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Analysis: Arabs downplay Syrian President Assad’s isolation as US looks elsewhere

While Bashar al-Assad is still shunned by the West, who blame him for a decade of brutal war in Syria, a shift is underway in the Middle East where the United States’ Arab allies bring him out of the cold by economic and revitalizing. are. diplomatic ties.

Assad’s extension of his two-decade-old presidency in an election in May did little to break his pariah status among Western states, but fellow Arab leaders are coming to terms with the fact that he has a firm grip on power.

America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has reinforced a belief among Arab leaders that they need to go their own way. Anticipating a more pragmatic approach from Washington, which is now reeling from China’s challenge, Arab leaders are driven by their own priorities, particularly how to rehabilitate economies hit by years of conflict and conflict. COVID-19.

Political considerations also loom large in Arab capitals such as Cairo, Amman and Abu Dhabi. These include his relationship with Russia, Assad’s most powerful supporter, which has been pressing for Syrian reunification, and how to counter the influence Iran and Turkey have created in Syria.

Its support for Sunni Islamists in Turkey and throughout the region – including a region in northern Syria that is beyond Assad’s grasp – is of particular concern to Arab rulers who may have common cause against Islamist groups with Damascus. .

But while there are growing signs of Arab ties with Damascus – Jordan’s King Abdullah spoke to Assad this month for the first time in a decade – US policy will remain a complicating factor.

Washington says there has been no change in its policy towards Syria, which calls for the political change set out in the Security Council resolution. US sanctions targeting Damascus, tightened under President Donald Trump, still pose a serious obstacle to commerce.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stands next to his wife Asma as she casts her vote in the country’s presidential election in Douma, Syria. (Reuters/File)

But in Washington, analysts say Syria has hardly been a foreign policy priority for President Joe Biden’s administration. They focus their attention on countering China and their administration is yet to implement sanctions under the so-called Caesar Act, which came into force last year with the intention of adding pressure to Assad.

Arab states are again pressing for the issue, after the Trump administration warned against handling Damascus.

“American allies in the Arab world are encouraging Washington to lift the siege on Damascus and allow its reunification in Arabia,” said David Lesh, a Syria expert at Trinity University in Texas. “It appears that the Biden administration is, in part, listening.”

It marks a change from the conflict’s early years when Syria was expelled from the Arab League and states including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates supported some of the rebels fighting Assad.

break barriers

The decade-long conflict that began with a popular uprising against Assad during the “Arab Spring” has killed hundreds of thousands, uprooted half the population and forced millions as refugees into neighboring states and Europe.

Anti-Assad rebels still have a foothold in the north with Turkish support, while the east and northeast are controlled by Kurdish-led forces backed by the United States.

But while the conflict remains unresolved, Assad has largely returned control of much of Syria to Russia and Iran, who had always been more committed to their survival than Washington, even when the rebels fired chemical weapons on the areas. had gone.

Jordan, Syria’s neighbor to the south, is leading the pack on Arab policy shift with an ailing economy and a rocky patch in relations with its wealthy Gulf neighbor Saudi Arabia.

The border between Syria and Jordan was fully reopened for trade last month, and Amman has been a driving force behind a deal to pipe Egypt’s natural gas through Syria to Lebanon, a With clear US approval.

A truck drives past the major Jaber border crossing with Syria, near Mafraq, Jordan, on September 29, 2021. (Reuters)

“When Jordan breaks down these barriers and establishes ties and it happens at this pace, there will be countries that will follow suit,” said Samih al-Maiyata, a former Jordanian minister and political analyst to a state-owned broadcaster. Told Al Mamlaka.

Hundreds of trucks a day carried goods at crossings between Europe, Turkey and the Gulf. Reviving trade would be a shot for Jordan and Syria, whose economies are in deep trouble. It should also help Lebanon, which is now facing the sharpest economic downturn in modern history.

Jim Jeffrey, the former US special envoy for Syria under Trump, told Reuters: “I’m pretty sure the people of Jordan think the United States will not impose sanctions on them.”

“There is tremendous discussion among the media, among friends in the region, that the US is no longer aggressively restricting Assad under the Caesar Act or other things.”

The mood was reflected at last month’s UN General Assembly, where the foreign ministers of Egypt and Syria met for the first time in a decade, and at the Expo 2020 Dubai exhibition, where ministers from the Syrian and Emirati economy discussed the revival of a bilateral business council.

Saudis hesitate but may be next

Syria’s Ambassador to the UAE Ghassan Abbas, speaking to Reuters at the Syria Pavilion, said that despite the UAE’s efforts to “demonstrate governance”, Syria had been invited to Expo 2020, where the theme was “We Will Rise Together”. .

Is there a new approach to dealing with Syria? Yes.”

Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said the Biden administration “is not interested in spending diplomatic capital to prevent regional governments from doing what they think is best for the regime”.

He said US policy in Syria is now focused on fighting Islamic State militants and providing humanitarian assistance.

A US State Department spokesman said: “What we have not and will not do is express any support for efforts to normalize or rehabilitate brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad, lift a single sanctions on Syria, or rebuild change its position to oppose Syria’s political solution until irreversible progress is made.”

While many US allies in the region are pursuing new ties with Damascus, regional giant Saudi Arabia is still hesitant.

“There’s a big effort to bring Saudi Arabia and Syria to some sort of reconciliation, and I think Saudi is coming, they’re just waiting for America,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma.

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