chapter where rebels or revolutionaries still have a say in what's happening and have geopolitical support.”
Rebuilding Syria. Many analysts have claimed that Arab states are also vying for lucrative building contracts in war-ravaged Syria, but Idlbi isn’t convinced.
“There’s no appetite to invest money without a vision of return,” Idlbi says. What’s more, he adds, many governments still don’t trust Assad and fear that if they do step in to build up the country’s water, power, and agriculture systems, Assad could turn around and nationalize these companies once the country is in a more stable position.
Other interested parties. Syria is a crucial part of Iran’s “axis of resistance” against Israel and the US, used as a hub to manufacture and transfer advanced military equipment to Hezbollah in Lebanon and other proxies. Indeed, Riyadh’s acceptance of Assad as Syria’s rightful leader signals at least a tacit acceptance on the part of Arab states of Tehran’s presence there and of its role as a key regional actor more broadly.
For Russia, any move that reinforces the region’s new security structure, whereby Arab states appear to be prioritizing political pragmatism over sectarian struggle (and in the process further diluting US influence in the region) is arguably a win.
But not everyone is on board with Assad. In the Arab world, Qatar and Kuwait have rejected bilateral ties with Syria, while the EU and US also appear committed to the ongoing isolation of Assad. Still, it is notable that a US official recently urged Arab states to “get something for that engagement,” a rare acknowledgment that Assad’s reintegration into regional affairs is essentially a done deal.
So what does that tell us about the US’ commitment to Syria? For Washington, which still has troops in the rebel-held northeast, “the current situation in Syria is the solution,” Idlbi says, referring to the fact that while Assad continues to rule over much of the country, the northeast and northwest are controlled by anti-regime opposition forces. And as the Biden administration focuses its attention across the Pacific, “Washington seems to be going with a sort of ‘you touch it you own it’ approach.”
In the meantime, Assad’s fortune is no doubt sending a clear message to other dictators and autocrats around the world that if you stick it out long enough, good things might just come your way.