Rehabilitating Assad

Rehabilitating Assad
Opinion: Several Arab League states are mulling the readmission of Syria's brutal dictator, with an eye to how it might further their own regional agendas, writes Sam Hamad.
5 min read
10 Jun, 2021
Assad's Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011 [Getty]

The recent regime-orchestrated election that saw Bashar al-Assad reanointed as Syria's president was seen by many as nothing more than a farce.

Of course, on an operational level, this is true. Even without the context of the regime carrying out a brutal war against its own people, the election was a foregone conclusion. Assad, the dynastic incumbent, received 95% of the vote, and the election should be dismissed as a vicious perversion of democracy

However, these elections were never about democracy or convincing the world that a mass-murdering dictator had suddenly decided to embrace liberal democracy. Instead, its main function was to pave one more step on the path to full rehabilitation for Assad among Arab powers. 

Syria was officially suspended from the Arab League in 2011. However, many members of the group were not keen on ostracising their fellow tyrant. Iraq, Algeria, and Sudan sought to revoke the suspension almost as soon as it was imposed, and recently, Egypt, Lebanon, and the UAE have joined the growing pro-Assad lobby within the League, with eyes on the global rehabilitation of the murderous dictator. 

In 2018, the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus, as the Emirates found Turkey's influence over the Syrian opposition to be a much bigger threat than that of internal discontent.

It could be argued that were it not for growing popular support for the anti-Assad opposition in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, there may never have been any fissure with Damascus. Their "pro-revolutionary" compulsion was more about averting unrest within sympathetic forces among their own populations than it was about any real democratic conviction. 

And it's precisely the same kind of calculation that has birthed the logic of rehabilitating Assad. 

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed allegedly bribed Assad to brutally break a ceasefire with the Turkish-backed opposition in Idlib in early 2020, in an effort to heap pressure on Turkey.

"We are now witnessing Arab powers realise that Assad could be a powerful pawn in achieving their regional ambitions"

It is precisely this "Islamic democracy" that the UAE wants to snuff out, which is why it poured a significant amount of funding into the coup that brought Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power against the democratically-elected government of President Mohamed Morsi. 

Sisi has instantly recognised a kindred spirit in Assad, providing his regime with weapons and diplomatic support. Just prior to the May 2021 election, the Sisi regime, which is itself no stranger to fixing elections, attempted to provide legitimacy to the farce, with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry saying the vote would allow the Syrian people to "choose their future."

The UAE and Egypt, both countries that are pushing for Baathist Syria's complete readmission to the Arab League, see Assad as a potential pawn in their anti-Turkey and anti-Muslim Brotherhood alliance.

We are now witnessing Arab powers realise that Assad could be a powerful pawn in achieving their regional ambitions. The election has been seen by a growing faction of Arab states as an opportunity to hasten the "reconstruction" of Baathist Syria, which will not only provide them with lucrative business opportunities but will further bring Assad into the fold of their bloc.

Arab Foreign Ministers take part in their 153rd annual session at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, on 4 March, 2020. [Getty]
Arab Foreign Ministers take part in their 153rd annual session at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, on 4 March, 2020. [Getty]


Though Saudi Arabia has been more circumspect than the UAE and Egypt in its attempts to rehabilitate Assad, early last month General Khalid al-Humaidan, Saudi Arabia's chief of intelligence, met with Assad and his own intelligence chief Ali Mamluk in Damascus. While there's speculation that some form of rapprochement after the election was the main topic of conversation, the fact Saudi Arabia now openly sends high-level officials to Damascus is a major shift given its former support for the Syrian opposition.

Moreover, as per the futuristic - if dystopian - vision of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman for the region, Syria's tourism minister Muhammad Rami Martini travelled to Riyadh in May, in what was the first trip by a Baathist official to Saudi Arabia in over a decade.

Saudi Arabia's motives for rapprochement align with those of the UAE and Egypt's in terms of opposition to Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood. However, as ever with the kingdom, the obsession with Iran certainly features too in potential reconciliation with Damascus. 

"The fact that Saudi Arabia now openly sends high level officials to Damascus is a major shift given its former support for the Syrian opposition"

It is no secret that Assad's Syria is in dire need of money - his rump state is effectively bankrupt, as Iran can no longer afford to underwrite his regime in the manner it did previously, due to sanctions and the unforeseen economic consequences of Covid-19. Similarly, Russia would be keen on the potential financial stabilisation that investment from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf might bring, allowing it to restrict its own commitments and reap the potential rewards from Syria's "reconstruction."

Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE and other rich Gulf states such as Bahrain and Kuwait, could easily step in and provide Assad with economic investment, aid and the financial lubrication needed for "reconstruction." This funding could be a means for Saudi Arabia to squeeze Iran out of Syria, or even, as the Biden administration is expected to reach a new nuclear deal with Iran shortly, something akin to a temporary détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

None of this bodes well for Syrians, for the region, or for the world. Though Europe, Turkey, and the US have remained committed to not granting legitimacy to Assad, if financial powerhouses and firm US-European allies such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE reconcile with Damascus, this could quickly change.

Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.

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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.