Syria Weekly: Assad's outreach highlights regime's pariah status

Syria Weekly: Assad's outreach highlights regime's pariah status
Despite the best efforts by the Syrian regime to reach out to foreign powers and personalities, its attempts appear to have fallen flat again.
8 min read
14 September, 2019
Damascus will remain in the cold for some time [Getty]
A brief but tense ceasefire hangs over Idlib, with a resumption in Russia bombing this week leading to fears a new assault on the province could resume, one that might lead to a full-fledged invasion of the last opposition territories in Syria. 

Rebel leaders told Reuters that a military build-up outside opposition territories includes large a contingent of Russian troops and Iranian militia fighters, which if true could be a game changer in the war.

It is still not clear what the aim of a regime offensive would be - or if indeed one is imminent - but Bashar al-Assad appears focused on diplomatic and trade issues that might feature in post-war Syria.

Propaganda drive

Further steps appear to be taken by the regime over the past two weeks to reach out internationally through media, trade and culture. The hosting of the 3rd International Trade Union Forum - a gathering of activists under the auspices of Bashar al-Assad - was one sign of this. 

Judging from state media's coverage of the event, the gathering appeared less a platform to discuss workers' rights and more a clumsy attempt to push the regime's propaganda outside the country, including through American activists who attended the event.

The Damascus International Trade Fair was attended by a number of foreign business and officials in late August, and has been another tool for the regime to build economic and political ties outside the country, and - albeit prematurely - and to show the world that Syria is "open for business".

The fair - which was re-started in 2017, after a brief pause due to war - remains largely boycotted by western countries and businesses. Despite repeated US warnings of potential sanctions against businesses that deal with the Assad regime, little was said when UAE and Oman delegates attended this year. 

Business delegates and visits from sympathetic activists have become a mainstay of the regime's contradictory and paranoid propaganda drive to reach audiences outside the country. On one hand the regime wants to portray its territories as safe for tourists and business-friendly, while at the same time depicting Syria as besieged by foreign powers, crippled by US sanctions, and ever vulnerable to militant attacks.

At the same time, Syria has been keen to foster close ties with a number of Arab states that have occupied a sort of grey zone during the war. One of the most obvious of these is the UAE, which re-opened its embassy in Damascus late last year and provided a haven for a number of senior regime figures.

"The UAE is most equipped to play a role in Syria's future to earn business deals for its countries," Bachar al-Halabi, Middle East Researcher at the Asfari Institute at the American University of Beirut (AUB), told The New Arab.

"The UAE hosted the Assads, a major chunk of their money and that of the Makhloufs (mostly Bashar's maternal cousins) is there and they stopped supporting the rebels a long time ago."

New allies?

The UAE is among a number of Arab states that are said to have pushed for Syria to be readmitted to the Arab League after its membership was suspended in 2011 after the regime's brutal crackdown on peaceful protests. 

The UN General Assembly meeting in New York next week could pave the way for further talks between Arab diplomats on Syria's status in the league, before a meeting of Arab states in February. 

Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week that he hoped Syria would soon return to the "Arab family", hinting that re-instatement of Damascus' Arab League membership might be on the cards.

While the Assad regime is still unpalatable to many Arab states - such as Qatar - a sense of pragmatism and opportunism has gripped other countries, some appearing keen to secure business and diplomatic ties with Damascus before lucrative post-war reconstruction money pours in.

Jordan has opened the Al-Nassib border crossing with Syria after the regime recaptured opposition areas in the south. It is hoped the re-opening of the border will reinvigorate trade between the two countries but suspicions between the governments remain. 

For Amman, the resumption of trade is seen as a necessary step to claw its way out of economic doldrums. It remains cautious about the presence of pro-regime Iranian militias in the south of Syria and other security issues, while the detention of a number of Jordanians visiting Syria hints that suspicions work both ways. 

