Oct 11, 2021 - World

Assad comes in from the cold

Sign of Bashar al Assad

Photo: Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

A decade after the Arab League voted to suspend Syria at the onset of a brutal civil war, Bashar al-Assad is being welcomed back in from the cold by some of America's closest regional allies.

Driving the news: Jordan's King Abdullah II, the first Arab leader to call for Assad to resign in 2011, spoke to the Syrian dictator last week for the first time since the conflict broke out, and recently reopened the two countries' main border crossing to help boost trade.

  • Egypt's foreign minister met his Syrian counterpart at the UN General Assembly last month and vowed to help "restore Syria's position in the Arab world."
  • And the United Arab Emirates announced Sunday that it had agreed to deepen economic cooperation with Syria.
  • Flashback: All three countries supported Western-backed rebels against Assad in the civil war, which Assad has now largely won thanks to Russian and Iranian interventions.

The big picture: Hopes for regime change are long gone, the U.S. isn't focused on Syria, and regional actors feel they must step into the vacuum to protect their own interests, says Charles Lister, director of the Middle East Institute's Syria program.

  • Those include economic necessities, a desire to counter regional rivals like Iran and Turkey, and a practical embrace of Assad as "the devil they know."
  • But at the crux of it all, Lister contends, is that the region has "given up on the U.S. having a more forceful posture against the regime."

Zoom in: Congress passed a law in 2019 known as the Caesar Act, which requires the U.S. to sanction Syrian officials and entities responsible for atrocities, as well as actors that support the regime.

  • The Biden administration has only issued one set of sanctions under the Caesar Act, and the public nature of recent normalization steps — including the UAE's brazen claim that it is Syria's "most prominent global trade partner" — suggests that the law is not a concern.
  • "The fact that we're seeing this rhetoric coming out so publicly in the open would seem to suggest to me there does appear to be a kind of tacit acceptance by the Biden administration that it is okay for the region to re-engage," Lister says.
  • The Biden administration itself recently backed a deal that would route Egyptian gas to Lebanon — which has been experiencing crippling power outages — via Syria.

For the record: A State Department spokesman told Axios that the Caesar Act was an "important tool" but that sanctions had to be balanced with humanitarian concerns.

  • "The U.S. do not express any support for other countries to normalize or rehabilitate relations with the Assad regime," the spokesperson added.

What to watch: Saudi Arabia is one powerful regional actor that has continued to resist normalization with Syria thus far. "Eventually there will come a point at which the Saudis decide to go with the direction that the wind is blowing," a move that will likely put an end to any hopes of a UN-brokered political solution, Lister predicts.

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