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The delicate dance of rehabilitation: Syria’s journey towards regional reintegration

By Sinan Hatahet

In the intricate ballet of Middle Eastern geopolitics, Syria stands as a symbol of the delicate equilibrium between consensus and competition, a dance choreographed since 2011. Once a canvas for regional contention, the country mirrors the broader tensions and alignments within the MENA region.

Chaotically crafted by rivalries and alliances, the Syrian scene has experienced pivotal metamorphoses. The intervention of Russia in 2015 marked a significant juncture, leading to a gradual distancing from the Syrian political opposition by the Gulf states and other international backers. By 2022, the spotlight on Syria within the regional agenda has dimmed, unveiling a trend of de-escalation propelled by many factors, such as conflict fatigue, global economic turmoil, security apprehensions, and a perceived waning of the US involvement in the Middle East.

Syria's return to the Arab League

A fragile yet enduring truce since March 2020 has unfolded in Syria, solidifying the conflict, and maintaining a territorial equilibrium. Politically, former adversaries of the Syrian regime are contemplative, and some have even embarked on restoring bilateral relations with Damascus. Thus, Syria’s readmission into the Arab League could be preserved as a symbolic triumph for Bashar al-Assad and a tacit acknowledgment of the conflict’s culmination.

However, this reintegration does not unequivocally mirror a regional consensus. It emerges more as a byproduct of bilateral and transactional accords rather than a harmonized stance or agreement. Indeed, many Arab states believe normalization with Damascus could resolve the conflict’s destabilizing effects, including drug trafficking, refugee overflow, and border security. Others were driven by the prospect of counterbalancing the influence of other regional powers in the country. While regional capitals’ motivations for reconciliation with Assad are multifaceted, their normalization approaches too, are different and reflect a mix of strategies and outcomes.

Several Arab states, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have exhibited a will to mediate and orchestrate Damascus's regional rehabilitation. Their plan consists of a roadmap that addresses the humanitarian, security, and political consequences of the conflict in exchange for a gradual re-integration of Syria into the political and economic architecture of the MENA region. Regardless of the outcome, playing such a role for such “distant” capitals manifests their desire to lead the reconfiguration of the regional security architecture. Similarly, but with different motivations, other states, such as Jordan and Iraq, have also demonstrated an interest in mediating Assad’s rehabilitation, but out of a genuine desire to solve their security concerns and to gather regional and international momentum to protect and seal a potential reconciliation deal. Despite these different motivations, the Arab League still established a committee in May 2023 to report on the progress of Syria’s implementation of its member states’ demands as a multilateral framework for full reintegration into the region.

Obstacles to normalization

A few months later, the initial enthusiasm for normalization with Syria has waned among Arab nations, downgrading their expectation from grandiose reconciliation to the minimum required and essential security dialogues as political and economic interactions progressively scaled back. Indeed, numerous technical obstacles prevent sustainable peace from taking place in Syria. The shifts in regional politics are delicate recalibrations aimed at conflict management and mitigation, but they cruelly lack depth and enough nuance to withstand the test of time. Undeniably, they are not solutions to entrenched mistrust or tensions but rather superficial attempts for de-escalation and are thus more prone to failure than success.

The biggest obstacle facing Assad’s re-admission into the regional order remains its behavior and willingness to re-engage with its neighborhoods on new sane bases. From Damascus’s point of view, the regional de-escalation and normalization efforts are no more than a recognition of its victory and triumph. These sentiments go beyond the official rhetoric and narrative but form the founding block of Damascus’s foreign policies.

Master of the waiting game, the Syrian regime incongruously assumes that the only viable regional solution for stability is its rehabilitation on its terms, and hence staunchly perceives itself as a position of force. By disregarding his former foes’ full awareness of his structural fragility and its crucial need for their assistance for survival, Assad is overestimating his ability to negotiate.

To further demonstrate the fragility of the Arab approach, the Arab League reporting committee has put all communications with the Syrian government on hold, pending the implementation of its commitment vis-à-vis the proposed Arab resolution. Indeed, Syria has failed to respond to Jordan's demands to control its border and it has allegedly facilitated smuggling of arms and narcotics to its territory. Damascus has also shown a lack of responsiveness regarding refugees and has insisted on lifting Western sanctions as a precondition for their returns. Despite all genuine attempts to rebuild bridges through proposals for border security cooperation, a prevailing atmosphere of mistrust and apprehension still exists.

Additionally, western-imposed sanctions are formidable barriers to investments by other Arab countries. The US and EU may seem attentive and even permissible in the regional attempts to reconcile with Assad; however, they have shown no sign of facilitating these steps. Less impacted by the direct consequences of the conflict in Syria, the West is under no pressure to abdicate its stance towards the Syrian regime, hence depriving regional actors of necessary international support and, most importantly, preserving their ability to impose secondary sanctions, even if this possibility seems unlikely.

Indeed, the region has no viable options in Syria, and regional proposals will continue to float, but with the restrictions of an inflexible Damascus, limited resources for re-engagement in Syria, and deterring sanctions. Equally, Assad's strategic utilization of the Captagon drug trade and the refugee crisis further muddle the picture. While the Arab League has proclaimed cooperation with Syria to tackle drug smuggling, the regime's reliance on this lucrative trade makes a genuine crackdown improbable.

The Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape is fluid and evolving. The once-united regional opposition to Assad has metamorphosed into a more pragmatic approach, recognizing new realities, and thus reengaging with the Syrian regime. Nevertheless, a resolution in Syria that overlooks the conflict's underlying causes will fail. Without realistic solutions backed by substantial support and a vision for sustainable peace, the region will remain susceptible to a new wave of violence when the next opportunity arises.

As the region stands at the threshold of a new era with potentially global ramifications, the international community must navigate this landscape without a clear consensus. The quest for stability in Syria requires international cooperation, regional consensus, and a genuine commitment to peace and justice. Simple manifestations of good intent would only go as far as symbolic pictures of leaders’ handshakes and unfulfilled agreements.

Sinan Hatahet is a senior fellow at Omran Strategic Research Center.

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