As­sad raises sta­tus in Arab world

Syr­ian pres­i­dent’s im­age im­proves as 8-year war seems to be near­ing end

The Detroit News - - NATION & WORLD - BY ZEINA KARAM As­so­ci­ated Press 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 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

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.

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.

Hassan Am­mar / AP

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.

Caro­line Thirion / AFP/Getty Images

A sup­porter of Con­golese pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Martin Fayulu pro­tect him­self out­side the Con­sti­tu­tional Court on Satur­day.

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