Arab na­tions inch to­ward ac­cep­tance of Syr­ian leader As­sad

Em­bassies, bor­der links open as he gains up­per hand in war

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - NATION & WORLD 2 -

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.

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