Eleven days after the devastating natural disaster, the Syrian dictator dared to appear in front of the TV cameras for the first time. The words of the ophthalmologist and head of state of Syria were not only broadcasted in his battered country, all leading television stations in the Arab world screened the speech live. This would have been unthinkable a few months ago.
The brutal actions of the Assad regime have so far cost the lives of around 500,000 Syrians and forced 13 million people to flee, six million of them within the country. Assad has been charged with crimes against humanity, including the use of chemical weapons. And now, after the devastating earthquake in northwestern Syria, the red carpet is being rolled out again for this very Assad – at least in Muscat in the Sultanate of Oman, which has a reputation as a neutral mediator in the region. Other countries will follow the example.
Assad knew, of course, that the Muslim world would be listening to his televised address. He thanked the “Arab brothers and sisters” for their support for the victims of the earthquake, but suddenly the invocation of the Arab nation, which had been propagated by the Syrian Baath Party for decades, no longer sounded hollow and outdated, but rather real.
After being the pariah among the Arab heads of state for more than a decade, he has received delegations and foreign ministers from the region almost every day since the earthquake, and he himself flies to Oman on state visits. At the same time, those in power in the region are using the earthquake as an excuse to normalize their relations with the regime in Damascus. This applies not only to countries that have been on a reconciliation course for some time, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria and Oman, but also to states that have hesitated so far and have sided with Assad’s opponents.
The EU and the US are still refusing reconstruction aid to the Syrian regime. For years they have watched Assad misuse the UN humanitarian aid they financed to stay in power. Lucrative contracts go to companies and organizations close to the regime, and people are not helped based on need but on the basis of loyalty.
Despite this, calls for a more pragmatic approach to Damascus are also growing louder within Europe. After the earthquake, the EU and Italy sent a convoy through Lebanon, aid flights from Germany, Denmark and Norway landed directly in Damascus. According to reports, 90 percent of the current emergency aid goes to the regime, even though 88 percent of the Syrian earthquake victims live in areas controlled by opposition forces.
Turkey and Russia
Erdogan has been showing for years how allies can always be played off against each other to his own advantage. As a NATO member and mediator in the Ukraine war, he is indispensable for the West, and at the same time he coordinates closely with Putin.
The announcement made months ago by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he wanted to be reconciled with Assad served as a wake-up call. Riyadh, in particular, wants to prevent Syria not only becoming dependent on Russia and Iran, but also coming under Erdogan’s influence. At the end of last year, the defense ministers of Turkey and Syria met in Moscow. Even before the Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections, Erdogan wanted to shake hands with Assad. Behind the gradual rapprochement is Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who has been working on the international rehabilitation of his protégé Assad since 2018.
Putin has invested heavily, both militarily and politically, to secure Assad’s power and thus his own geostrategic interests in the eastern Mediterranean. But he lacks the money to stabilize Syria. To rebuild the areas badly damaged by its own air force and Assad’s barrel bombs, Russia needs the Gulf States and the West – they should pay so that Moscow has a reliable proxy in the Levant. In his desire to win the elections, Erdogan accepted Moscow’s proposal to rehabilitate Assad. The Syrian regime should help him to return refugees from Turkey and to smash the Kurdish autonomous region in northeast Syria, which has been hyped up as an existential threat.
The earthquake as a turning point
However, the normalization of Turkish-Syrian relations has been stalled by the earthquake. Erdogan and Assad are both fighting to stay in power. But while things are going well for the Syrian ruler on the outside, the Turkish president is under massive pressure inside. Erdogan cannot afford to show solidarity with the people in Syria as long as he cannot even provide for his own population. Conversely, thanks to his resocialization in the Arab neighborhood, Assad is no longer dependent on shaking hands with Erdogan, especially since he can also be sure of an agreement with Ankara if the nationalist opposition forms the next government.
The Syrian regime will therefore wait for the results of the elections and then insist on the withdrawal of Turkish troops from northern Syria. Ankara could meet this demand, because the Turkish-occupied areas along the border have become an additional burden due to the severe earthquake damage. Conversely, the Syrian regime would have to agree to dissolve Kurdish self-government and regain control of the north-east.
