SYRIA Once os­tra­cized, As­sad now wins wider ac­cep­tance

San Francisco Chronicle - - WORLD - By Zeina Karam

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 force­fully 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 post­war 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.

As Pres­i­dent Trump plans to pull out Amer­ica’s 2,000 sol­diers from north­east­ern Syria, gov­ern­ment 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 53year-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.

A key mo­tive for Sunni Mus­lim gulf coun­tries is to blunt the in­volve­ment of their Shi­ite-led foe, Iran, which saw its in­flu­ence ex­pand rapidly in the chaos of Syria’s war.

“Saudi Ara­bia tried briefly to help over­throw him when he seemed most vul­ner­a­ble us­ing proxy mil­i­tants,” Itani said. “With his regime likely to sur­vive, how­ever, Saudi Ara­bia would pre­fer to try and ex­er­cise in­flu­ence over As­sad to bal­ance against Iran while avoid­ing es­ca­la­tion with Iran it­self.”

A Saudi at­tempt to patch up re­la­tions with As­sad would be a pub­lic ac­knowl­edg­ment of the king­dom’s fail­ure to oust him. At the same time, the in­volve­ment of Gulf Arab gov­ern­ments and pri­vate com­pa­nies is cru­cial for any se­ri­ous re­con­struc­tion ef­fort in Syria. Re­con­struc­tion costs are es­ti­mated as high as $350 bil­lion.

Zeina Karam is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer.

Ge­orge Ourfalian / AFP / Getty Images

Syr­ian gov­ern­ment sol­diers pa­trol Satur­day near the north­ern city of Man­bij. With the help of Rus­sia and Iran, Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad has grad­u­ally re­claimed con­trol across the coun­try.

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