While Bashar al-Assad is still shunned by the West, which blames him for a decade of brutal war in Syria, a shift is under way in the Middle East, where Arab allies of the United States are bringing him in from the cold by reviving economic and diplomatic ties, said a Reuters report on Monday.
The extension of Assad’s two-decade-old presidency in an election in May did little to break his pariah status among Western states, but fellow Arab leaders are coming to terms with the fact that he retains a solid grip on power, according to regional analysts, diplomats and former government officials.
The chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan and its preoccupation with China have firmed up a belief among Arab leaders that they need to chart their own course, these analysts and officials say.
When asked about the shift, the US State Department said there was no change to its Syria policy.
A department spokesperson said: “What we have not done and will not do is express any support for efforts to normalize or rehabilitate the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad, lift a single sanction on Syria, or change our position to oppose the reconstruction of Syria until there is irreversible progress towards a political solution.”
Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad told Syria’s al-Watan newspaper on Sunday: “I am optimistic that we will kick off deeper dialogues for our people. There is a greater realization among all parties that the current situation does not benefit anyone and that western plots threaten us all.”
He revealed that his recent meetings have included nine Arab foreign ministers, all of whom have felt that Syria’s absence from the Arab League “has harmed joint Arab work and that Syria must be part of the Arab body as soon as possible.”
Government officials in Damascus could not immediately be reached for comment on Syria’s relations with Arab states.
Political as well as economic considerations loom large in Arab capitals such as Cairo, Amman and Abu Dhabi. These include their ties with Assad’s most powerful backer, Russia, which has been pressing for Syria’s reintegration, and how to counter the influence carved out in Syria by Iran and Turkey.
Turkey and its support for factions across the region - including a swathe of northern Syria that remains outside Assad’s grasp - is of particular concern to Arab rulers who can make common cause with Damascus against Islamist groups, analysts say.
But while the signs of Arab rapprochement with Damascus are growing - King Abdullah of Jordan spoke to Assad for the first time in a decade this month - US policy will remain a complicating factor.
Washington says its policy still demands a political transition as set out in a Security Council resolution. US sanctions targeting Damascus, tightened under President Donald Trump, still pose a serious obstacle to commerce.
But in Washington, analysts say Syria has hardly been a foreign policy priority for President Joe Biden’s administration. They note his focus on countering China and that his administration has yet to apply sanctions under the so-called Caesar Act, which came into force last year with the intent of adding to the pressure on Assad.
After being warned against dealing with Damascus by the Trump administration, Arab states are pressing the issue again.
“US allies in the Arab world have been encouraging Washington to lift the siege on Damascus and allow for its reintegration into the Arab fold,” said David Lesch, a Syria expert at Trinity University in Texas. “It appears the Biden administration, to some degree, is listening.”
It marks a shift from the early years of the conflict when Syria was expelled from the Arab League and states backed some of the factions that fought Assad.
Breaking down barriers
The decade-long conflict, which spiraled out of a popular uprising against Assad during the so-called “Arab Spring”, has killed hundreds of thousands of people, uprooted half the population and forced millions into adjacent states and Europe as refugees.
Anti-Assad factions still have a foothold in the north, with support from Turkey, while the east and northeast is controlled by Kurdish-led forces backed by the United States.
But while the conflict is unresolved, Assad is back in control of most of Syria thanks largely to Russia and Iran, which were always more committed to his survival than Washington was to his removal, even when chemical weapons were fired on opposition areas.
Jordan, Syria’s neighbor to the south, has been leading the pack on the Arab policy shift.
It has repeatedly said it wants to improve ties with Syria. A Jordanian government spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the future course of its relations with Damascus.
The border between Syria and Jordan was fully reopened for trade last month, and Amman has been a driving force behind a deal to pipe Egyptian natural gas to Lebanon via Syria, with an apparent US nod of approval.
“When Jordan breaks these barriers and establishes ties and it’s at this pace, there will be countries that will follow suit,” Samih al-Maaytah, a former Jordanian minister and political analyst, told Al Mamlaka, a state-owned broadcaster.
The crossing was once plied by hundreds of trucks a day moving goods between Europe, Turkey and the Gulf. Reviving trade will be a shot in the arm for Jordan and Syria, whose economy is in deep crisis. It should also help Lebanon, now suffering one of the sharpest economic depressions in modern history.
“I’m absolutely sure the Jordanians feel that the US will not sanction them,” Jim Jeffrey, former US Special Envoy for Syria under Trump, told Reuters.
“There’s a tremendous buzz among media, among friends in the region, that the US is no longer aggressively sanctioning Assad under the Caesar Act or other things.”
The mood was reflected at last month’s UN General Assembly, where Egyptian and Syrian foreign ministers met for the first time in a decade, and at the Expo 2020 Dubai exhibition, where the Syrian and Emirati economy ministers discussed the revival of a bilateral business council.