The problem of the refugees remains. For most Syrians in Turkey, returning to areas under Assad’s control is not an option amid fears of persecution, arrest and forced conscription. Thousands are making their way to opposition-controlled and badly damaged Idlib. 1.7 million Syrian people live in the Turkish earthquake areas, many have lost everything and receive no government support. Although they cannot count on international aid in northern Syria, they can count on the solidarity of their compatriots. Those displaced by the Assad regime have been seeking shelter here for years, and earthquake victims returning from Turkey now also need it. International humanitarian aid, which is still arriving far too hesitantly, is all the more urgent. Three border crossings are now open, according to non-governmental organizations, the convoys are now being held up by the bureaucratic regulations of the United Nations.
The Gulf States are changing their relationship with the Syrian dictator
Egypt, a close US ally, had avoided any official contact with Assad until President al-Sisi spoke to Assad for the first time the day after the earthquake. Out of consideration for Western criticism of the Syrian regime’s human rights violations, Jordan had also limited its contacts to a necessary working level before the Jordanian foreign minister went to Damascus in person. There are no moral concerns. Crimes against international law play no role for the autocrats in the Gulf and the military dictatorships in Egypt and Algeria. They are not interested in the 130,000 people who have disappeared or been imprisoned in Syria and who are being systematically tortured in the prisons of the secret services.
In the past, they were much more concerned with strengthening Islamist forces within the opposition in order to establish political Islam in Syria. The liberal opponents of Assad, who campaign for the rule of law and freedom and were torn between the regime’s violence and the oppression by extremists, suffered the most.
A rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and Qatar is particularly important for Assad, since the two Gulf states have a lot of money and, alongside Turkey, are considered the most important supporters of the Syrian exile opposition. The Saudi foreign minister’s planned visit to Damascus could therefore herald Assad’s full rehabilitation in the region – including Syria’s readmission to the Arab League at the next summit in Riyadh at the end of March.
“There is a consensus in the Arab world that the status quo is not working and that we need to find a different approach, which is still being formulated,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal al-Saud said at this year’s Munich Security Conference. He also mentioned the economic overload of countries like Lebanon or Jordan when it comes to caring for Syrian refugees. One must speak with Assad about repatriations, said the minister.
The Saudi position in dealing with Syria is considered crucial for the re-admission to the Arab community. So far, it has primarily been the Saudis and the Qataris who have blocked an initiative to reinstate Syria in the Arab League. As early as 2021, Cairo said it wanted to “bring Syria back into the bosom of the Arabs”.
If Saudi Arabia and Qatar are now following the course of the Emirates – which had already welcomed Assad in March 2022 – then they are driven by the desire to bring back the Syrian president, who was held in power with Russian and Iranian help, into the Arab sphere of influence. Because no matter how weak and devastated Syria may be at the moment, the country remains an important interface in the Middle East due to its geopolitical position between Turkey, Israel, Iran, the Mediterranean Sea and the Arab countries. The Arab alliance with Assad shows above all that the rulers in the Middle East no longer align their foreign policy with Washington, but have long since diversified. In the region, Russia and China are seen as important counterweights to American and European influence, while the Gulf States operate independently and effectively in a multipolar world order.
So the earthquake offers Assad the opportunity to force the international community to give him official recognition. This turn of events did not come as a surprise either, the earthquake was not the reason for the reorientation of Syria policy by the Gulf States: The United Arab Emirates have been insisting on a rapprochement with Damascus for years and were the first to initiate diplomatic steps. In December 2018, the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus. In 2022, Assad traveled to the Emirates for the first time since the beginning of the war, where he was warmly welcomed. In mid-January, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the influential President of the United Arab Emirates, invited the leaders from Oman, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain discussing “Prosperity and stability in the region”. It should also have been about dealing with Syria.
Bashar al-Assad could therefore wish to end his international isolation and lift the sanctions in view of the urgently needed help. The US has already eased sanctions for 180 days to ease earthquake relief efforts. And Assad also seems to be succeeding in the former, at least regionally: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi phoned the Syrian ruler for the first time last week and promised help. A few days ago, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi visited Damascus for the first time since the outbreak of the conflict. After all, Jordan’s King Abdullah II was the first Arab head of state to call for Assad’s resignation in 2011.
The Arab alliance with Assad shows above all that the rulers in the Middle East no longer align their foreign policy with Washington, but have long since diversified. In the region, Russia and China are seen as important counterweights to US and European influence, while the Gulf States operate “independently and effectively” in a multipolar world order.
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