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Arab states warm up to Assad with no political solution in sight

Several Arab countries have signaled they might be easing the isolation of Syria's Bashar Assad regime as a political solution to end the country's decadelong conflict seems out of sight.

While Assad is still shunned by the West and Turkey, who blame him for a decade of brutal war in Syria, there is a shift is underway in the Middle East as some Arab allies of the United States are bringing him in from the cold by reviving economic and diplomatic ties.

The extension of Assad's two-decade presidency in an election in May did little to break his pariah status among Western states, but fellow Arab leaders are coming to terms with the fact that he retains a solid grip on power.

Turkey had denounced the presidential election in Syria held under the Assad regime, calling it unfair and illegal while underlining that it "does not reflect the free will of the people."

The chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has firmed up a belief among Arab leaders that they need to chart their own course. Anticipating a more hands-off approach from Washington, now preoccupied by the challenge of China, Arab leaders are driven by their own priorities, notably how to rehabilitate economies hammered by years of conflict and COVID-19.

Political considerations also loom large in Arab capitals like Cairo, Amman and Abu Dhabi. These include their ties with Assad's most powerful backer, Russia, which has been pressing for Syria's reintegration and how to counter the influence carved out in Syria by Iran and Turkey.

Russia is the main ally of the Syrian regime, while Turkey supports groups that have fought to unseat Bashar Assad. However, Russian and Turkish troops have cooperated in northwestern Idlib province, the final holdout of opposition forces, and in seeking a political solution in the war-torn country.

But while the signs of Arab rapprochement with Damascus are growing – King Abdullah of Jordan spoke to Assad for the first time in a decade this month – U.S. policy will remain a complicating factor.

Washington says there has been no change in its policy toward Syria, which demands a political transition as set out in a United Nations Security Council resolution. U.S. sanctions targeting Damascus, tightened under President Donald Trump, still pose a serious obstacle to commerce.

But in Washington, analysts say Syria has hardly been a foreign policy priority for President Joe Biden's administration. They note his focus on countering China and that his administration has yet to apply sanctions under the so-called Caesar Act, which came into force last year with the intent of adding to the pressure on Assad.

"U.S. allies in the Arab world have been encouraging Washington to lift the siege on Damascus and allow for its reintegration into the Arab fold," said David Lesch, a Syria expert at Trinity University in Texas. "It appears the Biden administration, to some degree, is listening."

It marks a shift from the early years of the conflict when Syria was expelled from the Arab League and states including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) backed some of the opposition forces that fought Assad.

Breaking down barriers

The decadelong conflict, which spiraled out of a popular uprising against Assad during the "Arab Spring," has killed hundreds of thousands of people, uprooted half the population and forced millions into adjacent countries like Turkey and Iraq, as well as Europe, as refugees.

The anti-Assad opposition still has a foothold in the north, with support and protection from Turkey, while the east and northeast is controlled by the PKK terrorist organization’s Syrian wing, the YPG, backed by the U.S.

But while the conflict is unresolved, Assad is back in control of most of Syria thanks largely to Russia and Iran, which were always more committed to his survival than Washington was to his removal, even when chemical weapons were fired on opposition areas.

Jordan, Syria's neighbor to the south, has been leading the pack on the Arab policy shift with an ailing economy and a rocky patch in relations with its wealthy Gulf neighbor Saudi Arabia.

The border between Syria and Jordan was fully reopened for trade last month and Amman has been a driving force behind a deal to pipe Egyptian natural gas to Lebanon via Syria, with an apparent U.S. nod of approval.

The crossing was once plied by hundreds of trucks a day moving goods between Europe, Turkey and the Gulf. Reviving trade will be a shot in the arm for Jordan and Syria, whose economy is in deep crisis.

The UAE had invited Syria to Expo 2020 despite attempts to "demonize the regime," said Syria's ambassador to the UAE, Ghassan Abbas, speaking to Reuters at the Syria pavilion where the theme was "We Will Rise Together."

While many U.S. allies in the region pursue fresh ties with Damascus, regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia still appears hesitant.

Daily Sabah
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