Assad raises status in Arab world
Syrian president’s image improves as 8-year war seems to be nearing end
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.
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 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 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.
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 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
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.
The Arab overtures come amid a shifting landscape in the Western world.
The planned U.S. pullout from Syria is part of Trump’s “America First” policy. He has repeatedly said he was not interested in removing Assad from power or keeping American troops involved in “endless wars” in the region, most recently describing Syria as “sand and death.”
Right-wing parties and populist movements on the rise in Europe are also on friendly terms with Assad, seeing him as a secular bulwark against Islamic extremists.
Congo runner-up asks for recount
Kinshasa, Congo – Congo’s presidential runner-up Martin Fayulu has asked the constitutional court to order a recount in the disputed election, declaring on Saturday that “you can’t manufacture results behind closed doors.”
He could be risking more than the court’s refusal. Congo’s electoral commission president Corneille Nangaa has said there are only two options: The official results are accepted or the vote is annulled — which would keep President Joseph Kabila in power until another election. The Dec. 30 one came after two years of delays.
Fayulu has accused the declared winner, opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi, of a backroom deal with Kabila to win power in the mineral-rich nation as the ruling party candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, did poorly.
Italian convict captured after 3 decades
Rome – A left-wing Italian militant who was convicted of murder in his home country nearly three decades ago was arrested in Bolivia, authorities said Sunday, setting the stage for a climactic end to one of Italy’s longest-running efforts to bring a fugitive to justice.
Cesare Battisti, 64, was captured by Bolivian and Italian officers in Santa Cruz de La Sierra, where he was located by intelligence agents after using one of his mobile devices, Italian police and RAI state television said.
Battisti escaped from an Italian prison in 1981 while awaiting trial on four counts of murder allegedly committed when he was a member of the Armed Proletarians for Communism. He was convicted in absentia in 1990 and faces a life term for the deaths of two police officers, a jeweler and a butcher.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, right, welcomes Syrian President Bashar Assad upon his arrival to attend the Arab Summit, in the Saudi capital Riyadh, in 2009.
A supporter of Congolese presidential candidate Martin Fayulu protect himself outside the Constitutional Court on Saturday.