Arab nations inch toward acceptance of Syrian leader Assad
Embassies, border links open as he gains upper hand in war
BEIRUT — He has survived eight years of war and billions of dollars in money and weapons aimed at toppling him. Now Syrian President Bashar Assad is poised to be readmitted to the fold of Arab nations, a feat once deemed unthinkable as he crushed the uprising against his family’s rule.
Gulf Arab nations, once the main backers of rebels trying to oust Assad, are lining up to reopen their embassies in Syria, worried about leaving the country at the heart of the Arab world to regional rivals Iran and Turkey and missing out on lucrative post-war reconstructive projects. Key border crossings with neighbors, shuttered for years by the war, have reopened, and Arab commercial airlines are reportedly considering resuming flights to Damascus.
And as President Donald Trump plans to pull America’s 2,000 soldiers from northeastern Syria, Assad’s troops are primed to retake the area they abandoned in 2012 at the height of the war. This would be a significant step toward restoring Assad’s control over all of Syria, leaving only the northwest in the hands of rebels, most of them jihadis.
It can seem like a mindboggling reversal for a leader whose military once seemed dangerously close to collapse. But Russia’s military intervention, which began in 2015, steadily reversed Assad’s losses, allowing his troops, aided by Iranian-backed fighters, to recapture cities like Homs and Aleppo, key to his rule.
Assad rules over a country in ruins, with close to half a million people killed and half the population displaced. Major fighting may still lie ahead. But many see the war nearing its end, and the 53-year-old leader is sitting more comfortably than he has in the past eight years.
“Rehabilitation by Arab states is inevitable,” said Faysal Itani, a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
After Assad led a crackdown on protesters in 2011, Syria was cast out as a pariah by much of the Arab and Western world. It lost its seat at the Arab League and was hit by crippling sanctions by the international community, as the U.S. and European diplomats closed their diplomatic missions.
But Syria’s isolation was never complete. China, Russia, Brazil, India and South Africa maintained diplomatic ties. In the Arab world, Lebanon, Iraq and Algeria never broke ranks with Syria. Propped up by Russia, China and Iran, Assad never really felt the pinch politically.
On Dec. 27, the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus with a public ceremony, in the most significant Arab overture yet toward the Assad government. The Bahrain Embassy followed the next day.
The debate now appears to be about when, not whether, to re-admit Syria to the Arab League. Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Alhakim, speaking in Baghdad at a news conference with his Iranian counterpart, said Sunday that his country supports efforts to restore Syria’s membership in the league.
In December 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) was greeted by Syria’s Bashar Assad at an air base in Syria. Assad has survived years of war and millions of dollars in money and weapons aimed at toppling him. He has drawn important support from Russia as well as China and Iran.
On Dec. 27, officials and journalists gathered outside the newly reopened embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Damascus, Syria. The Syrian leader has demonstrated his staying power.