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Assad in Saudi Arabia reflects the Middle East’s new normal

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The bleak optics were there for all to see. There was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, grinning as he strode down the tarmac after landing in the Saudi city of Jiddah. There were the robed plenipotentiaries from the kingdom, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, greeting him in a warm embrace. There Assad sat in session with the leaders of other Arab states, welcomed back into the fold.

That was Friday for Assad, who experienced a rehabilitation arguably years in the making, but which was no less jarring for his critics and opponents. A decade ago, officials in the Gulf monarchies were conspiring on ways to oust Assad. They poured resources and arms into the civil war raging in Syria, backing a motley grouping of anti-Assad rebels. As Assad turned his guns on his own people, bombing Syrian cities and unleashing chemical weapons on civilians, they placed the regime in a deep freeze, casting it out of the Arab League, the brotherly bloc that has long accommodated demagogues and autocrats of various stripes.

Middle Eastern leaders welcomed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to a regional summit on May 19 after more than a decade of suspending Syria from the group. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post)

But Assad is in de facto control of the majority of his country, while Syrian rebel forces and their supporters are subdued and scattered. The regional powers once invested in his removal have shifted their attention and priorities elsewhere. “The international community has failed us completely,” British Syrian activist Razan Saffour told my colleagues, reflecting on the Syrian regime’s return to the Arab League.

“Instead of holding Assad accountable for his heinous crimes … he is welcomed and even rewarded, as if the past 12 years of suffering and bloodshed never occurred,” Wafa Ali Mustafa, 32, a Syrian exile in Germany, told The Washington Post. She warned against the process of “normalization” of the Assad regime that seems well underway among its Arab neighbors.

Arab leaders keep trying to bury the Arab Spring

Assad used his appearance in Jiddah to cast himself once more as a pillar of stability in a restive region. “It is important to leave internal affairs to the country’s people as they are best able to manage them,” he said at the gathering, reprising the abusive autocrat’s age-old refrain. Never mind that, under his watch, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died, tens of thousands disappeared into regime prisons, and millions have been displaced while much of the war-ravaged country still needs humanitarian assistance. The devastating earthquake that hit southern Turkey and parts of northern Syria in February presented Assad a new path to accelerate rapprochement with sympathetic neighbors.

All the while, the Syrian dictator grinds his ideological ax. Assad launched a jab at neighboring Turkey, whose proxies represent some of the main holdouts to Damascus rule. Assad warned of the “danger of expansionist Ottoman thought” — making an implicit appeal both to Pan-Arab solidarity as well as an anti-Islamist pitch. Such rhetoric, to a certain extent, is the stock and trade of some of Assad’s counterparts in the Arab League. In the months preceding Assad’s arrival in Saudi Arabia, his regime made successful overtures to countries like Tunisia and Egypt, both of whose autocratic leaders consolidated their rules through anti-Islamist crackdowns.

For the Saudi hosts of the session, Assad returning to the fold is part of a broader attempt to ease frictions in the Middle East, after years of geopolitical polarization, ruinous wars and social unrest. The crown prince expressed hope Friday that Assad’s return to the Arab League “leads to the end of its crisis.”

What was on show, instead, was a reminder of the antipathies that fueled it: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attended the summit in Jiddah as a pit stop on his way to the Group of Seven meeting in Japan. He called on Arab leaders to take “an honest look” at the war waged by Russia in his country, with its human rights abuses and violations of international law.

“Unfortunately there are some in the world, and here among you, who turn a blind eye to those cages and illegal annexations,” Zelensky said. In a room crowded with Kremlin friends and allies, Assad, whose regime was saved by a Russian intervention in 2015, was at the head of the pack.

Yet the war in Ukraine, and the wide-ranging disruptions to markets that it triggered, has focused minds in the Middle East on a need for greater stability in an age of uncertainty. Saudi Arabia is mending fences with longtime antagonist Iran and is seeking a way out of the war in Yemen, as it prioritizes its own ambitious plans for development at home. “Riyadh didn’t begin the normalization push with Assad’s regime, but it did run with it, and hard,” tweeted H.A. Hellyer, a senior fellow at the RUSI think tank in Britain, gesturing to overtures made to Syria earlier by countries like the United Arab Emirates. “That’s all part of Riyadh’s calculation that its domestic agenda requires de-escalation within the region on any other file, so that full attention is focused within.”

Hellyer offered a stark warning: “But Assad’s reintegration may come back to haunt Riyadh. Assad hasn’t changed, and his regime continues to be unstable, even with Russian and Iranian backing. There are millions of Syrians who view Assad as the most brutal in their history, and that isn’t a recipe for good times.”

U.S. officials and Western diplomats have looked on warily at the Syrian regime’s political rehabilitation. As countries like Jordan, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates call for an easing of sanctions on Syria, U.S. lawmakers are stepping up efforts to pass a new round of legislation punishing the Assad regime and warding against further normalization.

“The Americans are dismayed,” a Gulf source close to government circles told Reuters. “We (Gulf states) are people living in this region, we’re trying to solve our problems as much as we can with the tools available to us in our hands.”

The shift may also reflect a waning U.S. appetite for involvement in the region, as Washington casts its eyes to challenges further east and takes a more back seat role in Arab affairs. “The Biden administration perhaps has made a calculus that, ‘Okay, the region is moving forward with normalization,’” Mona Yacoubian, vice president of the Middle East and North Africa center at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said to Al Jazeera. “Perhaps the issue then is to get something for it, get concessions.’”

Arab embrace of Assad underscores divergence with U.S. over Syria

It’s unclear how important those concessions could be. Experts point to the spread of the illegal trade of captagon, a drug that has become a huge illicit export in Assad’s Syria and whose dangerous impact on the region may be a source of leverage for Damascus.

“In order to keep the region’s attention, it’s quite possible the regime will grant some minimal concessions in the coming months: drip-feeding intelligence on captagon movements; keeping cross-border aid access open; and perhaps granting a small prisoner amnesty,” Charles Lister, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told me. “But it’s just not in Assad’s DNA to concede in any significant way, so there will come a time when this re-engagement reaches a natural blockage — where the next step, major economic investment, becomes diplomatically untenable or otherwise deterred by Western sanctions.”

For now, though, Syria’s normalization is proceeding apace. Arab nations “are accurately judging the U.S. position on normalization, which is the United States doesn’t want to have its fingerprints on it, doesn’t want to support it, but the United States is not going to do anything to prevent it from happening,” William F. Wechsler, a former Pentagon official who heads Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council, told my colleagues.


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