Triumph Of Immunity: Why Assad's Return To The Arab League Matters
Two pressing factors have weighed on the Arab League to reintegrate the accused war criminal: refugees and narcotics. But it speaks to a larger weakness of the international community to see that justice is carried out.
PARIS — Sweet revenge! That's how it looked for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, arriving Thursday in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to attend the Arab League summit. It's a first appearance in more than a decade, since the exclusion of Damascus from the regional organization. Syria was reintegrated on May 7 and Assad’s presence at the Jeddah Summit marks his great return.
Syria had been excluded from the Arab League when Assad’s regime repressed what was initially a peaceful, popular uprising in 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. It's since been a decade in which he tortured and slaughtered, used chemical weapons, besieged cities. And yet, he’s still here, fundamentally thanks to the support of Russia and Iran.
And even if millions of Syrians are still taking refuge abroad, even if the country is still divided and partly beyond the control of the central power in Damascus, Assad survived. The man himself can now revel in this unexpected success.
Instead, for those hoping for a political solution in Syria, as well as those seeking justice for the crimes committed, Syria's reintegration in the Arab League marks a critical failure. Call it, the triumph of immunity.
Understanding why this has happened means looking at two factors agitating the region: the first is the presence of millions of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
How will millions be expected to go back to live in the same system that drove them away?
In Turkey, which is not a member of the League, part of the population wants the refugees gone as the country is going through tough times, high inflation and the aftermath of the devastating Feb. 6 earthquake. Even the opposition candidate in the current presidential race, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has turned it into a campaign argument. In Lebanon, a country that is also experiencing an economic and social descent into hell, the presence of 2 million Syrians has become similarly very political.
When it rejoined the Arab League, Damascus pledged to create the conditions for the return of refugees, but without a political solution or promise of justice. How will millions of people be expected to go back to live in the same system that drove them away?
A Syrian mother and her baby wait at the Turkish border to return home after the devastating earthquake.
The second subject is drugs. Syria has become the top producer and exporter of Captagon, a newly popular addictive amphetamine wreaking havoc in the Middle East and beyond. Saudi Arabia and Jordan are particularly affected, and are putting pressure on Damascus to control trafficking.
There again, Syria pledged, at a cost, to act against Captagon trafficking. The problem is that it has become a major source of income for the country, but even more so for the government: investigations point to the direction of Assad’s own brother, Maher, chief of the 4th Syrian Armored Division.
There may well be a fool’s bargain in this reintegration, and at least some tension ahead. For Syrians, notably those forced into exile, it's a bitter pill to swallow to see the survival of the regime that pushed so many to leave.
It is also a dilemma for the West, which continues to be pushed to the sidelines by a Middle East in flux — and neither has the means to exert influence after a tragedy they all could not prevent. Today is a victory for Assad alone.