Re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing Syria’s As­sad

Arab na­tions line up to open bor­ders, re­la­tions with war­torn coun­try

The Dallas Morning News - - World/from The Front Page - By ZEINA KARAM The As­so­ci­ated Press

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.

And as Pres­i­dent Don­ald 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 and al­lowed his troops, aided by Ira­nian­backed fight­ers, to re­cap­ture cities key to his rule, like Homs and Aleppo.

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 53­year­old 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 Shi­ite­led 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 be­tween $200 bil­lion and $350 bil­lion.

Last month, Su­danese Pres­i­dent Omar al­bashir, him­self an in­ter­na­tional out­cast, flew to Da­m­as­cus on a Rus­sian jet, be­com­ing the first Arab leader to visit Syria since 2011. The visit was largely seen as a pre­cur­sor for sim­i­lar steps by other Arab lead­ers.

On Dec. 27, the United Arab Emi­rates re­opened its em­ bassy in Da­m­as­cus with a pub­lic cer­e­mony, in the most sig­nif­i­cant Arab over­ture yet to­ward the As­sad gov­ern­ment, al­most cer­tainly co­or­di­nated with Saudi Ara­bia. The Bahrain Em­bassy fol­lowed the next day.

The de­bate now ap­pears to be about when, not whether, to re­ad­mit Syria to the Arab League. At a meet­ing in Cairo on Wed­nes­day, Egyp­tian For­eign Min­is­ter Sameh Shukri said Syria’s re­turn to the League is con­nected to devel­op­ments on the po­lit­i­cal track to end the cri­sis.

Iraqi For­eign Min­is­ter Mo­hamed Al­hakim, speak­ing in Bagh­dad at a joint news con­fer­ence with his Ira­nian coun­ter­part, said Sun­day that his coun­try sup­ports ef­forts to re­store Syria’s mem­ber­ship in the Arab League.

In Le­banon, some of­fi­cials in­sist Syria should be in­vited to an Arab eco­nomic sum­mit the coun­try is host­ing next week, although fi­nal de­ci­sion rests with the League.

Even Turkey, whose pres­i­dent in 2012 fa­mously vowed to pray at Omayyad Mosque in Da­m­as­cus af­ter As­sad’s ouster, has sig­naled it would con­sider work­ing with As­sad again if he wins in free and fair elec­tions.


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