For Syria’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, 2018 ended well. Alongside President Trump’s announced withdrawal of U.S. troops from eastern Syria, several Arab states indicated they were willing to reconcile.
In December, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the first Arab leader to visit Syria since the civil conflict broke out in 2011. Soon afterward the United Arab Emirates, previously opposed to Assad, announced it was restoring ties with Damascus, with Bahrain and Kuwait indicating they could soon do likewise. With Tunisia resuming direct flights to Syria and Jordan reopening trade ties, many observers suspect Assad’s days as a regional pariah are numbered.
Saudi Arabia, a lead rebel sponsor during the war, seems increasingly willing to accept Assad remaining in Damascus, hoping to lessen his dependence on Riyadh’s regional rival, Iran. It is even expected that the Arab League, which expelled Assad following his brutal crackdown on protesters in 2011 that initiated the civil war, will welcome him back in 2019.
How isolated was Assad really?
Of course, Assad was never that internationally isolated — one of the main reasons he has survived. Vital assistance from allies Russia and Iran is well documented. Russia ensured that Damascus faced no United Nations-led sanctions, such as those suffered by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, while alongside Iran, Moscow provided aid, loans and support to keep Assad’s state and military just about functioning.
The remaining BRICS (Brazil, India, China and South Africa), like many non-western states, did not demand Assad stand down. China was most supportive, vetoing anti-Assad U.N. Security Council resolutions six times since 2011, but India, too, retained ties to Damascus, fearing the rise of Islamists and possibly rewarding Syria for its past pro-Delhi stance on Kashmir. Brazil withdrew its ambassador to Syria, but for safety reasons rather than an explicitly anti-Assad action. Even before the recent election of right wing “pro-torture” President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil stated its wish to restore full ties and take part in reconstruction.
Rebuilding Syria will be costly
The BRICS and Assad’s allies are unlikely to provide much of the estimated $400 billion needed to rebuild postwar Syria. The wealthiest, China, seems lukewarm, while Russia and Iran lack the funds. Assad and his allies have long recognized that only Persian Gulf or Western aid could provide the reconstruction billions needed, and this is the true value of any warming of Arab ties.
While rejoining the Arab League brings economic reward and marks a symbolic end to attempts by Assad’s Arab enemies to topple him — and will be used by the Syrian dictator domestically to underline his victory — even in the Arab world Damascus’s isolation was never complete. Lebanon and Iraq refused to join any gulf states-led sanctions and maintained close ties, while Jordan retained a diplomatic presence in Syria even while forced by the war and external political pressure to halt trade and grant rebel fighters safe haven. Further afield, Algeria, a fellow dictatorship that also fought an insurgency in the 1990s, opposed the Arab League’s expulsion of Syria and acted as backchannel thereafter, while the Sisi regime in Egypt also developed covert ties.
Roadblocks to Assad’s rehabilitation: the U.S., E.U. and Turkey
Despite these positives, Assad’s road to full rehabilitation remains blocked by three significant obstacles: the United States, the European Union and NATO-ally Turkey. The United States seems the most immovable of these. While Trump’s shock decision to withdraw troops from Syria boosts Assad’s stated desire to reconquer, “every inch,” of territory, there is no indication this will come alongside any softening toward Damascus. Pro-Israel and anti-Iran voices in Washington make it unlikely U.S. sanctions will be lifted anytime soon. These restrictions on U.S. companies and citizens dealing with or financing any work in Syria remain problematic and deter international investors.
E.U. sanctions are similarly problematic, although not as harsh, but the Europeans are more ambivalent about Assad. There has long been a split among E.U. members on Syria: France, Britain and Germany backed Washington’s tough stance, but doubts were expressed by Syria’s neighboring southern European states.
With Assad’s survival now all but guaranteed, these voices — many hosting Syrian refugees that they want to return — will grow louder. As Britain departs the E.U. and Germany hosts 600,000 Syrians, France may find itself unable to prevent a shift in European policy. E.U. policy is slow-moving and will still seek to attach conditions to the gradual lifting of any sanctions or provision of aid. While it may eventually split with Washington on Syria, Assad will have to wait some time yet.
The more pressing obstacle, however, is Turkey. Syria’s economy and especially its war-ravaged second city, Aleppo, would be greatly boosted by reopening routes into Turkey — currently blocked by both Ankara and the Turkish-backed rebels controlling Idlib. Though Turkey has dropped demands for Assad to go, three contested areas prevent reconciliation.
First, after Trump’s withdrawal Ankara and Damascus could come to blows over eastern Syria. Turkey wants to push out Washington’s former Kurdish allies it sees as terrorists, while Syria may reach accommodation with them to regain the region. Much will depend on whether Russia can mediate any deal.
Second is Idlib, the last rebel-held pocket of Syria that Assad is determined to retake but is protected by Turkey, which fears being flooded with refugees and militants should Idlib fall. Finally, there is the chunk of northern Syria between Afrin and Jarabulus currently held by Turkey through rebel proxies Ankara seems reluctant to give up. These issues are unlikely to be resolved swiftly. Even if some kind of agreement can be reached over border trade and highways, Turkey and Syria seem years way from any kind of normalization.
Assad will welcome any return to the Arab League, but its significance should not be overstated. On the one hand Syria was far from isolated throughout its civil war, and on the other it remains a long way from reconciling with western governments and Turkey. Not that this will overly concern Damascus. The Assad regime has decades of experience withstanding western and regional sanctions and isolation, most recently in the mid 2000s.
Its strategy has long been to wait for international conditions to change in its favor than alter its policies. The recent opening from Arab states will further vindicate this approach, and Assad will be confident that eventually the west and Ankara will also come round, no matter how long it takes.
Christopher Phillips is Reader in International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London and author of “The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East” (Yale University Press, 2018)