The misguided re-engagement with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad
Readmission to the Arab League sends a chilling message to regime’s victims
When Saudi Arabia hosts an Arab League summit on Friday, a chair will be set aside for Bashar al-Assad, a despot who has tortured, imprisoned, bombed, gassed and besieged the people he is supposed to serve. If, as expected, the Syrian president attends it would be the first time he has been welcomed at the annual meeting of regional leaders since Syria was suspended from the league 12 years ago. It would be a sad day for Arab diplomacy and send a chilling message to victims of the regime’s atrocities: that Assad can continue with impunity. In 2011, Arab League members rightly decided Assad should be punished for his violent crackdown on a largely peaceful popular uprising and his failure to abide by an Arab peace initiative. As the regime’s brutal attempt to crush protests triggered civil war, wealthy Gulf states supported the opposition battling to oust Assad. Yet a dozen years on, with at least 300,000 killed and 12mn forced from their homes, most Arab states have chosen to welcome Assad back into the fold. The Arab League is a largely toothless body. But the decision to readmit Syria, taken by foreign ministers this month, hands an unnecessary and unwarranted diplomatic victory to a war criminal and his partners in crime — Iran and Russia. The re-engagement with Assad picked up pace after a flurry of Saudi-led diplomacy. That came after China brokered a deal that led to the kingdom agreeing to restore diplomatic relations with its arch rival Iran. Those pushing for re-engagement argue it is a realpolitik approach that recognises Assad is going nowhere after regaining control of most of the country with Moscow’s and Tehran’s military backing — and that Arab states need to address problems that ripple across borders. This includes the plight of refugees and the illicit trade in Captagon, an addictive amphetamine that is an economic lifeline for Damascus and a growing headache for countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. But by readmitting Syria to the Arab League, Assad has been rewarded without first making concessions to ease the agony of Syrians. This makes a mockery of what Arab states had previously suggested would be a step-by-step, carrot-and-stick approach to the Assad regime. The United Arab Emirates, which reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018 and has lobbied for normalisation, has gone even further, inviting Assad to this year’s COP28 climate change summit in Dubai. Yet there are no signs that Assad is about to change his thuggish behaviour. He has shown no contrition for his crimes. Hopes of a political settlement with the weak opposition were dashed years ago. While the US and Europe pay limited attention to Syria, Russia, Iran and Turkey have for years been the main foreign actors in the country. The idea that the 6mn Syrian refugees abroad would rush home if Gulf states or others poured money in to rebuild cities devastated by Assad’s forces is fanciful. Many would fear for their lives. Tens of thousands of Syrians remain arbitrarily detained or “disappeared”. The regime weaponises humanitarian aid and any financial support would simply subsidise Assad’s efforts to cement his hold over the nation. Much of it would find its way to his henchmen. The US and Europe must remain united in enforcing sanctions on the regime, while using their leverage with Arab partners to curb the drift towards full normalisation. Millions of Syrians are suffering horribly in the war-devastated country, its economy in collapse. There are no simple solutions to easing their plight as long as Assad is in power. But freely rewarding the regime that is responsible for the catastrophe is not the answer.