After 12-year boycott, Arab governments welcome back Syrian President Assad
Despite the fact that he was the person mainly responsible for the death of more than half a million Syrians and the forcible displacement of 12 million people, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last month was welcomed back in the Arab League and was even given a red-carpet treatment.
What is surprising is that Bashar al-Assad did not show any willingness to make concessions or reciprocate or at least promise to facilitate the return of refugees to their homes without fear of persecution. Despite condemnations from human rights groups, Realpolitik has prevailed once again.
Western governments were displeased with the restoration of Assad’s relations with other Arab states and expressed concern that it will undermine efforts to end Syria’s long-running civil war. So far, Western governments appear determined to maintain their sanctions on the regime.
As a result of the brutal repression of the uprising of the Syrian people 12 years ago, the Bashar al-Assad regime had become a regional pariah and almost everybody believed that it will be soon overthrown, as many Arab governments at that time supported the insurgents.
However, thanks to the strong support the regime received from Iran and Russia, it gradually became clear that the Bashar al-Assad regime will not be toppled and Arab governments gradually started thinking that it is in their interest to receive him back to the Arab fold and try to limit the strong influence Iran plays in the affairs of Syria.
Furthermore, they thought that by not keeping him ostracized, they may convince him to curb the production and trafficking of the highly addictive Captagon drug, which has become very popular among young people in the Middle East and which brings billions of dollars to the coffers of the regime. Captagon is believed to be the biggest drug problem in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
According to press reports, Syria pledged to crack down on smuggling and agreed to the establishment of a regional security coordination committee on combating Captagon production and smuggling, which had been weaponised by the Damascus regime.
As Captagon is Syria’s main foreign exchange earner, it is unlikely that Assad will make a real effort to stop its production and smuggling, but he is expected to arrest from time to time some smugglers, in exchange of receiving money from oil-rich Arab governments for the reconstruction of Syria.
In receiving back Bashar al-Assad into the Arab fold, Arab governments hope that Assad will eventually be persuaded to accept the return back to Syria of millions of refugees who, fearing for their life and trying to avoid repression, fled their homeland.
Although several countries, like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey initially welcomed the Syrian refugees, in the belief that the Assad regime would soon collapse, they now want them to return back to their country. Local people now see them as a threat because the refugees accept lower wages and deprive them of health and social services that would otherwise be available to them.
Lebanon and Turkey, two countries that have been facing a serious economic crisis, have recently been forcefully deporting Syrian refugees back to their country.
In Turkey the question of sending refugees back to Syria was one of the main issues of the recent Presidential election campaign and both candidates Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kemal Kilicdaroglu vowed to send all or the majority of refugees back.
At the Arab League summit in Jeddah, a beaming Bashar al-Assad appeared triumphant, seeing that his persistence and brutality paid off, as all Arab leaders taking part in the summit, with the notable exception of Qatar, welcomed him back to the Arab fold.
In his speech at the Summit, Bashar al-Assad denounced western hegemony and stressed the need to protect Arab identity. Ignoring the fact that he survived the uprising basically due to the support he received from Iran and Russia, he said: “Arab countries must take the opportunity to shape their own destiny free of foreign interference.”
It should be mentioned that last February’s earthquakes in Turkey and Syria that left more than 56,000 people dead and the provision of desperately needed humanitarian aid to the earthquake victims gave a pretext to Saudi Arabia for a direct engagement with Assad.
By bringing Syria back to the Arab fold, the Saudi Crown Prince, has removed one of the obstacles to his country’s effort to improve dramatically relations with the Iranian regime.
Russia must be very pleased with the rehabilitation of Assad as it sees that Moscow’s critical intervention in the Syrian conflict and its support for the Damascus regime as a big foreign policy success.
The survival of Bashar al-Assad, against the odds, and the fact that he returned to the Arab fold, would allow Moscow to reduce its contribution to Syria’s stabilization and expect that this burden will now be undertaken by the oil-rich Arab states. This will free funds to be used in Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Iran must also be pleased with the Arab League move, as it expects that now it would not need to spend so much money in supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Those who are clearly unhappy with Assad’s rehabilitation are the Kurdish groups that have been fighting against his regime. They fear that this move may also signal the withdrawal of the remaining US troops from Syria and that they will be let down once again by the US Administration.
In conclusion, it can be said that Assad’s great success is that he was accepted back to the Arab fold without any serious commitments on his part, and especially without agreeing to accept the hundreds of thousands of refugees who were against his regime.