“This is illegal!” shouted Ambassador Yousef Ahmed at his colleagues from the rest of the Arab governments as they voted to suspend Syria from the Arab League, citing its violation of an agreement to withdraw its military from its cities and to release political prisoners.
That was in November 2011. One decade, half a million fatalities, and more than 10 million refugees later, the Arab world is quietly but steadily rehabilitating Bashar Assad’s bloodied regime.
Inspired by Saudi King Abdullah’s public demand to Assad “stop the killing machine!” the Arab League resolution was backed by 18 governments and opposed only by Syria and Lebanon, thus triggering a mass exodus of Arab diplomats from Damascus as well as economic and political sanctions.
The Arab world thus joined the lead of US president Barack Obama, British prime minister David Cameron and French president Francois Hollande, all of whom were inspired by previous months’ downfalls of four Arab leaders following popular uprisings.
The Arab governments’ damage to Syria was immense, not only politically, but also economically, and above all morally. Now, having outlasted Obama, Cameron, Hollande and also their successors, Assad has evidently convinced leaders across the Arab world that their struggle had become futile in terms of its prospects, and may backfire in terms of its aims.
Syria’s creeping rehabilitation began three years ago, when then-Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir flew to Damascus, where he was greeted regally outside his airplane by Assad himself.
Convicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes committed during the Sudanese Civil War, al-Bashir was a persona non grata in the West, and thus eager to restore some of his legitimacy, if even through a fellow pariah like Assad. Even so, the pair’s meeting soon proved to have been about more than just the two of them.
Diplomats’ suggestions at the time that the move was backed by Saudi Arabia were quickly vindicated, when the United Arab Emirates reopened its Damascus embassy several days after al-Bashir’s return home.
Coupled with Bahrain’s then-foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa’s handshake with then-Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Mualem earlier that fall at the UN General Assembly, it was clear that none of these players was working on his own, as all these moves were coordinated from Riyadh.
The conciliatory winds that emerged from the Gulf states soon reached distant Morocco, where Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita in January 2019 called for “Arab coordination concerning Syria’s return to the Arab League.” The Saudis, meanwhile, after having inspired other countries’ retreat from Syria’s isolation, reportedly sent chief of intelligence Khalid al-Humaidan to a secret meeting in May with Assad in Damascus.
The Saudi move evidently helped convince Jordan to open a crack in its 360-km border with Syria by reactivating the Nasib-Jaber crossing south of Daraa, 35 km from where the Syrian, Jordanian and Israeli borders meet.
Finally, in November, Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed visited Assad in his palace. Diplomats now say that Syria’s readmission to the Arab League is only a matter of time, and with it the return of Arab ambassadors to Syria’s capital and Arab investments to its banks.
What, then, caused this about-face, and where does it lead?
The key factor in today’s inter-Arab dynamics is what has become their common fear: people power.
The mayhem unleashed 11 years ago, when Tunisian grocer Mohamed Bouazizi torched himself to death, has traumatized all Arab regimes. Realizing they might be dethroned the way the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen were, Arab leaders concluded that anyone’s downfall, even Assad’s, might spark unrest in their own realms and thus threaten their grips on power.
Much has happened since they themselves tried to unseat Assad, but the bottom line is that he survived their effort, and defeated the militias they backed. True, Assad’s mass-murder of his people still appalls most Arab leaders, but the possibility that he will be succeeded by Islamist fundamentalists appalls them even more.
The first Arab to voice this rationale was Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who said in 2016 that his aim is to “support national armies,” whether in Libya, Iraq, or Syria, thus listing Arab countries whose armies are challenged by assorted militias.
The quest to re-stabilize their political systems is also what is driving Arab governments, from Morocco to Bahrain, to develop economic ties with Israel. The people need jobs, and ties with Israel can help make that happen. Conversely, if economic hope remains undelivered, last decade’s unrest might resume, in earnest.
Regardless of these social concerns, Assad’s rehabilitation is also fed by geopolitics.
