More than ten years after his expulsion, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warmly welcomed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who had been isolated for years, at the start of the Arab League summit in Jeddah. The two met with a hug and gave each other a fraternal kiss. For Assad, it is the first major meeting on the international stage in more than ten years. The Saudi media commented positively on Assad’s participation. “The Arab house is getting a new look. Relationships are being strengthened, problems with brothers working together are being eliminated, and nobody is being left out,” said a spokesman for state television Al-Ekhbariya. Saudi Arabia has managed to calm the situation in the region and bring about “actual changes”.
Ultimately, Jordan applied to reinstate Assad. The reason for the neighboring country was, on the one hand, the devastating earthquake in the region, where assistance was mainly provided by Arab countries in Syria. The Western community, meanwhile, focused on Türkiye and the Syrian region of Idlib, which is accessible from there and controlled by rebels against Assad. The part of Syria controlled by Assad, in turn, received aid supplies from Qatar, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. So, in times of need, the region pull together.
A second important reason for Jordan are the many refugees who have been living there for twelve years and are becoming an increasing burden. The Jordanian government speaks of 1.3 million Syrians out of a population of just over eleven million. In Amman, therefore, repatriation is being considered. But for that, the Jordanians need Assad.
Shortly before the summit, the defense ministers and intelligence chiefs of Türkiye, Syria, Russia and Iran met in Moscow. It was about security and the repatriation of Syrian refugees. The dry reports that initially circulated did not indicate much progress. But it was also not expected that the talks would bring Ankara and Damascus significantly closer. A meeting between the two rulers is still a long way off. Bashar al-Assad had previously made it clear that he would continue to try the hard way. The Syrian President demanded that he would only meet Recep Tayyip Erdogan when Türkiye withdrew its troops from Syria. Assad does not want to begrudge Erdogan a negotiating success that he could use in the election campaign. But the Syrian dictator is making a risky bet if he bets on Erdogan being voted out. The Syrian despot might have it a little easier if Erdogan lost the presidential election. Because he can play the cynical and unscrupulous power games of Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies on an equal footing.
The Arab neighbors have long since come to terms with the fact that Assad successfully defended his rule over Syria. They come to terms with it in their own way – at a time that Arab diplomats describe as the “time of deals”. What is meant are expedient arrangements to somehow calm conflicts like those in Syria. Assad, meanwhile, praises the “open and realistic” Saudi policy, which benefits the region.
Experts find other words for the development: “The Saudi concessions towards Damascus are motivated by resignation and cynicism, because since 2015 there has been no politics, no clear timetable and no regional consensus. Riyadh is probably aware that once Assad has the recognition and the photo op in his pocket, he is unlikely to make any major compromises: refugees, drug trafficking, ties with Iran, let alone political reconciliation.” Any compromise, says one expert , is therefore a net gain for Damascus, while the equivalent value for the other countries is questionable.
And Assad’s profit is large – even if the new warmth from the Gulf, which the tyrant is showing primarily from the United Arab Emirates, is not expressed in money for reconstruction. “For Assad, it is not about stabilization, reconstruction, investment or economic integration. He is not concerned with alleviating the plight of the Syrian people, but with consolidating his power and enriching his inner circle,” says a political analyst in Turkey. “Ultimately, he is concerned with regional recognition, which destroys any hope of a future challenge at home and blocks any serious international pressure. For him, the signal coming from the Arab normalization efforts is an important political victory.”
The recent visit by German Foreign Minister Baerbock to the Gulf made clear the frustration of many western politicians. In her statements, she resolutely contradicted the overtures made by the Gulf States. European diplomats are unanimous in saying that the UN-led political process has been further weakened. “Actually, the Arab states should now be held responsible for bringing about a political solution themselves and for financing humanitarian aid on a large scale,” says one. Some had already written off the UN process anyway. But there is also great uneasiness about the signal that goes out from an Arab rehabilitation of Assad: that a war criminal who has used poison gas against civilians only has to hold out long enough to evade punishment and ostracism. Western diplomacy in Syria is concerned with the question of how to deal with a regime that is firmly in the saddle and from which no concessions can be expected. The EU is still sticking to the line that rapprochement is only possible if Assad makes credible changes in his behavior. But Europeans do not always speak with one voice on this matter – let alone in the same pitch. Even Washington has not always opposed the Arab advances towards Assad with complete determination.
Nevertheless, it should not be a walk in the park for the Syrian ruler. Recently, new EU sanctions were passed. Washington can always apply pressure. And the Arab rulers still have obstinate opponents of normalization, such as Qatar and Kuwait. Several sources are currently saying that Assad will not be invited to the next summit. But Damascus is patient, and good at waiting.
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