Trade will continue to be affected by Assad's pariah status internationally and the growing lawlessness in Syria's bordering Daraa province showing that even if the regime recaptures territories, then security and safety for traders is not guaranteed. 

Even if there a new pragmatic acceptance between Syria and Jordan about economic issues, the relationship between Assad and King Abdullah has been severely affected by Amman's stance early in the war.

"I wouldn't see Amman's recent steps towards Damascus as the [Jordan] monarchy cosying up to the regime, as much as I see it as a vital step for survival, especially that King Abdullah was the first Arab leader to demand Assad steps down in 2011," Halabi said.

The UAE is most equipped to play a role in Syria's future to earn business deals for its countries.

"However, Amman's biggest challenges are its economic difficulties. The pressure from this are massively rising in the country and you have almost weekly protests regarding the economic situation," he added, as seen with last week's teachers' strikes.

Jordan's economy has not been just been affected by a downturn in trade with Syria and Iraq, but also that war in these countries has to some degree cut Amman off from key outside markets, such as Turkey.

The revolutionary states

Of the few Arab states to provide concrete diplomatic support for Assad during the war were Algeria and Sudan, although leaders in both countries were toppled this year following popular protests against their rule putting a question mark over Khartoum-Damascus and Algiers-Damascus relations. 

Although remnants of the old regimes still remain in place, the generals remain vulnerable to the street and activists that remain committed to weakening the last vestiges of military rule. 

Read also: 'Tourism groove': Italian neo-fascist group CasaPound visits Syria

Few of these activists will likely have any sympathy for Assad given their own struggles against autocracy. Halabi said that the delicate power balances in Sudan and Algeria -and efforts from both civilians and the military to prevent tensions escalating out of control - means there is unlikely to be a major change in foreign policy in Algiers and Khartoum.

"In Sudan, I think the new sovereign council has so much on its hands that the issue of foreign policy, particularly with a non-neighbouring country won't fall in its priorities at least for some time. I also think that the new council needs to focus on local problems and find solutions rather than engage in topics that might be divisive."

Khartoum is looking at reversing the naturalisation of some Syrians who were given Sudanese citizenship. This appears motivated by the new authority's attempts to punish past corruption, rather than being politically motivated.

In Algeria, the junta appears fixated with pushing through laws that will pave the way for presidential elections in December, despite a popular backlash.

"The current ruler of the country Gaid Salah has no interest in Syria at the moment as well, which is why the most interesting thing to observe in Algeria is whether the elections will happen or not," Halabi added.

Europe outreach

With the exception of some Gulf states, Russia, China and a few other countries in the pro-Moscow camp, political support for Assad remains confined to fringe far-right and far-left groups in Europe.

Members of the populist far-right government in Hungary has been a vocal supporter of Assad, while almost all other European countries have been critical of the regime.

Despite this, a report this week suggested that Victor Orban's far-right government is taking steps to increase its diplomatic presence in Damascus with a charge d'affaires being appointed in the absence of an ambassador.

Most view the move less a deepening of Budapest's commitment to the Assad regime and more a gambit for home consumption, where anti-refugee sentiments run strong. Others see it as a bit of typical diplomatic trolling by Orban against the EU. 

The EU's other Assad-leaning leader was the right-wing populist Matteo Salvini, who recently stepped down as deputy prime minister and interior minister in Italy.

In Europe, Orban remains isolated on the issue of Syria and any steps by Budapest towards diplomatic normalisation with the Syria regime would likely see Germany, France and the UK publicly reiterate their opposition to Assad.

Among the few European delegations to have visited Assad are those from extreme left and right parties, including members of Italy's neo-fascist CasaPound and France's Front National this month.

The failure of the Syria regime to reach mainstream audiences outside the country - or  gain political leverage through business - highlight the limits of Assad's power in whitewashing the murder of hundreds of thousands of its citizens through bombing, gassing and shelling.

"For the time being, Assad will remain a pariah," Halabi concludes.

Syria Weekly is a new, regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin