Swallowing the bitter pill of Syrian rehabilitation
The controversial readmission of Syria to the Arab League will make the organization’s forthcoming Riyadh summit a closely watched occasion. For millions of Syrians, not to mention many Arab leaderships, this is an unimaginably bitter pill to swallow.
Defending the move, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi observed that “status-quo politics only resulted in more ills and more pain and suffering for the Syrian people and growing threats to the region.” On a more hawkish note, Safadi signaled the prospect of Jordanian military intervention inside Syria if narcotics smuggling is not brought under control.
Twelve years of Syrian carnage cannot be forgiven or forgotten. However, with all other avenues exhausted, enough is enough. Waiting another 10 or 20 years to take this inevitable step would only prolong human suffering. The agreement provides for a ministerial contact group from several Arab states to work with Damascus on “step-by-step” practical solutions to issues such as refugees, narcotics and access for humanitarian aid.
The still-festering Syrian wound has regionwide detrimental effects, most obviously in the millions of refugees who continue to subsist in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, exacerbating economic and social tensions. Arab states could play an active role in guaranteeing the safety of returning citizens and deterring Damascus from taking punitive action.
The Assad clan have flooded the region with tons of narcotics, while becoming notorious for smuggling weapons, people and contraband goods. States such as Jordan and Lebanon have been doubly afflicted —awash with cheap, deadly drugs, and also enmeshed in the transit of these products. Assad has half-heartedly undertaken to “try” to address the narcotics file. That is not good enough. If Damascus desires to benefit from re-established trade relations with Arab nations, it should disabuse itself of the fantasy that its future prosperity is based on the narco-state model.
Arab demands that Damascus disassociate itself from Iran apparently haven’t borne fruit, with Assad pointedly refusing to abandon his most steadfast ally. In any case, complete severance of ties with Tehran arguably wouldn’t be a realistic request, given moves by Arab states to restore diplomatic relations themselves.
However, as with Iraq, Arab states should insist on the recalibration of relations, toward the goal that Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq stop resembling Iranian satellite states, through ceasing the stockpiling of missiles and recognition that these nations can’t be hostages of Iranian foreign policy brinkmanship.
Rapprochement should be based on clear-eyed recognition that the Damascus regime does not have a record for honest dealing, and may later seek to disentangle itself from its commitments.
The demobilization of Tehran-aligned militias in these states should also be a priority. The Sudanese debacle illustrates that when overmighty paramilitary forces are allowed to continually grow in strength, eventually there is no escape from wholesale war. There are concerns that Iran is seeking to coordinate the actions of militant forces such as Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas more closely, to exert greater control over regionwide conflict and cross-border tensions. Israel has meanwhile been staging regular airstrikes against Iran-associated targets in Syria.
Rapprochement should be based on clear-eyed recognition that the Damascus regime does not have a record for honest dealing, and may later seek to disentangle itself from its commitments. Assad furthermore is in only nominal control of a minority of Syrian territory, with other areas held by rebel groups such as Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, Turkiye, and US-backed Kurdish forces. Russia, meanwhile, controls substantial military assets, and Daesh and other jihadist groups retain a presence. Arab states must ensure that reengagement doesn’t become a ploy for a reinvigorated regime to return to the military offensive.
Ebrahim Raisi last week became the first Iranian president to visit Syria since 2011. Despite one of Raisi’s top officials boasting that the visit represented “the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic victory in the region,” the visit had a whiff of desperation, given the implications of Damascus’s readmission to the Arab fold for ending Iran’s Syrian monopoly.
Iran has poured at least $30 billion into Syria since 2011, and some estimates are even higher. With its own finances in disarray, Tehran will be seeking to squeeze the bankrupt Syrian regime into delivering returns on these investments. Gulf states have meanwhile signaled deep reluctance to invest in Syrian reconstruction in a manner that could allow these funds to accrue to Tehran. Apparently oblivious to irony, Raisi has stressed Tehran’s potential central role in reconstruction — despite Iran being a principal agent of Syria’s destruction in the first place. Let’s see him put his money where his mouth is.
Western nations are opposed to any outreach to Damascus, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Arab states that “those engaging with the Assad regime should weigh carefully how those efforts are addressing the needs of the Syrian people.” He is correct in the sense that the worst of all worlds would be to let Assad off the hook without fundamentally addressing Syria’s myriad security challenges. The burden of proof will be on Arab states to demonstrate the determination and capacity to hold the regime to its promises.
Going forward, there must also be genuine efforts to ensure that justice is done regarding horrific crimes against humanity by numerous parties in Syria. Brushing this under the carpet merely sets the stage for the next round of atrocities somewhere else; not least in Sudan, which has the potential to become equally bloody, complex and intractable. There must be a muscular Arab role in the current Jeddah negotiations in preventing Sudan’s warring parties from pursuing the Syrian path.
Culturally and politically, Syria is one of the Arab world’s vital organs. The loss and dismemberment of this organ over the past 12 years has been catastrophic for Arab geostrategic wellbeing.
Consequently, Damascus’s rehabilitation into the Arab body is a hugely complex, sensitive and problematic operation. Millions of Syrians will be relying on leading Arab states to ensure that this new agreement is a first step to allowing them to rebuild their lives.
• Baria Alamuddin