The Arab League's gamble on Assad won't pay off

The Arab League's gamble on Assad won't pay off
5 min read

Faysal Abbas Mohamad

06 June, 2023
Hoping to counter Iran's influence and end drug smuggling, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of Arab states in rehabilitating the Syrian regime. This is not only a moral but also a strategic mistake, writes Faysal Abbas Mohamad.
Last month, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was allowed back into the Arab League after a 12-year absence following the Syria uprisings of 2011. [Getty]

To most Syria observers, the accelerated Saudi-led drive to rehabilitate the Assad regime is not a surprise. After all, the Saudis and the other allied Arab regimes in the region did not have essential contradictions with the Syrian regime in 2011, when the anti-Assad uprising broke out.

The involvement of some Arab states, chief among them was Saudi Arabia, in the armed Syrian conflict that ensued was mainly meant to counter the Iranian influence in the country. These players  also wanted to make sure that, should the Assad regime fall, the next government was neither pro-Iran nor democratic.

Thus, it is worth reviewing the motivations and calculations related to this ostensibly dramatic process of reintegrating the Assad regime into the official Arab fold. Equally important is assessing the attainability of Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies' objectives and expectations. 

Put in a nutshell, the Saudis and their Arab partners aim to reduce Iran’s influence in Syria, encourage Syrian refugees to return home relieving Jordan and Lebanon of a huge burden, and put an end to the drug smuggling from Syria to the surrounding countries, including the Gulf states, as Syria has become the world’s largest producer of captagon.

To these objectives, they add the official face-saving call to end the armed conflict in Syria through a political settlement based on the UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

With regards to Iran’s influence in Syria, it is quite pervasive and deeply entrenched. Besides thousands of Shia militia commanded by Iranian officers, Iran has infiltrated the Syrian army, security apparatus and the economy. Iran also established dozens of Shia seminaries, youth scouts and religious/cultural centres in the country.

Since 2011, Iran has spent $6 billion annually to prop up the Syrian regime, an investment it will vehemently defend. Even if Assad has the motivation and the courage to try to limit Iranian presence in his country, he may well realise that he does not have the ability to achieve such a fraught goal.

This begs the question of the Assad regime’s seriousness in fulfilling Saudi expectations. During the Jeddah meeting of Arab foreign ministers on 17 May, the Syrian foreign minister Faysal al-Mekada stressed the importance of Arab assistance in Syria’s reconstruction in order to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees.

Linking the return of refugees to reconstruction is a plain manoeuvre to postpone their repatriation for years, if not decades. In addition, it is an attempt to blackmail the rich Arab states to pour money into the Syrian economy and, by extension, into the pockets of Assad’s henchmen.

When it comes to capagon, Assad’s ‘efforts’ to stop the drug smuggling from his narco-state have not gone beyond his characteristic theatrics. He recently replaced a number of high-ranking customs officers, and ordered the arrest and/or killing of a few third-tier smugglers.

Such steps would not affect the Iran-backed drug barons, chief among them is his brother Maher al-Assad, the notorious commander of the elite Fourth Division.

It is noteworthy that Maher was secretly summoned to the Saudi kingdom two months ago for “talks.” The Saudis no doubt are aware of his leading role in drug smuggling through his network of military checkpoints and Syrian, Lebanese and Iranian collaborators. The fact that smuggling continued after this visit points to the level of Saudi ‘success.’

The arrogance of the head of the Syrian regime is revealing. A few years ago, as his regime had been saved by Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria, Assad brazenly boasted that the Syrian opposition “would not extract (political) concessions through negotiations after failing to do so by force of arms.”

This posture remains a constant as of now. It certainly renders all attempts and calls to effect a political settlement in Syria – from the futile Astana meetings to the current official pronouncements by the normalising Arab regimes – mere wishful thinking.

On 19 May, basking in the ‘feat’ of his return to the Arab League, and participating in the latest summit which was held in Jeddah, Assad addressed the Arab leaders stressing Syria’s Arab identity and affiliation. He also underscored the principle of leaving the internal affairs of each country to the member states to handle without external interference.

Coming from a mass murderer, this message is loud and clear: what I do in Syria is nobody’s business. To a room of mostly authoritarian leaders who are equally unenthusiastic about being told what to do, this is an arrangement that they can get behind. 

To Assad, a political settlement to the Syrian conflict is obviously out of the question.

The de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman, is working hard to realign the region under the Saudi mantle so that he can focus on realising his 2030 vision, which aims to modernise his kingdom in an atmosphere of regional ‘stability’.

He seemingly made a big step towards his strategic goal by reconciling with Iran in April. Syria is one of the files to be tackled by the two regional powers, along with Yemen and Lebanon.

Yet the difficulties are daunting. A Saudi official quoted by the Financial Times 1 May acknowledges the precariousness of the normalisation process: “Just because you’ve opened up the channel of discussions doesn’t mean that’s it. It is not opening totally.”

Bin Salman’s Syrian gamble may not pay the desired dividends.

Faysal Abbas Mohamad is a retired Syrian-Canadian professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations, as well as a longtime dissident who was an eyewitness to the Syrian uprising. His articles have appeared in various outlets.

Follow him on Twitter:@fmohamad2

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.