The most glaring international development since the Arab League boycotted Syria was Russia’s grand return to the Middle East.
When the civil war began in winter 2011, the dominant superpower in the Middle East was the US, a role it had played since the mid-1970s, when Egypt parted with its Soviet patron and let America supply its army and broker its peace agreement with Israel.
America’s domination, which became manifest during the Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003, ended in 2015, when Russia built an airbase in Syria and stationed in it its own pilots and jets. This intrusion alone, which came with no response at all from Washington, was interpreted by Arab leaders as a show of weakness on the part of America, and a show of strength on the part of Russia.
Subsequent events on the battlefield only enhanced this conclusion. While president Obama failed to deliver on his vow to punish Assad if he used chemical weapons, Russian President Vladimir Putin interfered in the fighting, handed Assad victory, and saved his regime.
Arab leaders soberly concluded that Russia’s return to the Middle East is a fact. By extension, this meant that Assad’s position in the region transformed. The man who in 2011 was judged by his enmities at home is now judged by his alliance abroad.
From Moscow’s viewpoint, Assad is the man who handed it a strategic foothold in the Mediterranean, through a seaport it Tartus and an airbase 60 km to its north. Assad is therefore a strategic asset for Russia, and restoring his grip on Syria is for the Kremlin a strategic aim.
Conversely, confronting Assad now means confronting Moscow. Bearing this in mind, and realizing Washington is indifferent to Syria’s future, Arab leaders were thus given added reason to rehabilitate the Syrian regime.
The repercussions of these dynamics to the region’s non-Arab powers are profound.
The Russian protection of the Assad regime has been coupled all along by Tehran’s support, which, like Moscow’s policy, harks back to the days of Hafez Assad last century. However, Russia’s dominance in Syria is a problem for the ayatollahs, in two ways.
First, the Iranians feel, with good reason, that they deserve credit for Assad’s victory no less than the Russians, maybe more, because they, unlike Russia, delivered Assad foot soldiers, even if those were mostly Hezbollah’s Lebanese Arabs rather than Persians from Iran. Even more sacrificially, from Iranian citizens’ viewpoint, Tehran delivered Assad’s devastated economy a steady supply of cash and oil.
Secondly, Iran’s quest – to checker Syria with pro-Iranian militias and thus create a strategic bridge from Tehran to the Mediterranean – collides with Russia’s aim, which is to restore the same prewar Syria that Assad inherited from his father in 2000.
Now, the unfolding Arab return to Syria is believed to come coupled with an expectation for an anti-Iranian deal with the Kremlin. The Islamic Republic’s intrusion into four Arab capitals – Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana – is for Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt, Jordan, and also distant Morocco a very big problem. Russian pressure for an Iranian retreat can further motivate them to re-accept Assad.
Israeli intelligence sources say there are signs that Assad is losing patience with Iranian commanders in his realm, and with the Israeli airstrikes that their activity in Syria sparks.
The Arab about-face on Assad is a setback not only for Iran but also for Turkey.
Like Arab leaders, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded Assad’s removal for years, and like them, he eventually realized the goal’s failure’ along with the military ineffectiveness of the anti-Assad militias he helped supply and deploy.
However, unlike all anti-Assad Arab governments, Turkey actually invaded Syria, and now occupies along the two countries’ 900 km-long border a strip of land more than five times the size of the Gaza Strip. The Turkish occupation reminds Arabs of the 400-year Ottoman era, which none of them miss. An Arab return to Damascus will therefore come coupled with support for Assad’s demand that Turkey retreat.
Curiously, Assad’s survival may also be agreeable to Israel – not because it has reason to believe Assad has tempered his anti-Israeli hostility, but for the same reason his Arab brethren are legitimizing the man they once demonized: Bashar Assad is the devil they all know.
Add to that realism the prospect of strategic setbacks for Erdogan and the ayatollahs, and you get what from an Israeli viewpoint could spell strategic gains.