In recent months, Syria has become much less isolated in the Arab region. Western governments’ disapproval notwithstanding, a growing number of states in the Middle East and North Africa have determined that re-normalising relations with Damascus serves their national interests.
President Bashar al-Assad’s three visits to the Gulf since March 2022 and his planned trip to Riyadh next month underscore how Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, with the exceptions of Kuwait and Qatar, are working to shore up the Damascus government.
Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad’s meeting with his Egyptian counterpart in Cairo earlier this month also highlighted how the ice has been breaking, especially in the aftermath of the 6 February earthquakes.
On Wednesday, Mekdad visited Saudi Arabia on the first such trip since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011.
Tunisia has been part of this growing Arab consensus in favour of normalising relations with Syria and rehabilitating the regime in Damascus. In March, Tunisian President Kais Saied expressed his desire to see his country and Syria appoint ambassadors to the other.
On 3 April, Tunisia’s head of state ordered the foreign ministry in Tunis to “initiate procedures for appointing an ambassador of Tunisia in Damascus,” emphasising on social media the “need to adhere to the principles of the foreign policy of Tunisian diplomacy” and saying that the country’s “positions abroad stem from the will of its people”.
Following the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, the democratically-elected government in Tunis sought to make “anti-authoritarianism” a pillar of its foreign policy.
The North African country’s first post-Arab Spring head of state, President Mohamed Moncef Marzouki, was staunchly anti-Assad and Tunisia responded to the Syrian uprising by severing diplomatic relations with Damascus in February 2012.
As Marzouki maintained at the time, “the only solution (to the violence in Syria) is the withdrawal of Bashar al-Assad from power, and the launch of a democratic transition”.
But after the tide in Syria shifted decisively in Assad’s favour following intense Russian and Iranian military intervention, Tunisia began slowly coming around to accepting the reality of the Damascus government’s victory in the civil war.
By January 2017, Tunisia reinstituted a limited diplomatic mission in Damascus. The move divided Tunisians between Assad’s sympathisers and those who wanted Tunis to maintain its rigid stance against the Syrian regime.
Yet, with thousands of Tunisian nationals joining the ranks of Islamic State (IS) in the Levant, Tunisian officials framed the partial normalisation under the banner of counterterrorism and protecting Tunisia’s national security interests.
Since Saied’s 2021 coup, Tunisia has accelerated its movement toward reestablishing full-fledged diplomatic relations with Damascus.
“Saied has shown the will for a clear change of course in favour of Assad. This is another disturbing signal regarding the authoritarian drift that Tunisia is taking,” said Dr Federica Saini Fasanotti, a non-resident fellow at the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, in an interview with The New Arab.
For Saied, reestablishing diplomatic relations with Syria is a high priority. Currently, there are more than 30 Tunisian embassies worldwide without an ambassador or head of mission because the North African country’s president has not appointed them.
These include, for example, Tunisian embassies in major capitals such as Beijing, Berlin, and Rome. Therefore, Saied focusing energy into appointing an ambassador to Syria speaks volumes about how much he values Tunis’s ties to Damascus.
Ideational motivations for reestablishing relations with Syria
In contrast to Jordan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and other Arab states, which have easily definable economic or security interests in re-normalising relations with Damascus, Tunisia’s government is doing so mostly for ideological purposes. It is also important to note that the decision from Tunis is not a result of pressure from the UAE or other Gulf states.
“Kais Saied has his own independent ideological reasons for wanting to establish those relations [with Assad’s government],” Dr Monica Marks, an assistant professor of Middle East politics at New York University Abu Dhabi and Tunisia expert, told TNA.
Dr Marks added that the Saied regime lacks, “clear interests of the conventional sort, like trade or geostrategic interests” vis-à-vis Syria.
“Kais Saied and the small clique of ideologues around him are heavily rooted in…a very eclectic ideological mixture that has deep Arab nationalist undertones. It’s those deep Arab nationalist undertones that are setting the compass here,” explained Dr Marks.
She explained that in some respects “old school Ba’athism” is charting the course in Tunisian-Syrian relations without “any clear conventional national interest” on the Tunisian state’s part in play.
To better understand Saied’s approach to Syria, it is important to look at some of his constituencies and their agendas.
Some of the influential players in Tunisia that initially applauded Saied’s 2021 autogolpe, such as the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) and Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH), have for years maintained firmly pro-Assad stances.
From writing letters expressing sympathy for the Damascus government to sending delegations to Syria for meetings with Assad, these institutions have made their support for the Syrian president crystal clear. This began prior to the Arab region’s trend in favour of re-normalising relations with Syria gained momentum several years ago.
Such organisations often frame their support for the Damascus government within the context of supporting the Palestinian struggle, viewing Assad’s regime as a defender of Palestine and a necessary force of resistance against Zionism and Western imperialism.
“These groups lean left in the Tunisian context [which means] Arab nationalist historically,” Dr Marks told TNA. “These groups were the tip of the normalisation spear in 2017 and earlier. Kais Saied’s inner clique found a lot of ideological overlap, at least initially, with these groups.”
Defending sovereignty and rejecting human rights
Tunisia’s government is adamant about its right to sovereignty. Saied and those around him do not welcome criticism of Tunisia’s retreat to authoritarianism. Tunisia’s leadership is firm in its position that Arab states should not receive lectures from Western officials about human rights or democracy.
Within this context, taking steps to bolster the image of Assad’s government as legitimate serves Saied’s agendas in Tunisia at a time in which many human rights organisations and lawmakers in the West are raising alarm over his Napoleonic power grab and the mistreatment of migrants in the country.
“Saied made it clear that what happens in Syria only affects Syrians,” Dr Fasanotti told TNA. “This is probably what Saied would like to happen with regard to his country. In this way he would be free to increase the autocratic grip on the country, without any international institution ready to intervene.”
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero