ECONOMY

Arab nations defy US to build ties with Syria

Arab nations are re-establishing ties with neighbouring Syria as concerns about Iranian and Turkish influence, coupled with economic and security fears, spur a tentative regional re-engagement with the pariah state.

Syria was expelled from the Arab League a decade ago as president Bashar al-Assad brutally attempted to crush a popular uprising. Some Gulf states supported the Syrian opposition as the country descended into civil war.

While Syria is unstable and impoverished, Assad is now in control of most of the country. In recent weeks, the Syrian leader spoke for the first time in a decade to Jordan’s King Abdullah, a call that took the Biden administration unawares.

Egypt’s foreign minister met his Syrian counterpart last month, also a first since the civil war began. And the United Arab Emirates, which reopened its Syrian embassy in late 2018, has flaunted trade links with Damascus as it hosts Syria at the Dubai expo trade fair. The UAE’s crown prince had a second call with Assad last week.

Despite the 2020 Caesar Act, which authorised the US Treasury to impose sanctions on anyone anywhere in the world that does business with Syrian entities and individuals placed under sanctions, America has been unable or unwilling to prevent creeping regional re-engagement with the regime. The US accuses Damascus of human rights violations.

“I think a lot of these Arab countries have . . . been making their own decisions despite démarches from the US government not to do it,” said a senior Biden administration official, adding that the warming of ties started under the Trump administration.

Bahrain reopened its embassy in 2019 and Oman returned its ambassador in 2020. The UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan offered direct aid to Assad in response to the pandemic.

“They’ve been doing it either behind our backs or they’ve been doing it in front of our faces,” the official said, and described King Abdullah’s call as “really surprising” and “not something we expected, [or] greenlit”.

“We remind them that they may run risk of US sanctions by having these conversations,” said the US official, referring to potential regional engagements, adding that the US expected to announce targeted sanctions on Syria. “We’re making very clear that we will not normalise with Bashar al-Assad.”

But for Syria’s neighbours, the reasons for engagement are clear. Jordan and Lebanon both border Syria and host hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, while the war has also disrupted key trade routes that the cash-strapped nations would like to revive. Jordan also worries about the threat of Isis remnants and Iran-backed militias in southern Syria.

“The regime is there and so we have to be mature in our thinking, is it regime change or behavioural change?” King Abdullah told CNN earlier this year. “And if it’s behavioural change what do we do to come together to talk with the regime, because everybody else is doing it.”

A Syrian refugee at a makeshift camp in Lebanon © Ibrahim Chalhoub/AFP via Getty Images

Some Gulf policymakers believe disengaging with Assad was a strategic error. Gulf Arab and western powers have been sidelined since ending support for rebels, with then US president Donald Trump cutting American funding in 2017. Iran and Russia have since expanded their sphere of influence by offering military and financial support to the regime.

Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst at International Crisis Group, said “normalisation with some Arab countries is a political gesture” in response to concerns about deepening Iranian and Turkish influence, as well as regional economic and security issues.

The US drawdown from Afghanistan also reinforced the perception among Arab leaders that America is bent on disengaging from the region.

“This administration has had a pretty frail and often contradicting public messaging on the [normalisation] issue, leading many [Arab states] to think that they have their tacit approval,” said Khalifa.

The Biden administration initiated a policy review on Syria but has not yet articulated a position.

Without “clear American guidance, and given that the EU is . . . focused on migration and security rather than political outcomes, it’s understandable that near term political, security and economic concerns dominate the thinking of Syria’s neighbours,” said Emile Hokayem, Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

However, he said, “there is an understanding that the returns on this opening [to Syria] will be limited . . . it’s not as if you can send back refugees and open trade and resume security co-operation, it’s a lot harder than that.”

With the inevitability of Syria coming in from the cold, observers say even Saudi Arabia will not block Syria’s re-entry to the Arab League with Assad as its leader. “Riyadh is just looking for a gesture from Damascus, such as the release of prisoners or some such, to show goodwill,” said one UAE-based analyst.

Assad has still not compromised on issues including prisoners, safe return for refugees, or engaging in the moribund peace process. His regional position has been strengthened by a western-backed plan to help Lebanon by bringing Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity in pipelines and cables passing through Syria. The scheme triggered Beirut’s first ministerial delegation to Damascus since the civil war began.

At Syria’s pavilion at Dubai’s delayed Expo 2020, etchings of Assad and his wife, Asma, capture the first couple gazing out serenely. The display suggests a return to public respectability in the UAE, where they were previously reviled as war criminals.

“We really hope we can get back to normal now,” said one Syrian sales representative, who asked not to be named. “We want to sell into these markets — that’s why we are here at the Expo, to sell to the world from Dubai.”

Additional reporting by Heba Saleh in Cairo and Andrew England in London

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