The February 6 earthquakes, which left more than 50,000 dead in Turkey and Syria, require Arab states to answer controversial questions about government dealings in Damascus and acute humanitarian needs in opposition-held northwestern Syria.
So far, the disaster has not caused any Arab government to change its fundamental stance on President Bashar al-Assad, whose government has been largely isolated from the rest of the Arab world since 2011, when a largely unarmed insurgency against his rule escalated. to a full-fledged war.
Syria was suspended from the Arab League the same year, with many of its members withdrawing their envoys from Damascus. The United States and the European Union also pulled out of al-Assad and imposed sanctions on his government in response to the violent crackdown on civilians during the crackdown on anti-government protests.
But after the earthquakes, Arab efforts – driven mainly by the United Arab Emirates – to accelerate Syria’s reintegration into the region’s diplomatic fold have gained momentum. The arrival in Damascus this week of a delegation from the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union, including representatives from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Oman and the UAE, for meetings with al-Assad and Syrian lawmakers highlighted this reality.
“There is an opening for governments to establish relations with the Assad regime because of the humanitarian aid needed, forcing a political conversation about restoring relations and rehabilitating Assad,” said Nader Hashemi, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies told Al Jazeera.
A large number of Arab states such as Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Oman, Tunisia and the UAE have their own geopolitical and economic interests in ending Syria’s regional isolation – by gaining more influence in post-conflict Syria that is undermining the role of al- Assads support Iran to become actively involved in the reconstruction process for economic returns.
Experts have said many Arab governments — with Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia at least for now being the exceptions — see the earthquakes as a reason to deepen involvement with al-Assad. These countries have argued that US policy towards Syria has led to negative results and that the international community should put politics aside and lift sanctions to help Syrian earthquake victims in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.
The disaster “shrewdly exposed the inability of regional leaders to influence events on the ground without affecting Damascus,” Neil Quilliam, an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, told Al Jazeera.
“As such, relations may be able to move forward, but most regional leaders will simply view it as a necessity to help the earthquake victims and also to stop the flow of captagon into the Gulf,” Quilliam said, referring to the drug that was originally developed in Germany in the 1960s, but today it is mainly made in Syria.
Two weeks after the disaster, al-Assad visited Oman – according to the second Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), he has traveled there since the outbreak of the Syrian war 12 years ago.
Al-Assad’s welcome to Muscat indicated “interest at the highest levels of the GCC in rehabilitating him,” according to Hashemi, who argued that the Syrian president could not have gone to Oman without the approval of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman .
Unsurprisingly, Oman was the first foreign country al-Assad visited after the earthquake. The sultanate was the only state in the six-member GCC to maintain diplomatic relations with Damascus during the Syrian conflict, and Muscat has supported Syria’s return to the Arab League.
Experts believed that the most important aspect of al-Assad’s journey to Muscat, which built on his visit to the UAE in March 2022, was the message it sent to governments in the Middle East and beyond.
The trip was “primarily of symbolic value” as it showed “to the Arab world and the rest of the world that the Arab League is getting ready to accept Syria’s return to the Arab League,” said Andreas Krieg, a university graduate. Senior Lecturer in the Department of Defense Studies at King’s College London.
“The optics of the visit – flying aboard Syrian Airlines planes, no longer traveling in secret – was intended to emphasize the importance of Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Oman,” added Quilliam. “It was intended to convince world leaders that his rehabilitation is well underway and that they should reconsider their opposition to him.”
At earlier points in the Syrian conflict, Saudi Arabia and the UAE viewed their support for rebel groups fighting for government change as a way to counter the influence of Iran, which in 2011 deployed troops to support al-Assad. While his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for 30 years, balanced his relations with the Gulf Arab monarchies and Iran, the successor in the 2000s brought Damascus closer to Riyadh’s regional enemy Tehran, while the relationship between Syria and Saudi Arabia grew stronger. tension.
But now that al-Assad has largely weathered the Syrian crisis, there seems to be a view among some GCC states that involving the government in Damascus and returning it to the Arab herd is the most realistic way to shake Tehran’s hand. weaken in the Levant. analysts have said. However, any support for Damascus is subject to conditions.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE believe al-Assad is “vulnerable and weak enough to lure him away from Iran, but it’s an open question whether that proposal has any potential,” Hashemi told Al Jazeera. “That is the outstanding question about intra-Arab relations with the Assad regime and possible openings that may arise as a result of this disaster.”
Despite the lack of influence from Russia and Iran over al-Assad, the UAE’s ability to persuade him to make a gesture of goodwill to the international community by allowing cross-border aid in the rebels controlled northwestern Syria, some degree of power that the Emirates have in Damascus. After years of rapprochement with al-Assad’s government, the UAE is trying to play a highly activist role in post-conflict Syria, and the earthquakes seem to have furthered the growth of the Emirates’ influence in the war-torn country .
“For Abu Dhabi, Syria is a network-building asset,” Krieg said. “It is trying to use relations with Damascus as a bargaining chip to strengthen its own position as a regional middle power.”
Ferial Saeed, a former senior US diplomat, told Al Jazeera that “there are a whole host of questions related to whether Assad can navigate relations with Iran and the Arab world well enough to satisfy both sides, and what pressure Tehran will exercise on Damascus.
“There are a lot of big moving parts in this story, but this is a space to watch. It could be very interesting this year.”
Still, the earthquakes are unlikely to cause Qatar and Kuwait to embrace al-Assad again.
Krieg believes Qatar will use its Arab League veto power to prevent Syria from returning to the institution, but he believes that Saudi Arabia — that Western efforts to isolate al-Assad’s government since the beginning of the Syrian crisis – “is becoming more flexible”.
“For them (Saudis) it’s about Iran and getting the Syrians back into the Arab herd. It could be a way to take the opportunity to reverse their decision about how they interact,” Krieg said.
Indeed, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud insisted last month that when it comes to Syria, “the status quo is not workable,” and that the world must “at some point” involve Damascus in issues as refugees and humanitarian aid. What this says in practice about Riyadh’s approach to Assad remains to be seen.
“If the Saudis resumed diplomatic relations, it would be important,” Saeed said.