Middle East, Realpolitik: Inside Assad's Return To The World Stage
The Arab League has readmitted Syria, ending the regime's ten-year isolation. This is a defeat for the West — and an admission by the Arab states that there is no way around Assad.
BERLIN — He has killed civilians with poison gas and barrel bombs, bombed cities to rubble, imprisoned and tortured his countrymen and triggered the largest refugee crisis since World War II. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was among the world's most ostracized and isolated politicians — but now he is returning to the world stage.
The 22-member Arab League voted by a majority on Sunday to readmit Syria to its fold. As a result, Assad can now participate in regional summits again, 12 years after the Syrian civil war began. The next summit is scheduled for May 19 in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
The Arab family first disowned him when he shot down peaceful demonstrations against his corrupt regime. Like the West, most League member states called for Assad's resignation and supported groups fighting his forces.
Recently, however, some Arab states have sought to reconnect with him. Why are they rehabilitating the mass murderer now?
The new regional leader
Behind this move, there is a new, independent realpolitik in the Arab world, led by the regional power Saudi Arabia.
Resuming diplomatic relations with Assad comes from a common understanding that there is no way around the dictator. Iran and Russia have helped him retake most of the country and consolidate his power. Various peace initiatives have failed, the opposition has fragmented, and all opposing forces have been enormously weakened.
Arab neighbors accept that Assad has won and are working with him again to mitigate the effects of the Syrian civil war on their own countries.
Jordan and Lebanon have taken in the bulk of the Syrians who have fled — far more than Europe. They are themselves suffering from economic crises and want to repatriate refugees. They also want to curb the rampant smuggling of the drug Captagon from Syria to the region. This, they calculate, can only happen if they cooperate with the Syrian regime.
The United Arab Emirates had led the way in the rapprochement with Syria, but Middle East expert Andreas Krieg of King's College London sees Saudi Arabia as the driver behind its admission to the Arab League.
"The Saudis are trying to handle a lot of conflicts themselves right now, signaling to the other major powers, first and foremost the U.S. but also China, that they are the governor in the region," said Krieg.
The West losing influence
For the West, the Arab revival of Assad is a defeat. It makes clear that its Syria strategy has failed.
To be sure, the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, the EU imposed sanctions on Assad's Syria and supported opposition forces. But they were not prepared to provide military support that could have brought about the overthrow of Assad that they demanded.
Unforgettable is Obama's talk of his "red line" in Syria, which the then U.S. president allowed to be trampled over without consequence when Assad used poison gas to kill some 1,000 people in the Ghouta region.
Meanwhile, Russia, Iran and Turkey ruthlessly asserted their economic and geopolitical interests in Syria. The West is now once again being shown how it lost importance in the region. For years, Russia and China have been filling the vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal.
And a slap in the face for Washington.
Recently, arch-rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia resumed relations. This was solemnly announced in Beijing. A major diplomatic success for China, which presents itself as an alternative broker to the United States. And a slap in the face for Washington. In their exuberance, the Chinese also offered to help mediate in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
March 15, 2023: Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is seen after a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Moscow Kremlin
Taken the matter into its own hands
The Middle East has been forging alliances on its own for some time now, alternately using Chinese, Russian or U.S. help where it suits.
The fact that Saudi Arabia is diversifying its relations is also due to a realpolitik realization: relying solely on the West does not pay off. And the United States cannot be relied upon as a "protecting power".
The key event for the Saudis was the Iranian-directed attack on its oil refineries in Abkaik with drones and cruise missiles in 2019, which paralyzed half of its oil production. Washington's strong response, which Riyadh had hoped for, failed to materialize.
With neither Donald Trump's strategy of "maximum pressure" on Tehran nor the Vienna negotiations to rein in Iran's nuclear program leading to tangible security gains in the region, Riyadh now took its fate into its own hands and reached out to Tehran.
Similar considerations are likely to have led to the rapprochement to Assad's Syria. Western initiatives and sanctions have had little effect on Assad's war against its own people, which has had consequences that have been mainly felt within the Arab region. So now the Arab League wants to lead its own Syria policy.
In Arab media, wishful thinking is already spreading that Assad could be given conditions for his readmission, such as a political renewal process, and that Iran's influence in Syria could be curtailed. Neither seems very realistic at the moment.
But the West has no better ideas. It will continue to adhere to sanctions, the German Foreign Office said.
It's all very passive and reactionary.
"I don't see any initiative in Washington or Brussels that could rival what the Arab League has now put on the table," says Middle East expert Krieg. "It's all very passive and reactionary. The only ones who are really proactive are the actors in the region."