Arab na­tions inch to­ward re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing Syria’s As­sad

The Denver Post - - NEWS - 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 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.

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 mind-bog­gling 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.

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.”

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 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.

A Saudi at­tempt to patch up re­la­tions with As­sad would be a pub­lic ac­knowl­edge­ment 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 al-Bashir, 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 em­bassy 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 re-ad­mit 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 press 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.

“It could hap­pen slower or faster, but if As­sad is go­ing to stay where he is, then ob­vi­ously coun­tries in the re­gion are go­ing to try to make the best of that sit­u­a­tion,” said Aron Lund, a fel­low with The Cen­tury Foun­da­tion. “Amer­i­can politi­cians can sit in splen­did iso­la­tion on the other side of an ocean and pre­tend Syria isn’t what it is,” he said. “But King Ab­dul­lah of Jor­dan can’t.”

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