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Arabs embracing Assad: Will it help ordinary Syrians?

April 14, 2023

The Syrian government is being taken back into the fold by Arab neighbors in controversial rapprochements. At the same time, 90% of ordinary Syrians are now living in poverty. Could this help them?

A child watches as a local artist works on a mural painting showing the late Syrian rebel fighter Abdel-Basset al-Sarout in the town of Binnish in the jihadi-held northern Idlib province .
For Syrians who sacrificed so much to protest and fight against Bashar Assad, any normalization of the regime is controversialImage: Omar HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images

"Death by consuming poison is a thousand times easier than reconciling with the criminal gang that destroyed Syria and exterminated its people," an official statement by the Syrian Islamic Council, an Istanbul-based organization set up in 2014 to represent the religious interests of the Syrian opposition, said. 

There's no doubt that many Syrians who participated in the peaceful anti-government revolutions of 2011 feel the same way, whether they are religious or not. But there is also no doubt that reconciliation with the Syrian government, headed by the dictator Bashar Assad, is coming — at least in the MIddle East.

After the brutal crackdowns on protesters that eventually led to a civil war, Syria was suspended from the pan-Arab organization for regional cooperation, the Arab League, in 2011 and many Arab nations cut official ties.

Increasingly warm relations

But over the past five years that has slowly been changing, with countries like the United Arab Emirates and Jordan quietly reestablishing contact. More recently, there has been an acceleration in that process — a flurry of activity that, some observers suggest, could end up with Syria being readmitted to the Arab League at its next summit in mid-May. Even if that doesn't happen, Syria might be allowed back as an "observer" state, they say.

The signs are there. For example, Syria's foreign minister met with his counterpart in Egypt this month, their first encounter in over a decade. Also this month, Tunisia announced it would appoint a new ambassador in Damascus after cutting ties in 2012. And this week, Syria's foreign minister and deputy prime minister arrived in Saudi Arabia on a previously unannounced visit, the first since 2011. 

Syria's Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad (R) meets with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry at the Foreign Ministry headquarters during a visit to Damascus on February 27, 2023.
Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad met with his Egyptian counterpart in late February Image: Louai BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

Previously, Saudi Arabia was staunchly opposed to recognising the Assad regime, having supported opposition fighters during the civil war. The Saudis were one of the last holdouts to bringing the Assad regime back in from the cold.

But in February, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud told journalists at the Munich Security Conference that, "in the Arab world there is a growing consensus that the status quo [in Syria] is not workable."

He added, however, that any reconciliation would have to take into account the region's problems with Syrian refugees as well as the suffering of Syrian civilians inside the country.

Will normalization help Syria's economy?

An estimated 90% of Syrians now live under the poverty line, the local currency has devalued by 75% and inflation is running at an estimated 55%. There are continuous power and water outages and, with 6.8 million of them, Syria also has the highest number of internally displaced persons in the world.

But could Syria's neighbors help with any of this?

Any immediate benefit from warmer relations between Syria and its neighbors seems unlikely because this process is not really about ordinary Syrians, experts told DW.

These moves are "most definitely not driven by a primary focus on the plight of Syrians inside the country or any unified regional desire to improve the country's pretty desperate circumstances," Julien Barnes-Dacey, the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said. "This is first and foremost about the regional order and about the external ramifications of the Syrian conflict for the region, in terms of issues like Captagon flows and refugees."

The Syrian government is known to be behind an ever-expanding and increasingly problematic trade in Captagon pills — a highly addictive amphetamine — worth around $50 billion (€45.5 billion) in the region.

There are other reasons for normalization too: Arab states would like to see Iran's influence in Syria reduced, as well as the establishment of conditions that allow the return of Syrian refugees. In return, Syria would get political recognition and funds for reconstruction. 

Syria's neighbors also fear that negative economic conditions within the country could cause further instability in the wider region. It's rare to see anti-government opinions expressed openly inside parts of the country controlled by the Assad government, but since last summer, there have been ongoing protests in Suwaydah, sparked by the deterioration in living conditions, including power and water cuts and crime.

"So this is effectively the region pivoting towards a strategy of engagement in order to address the issues that are still affecting them, rather than anybody trying to create new dynamics inside Syria that could open up some political space, that could lead to a more long-lasting, stable solution for the Syrians themselves," Barnes-Dacey told DW.

Long-term solution is needed

Radwan al-Atrash, a political activist from the Syrian opposition who lives in Idlib, an area not controlled by the Assad regime, agreed.

"It's only about politics," he told DW. "With regard to eradicating poverty, that will depend on achieving lasting stability, where funds are transferred into projects that provide services that could then offer job opportunities, rather than just focusing on humanitarian aid." 

Flattened school in Syria
​​​​Normalization has accelerated following the earthquake in FebruaryImage: DW

"I don't think the situation will improve just because an embassy opened or some diplomats visited," added Khaled al-Terkawi, an economist and senior researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, an Istanbul-based think tank. "So we should distinguish between the short and long term. And in the longer term, it will depend on the response of the Assad regime and of other countries."

In a March 30 briefing, US diplomat Barbara Leaf acknowledged that while the US doesn't intend to come any closer to Syria, America's Arab allies are intent on normalizing relations with the Assad regime.

"Some of them have said very frankly, privately, and you’ve heard some of them publicly say, that in their view isolation hasn’t worked; they want to try engagement," the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs noted. "And our approach on that score is to say, then make sure that you get something for that engagement. And I would put ending the Captagon trade right at the top alongside ... providing relief to the Syrian people from the terrible decade of oppression that they’ve suffered."

Potential to do some good

In the medium term, there could be some advantages for ordinary Syrians.

For example, as Hamid, who lives in a regime-controlled area and therefore cannot give his real name for security reasons, told DW, he was actually happy about possible normalization.

"It will open a way for me to travel," he said. "The only thing I think about is getting out of here. Nothing is going well here. And emigration will be better than being conscripted [into the regular Syrian army] where I would be forced to contribute to the killing."

The movement of people is one of the potential upsides for ordinary Syrians, confirmed Zaki Mehchy, an associate fellow at the UK-based think tank Chatham House.

"This could actually benefit ordinary Syrians," he told DW. "For example, people could visit their families inside Syria more easily, they will bring money with them and this could help revive the local economies."

Increased numbers visiting from Gulf countries could also help revive the fortunes of some small and medium-sized businesses in Syria. 

A young displaced Syrian returns from school to an overcrowded displacement camp near the village of Qah near the Turkish border in the northwestern Idlib province.
With around 6.8 million internally displaced people, Syria has the highest number in the worldImage: Ahmad al-ATRASH/AFP/Getty Images

While direct investment from Gulf states is unlikely — Syria doesn't offer great prospects for making money right now — they might provide funding for reconstruction projects in, for example, power generation. "That, too, will eventually benefit ordinary Syrians," Mehchy said.

"We can only hope for the sorts of smaller gains that effectively help Syrians survive and live a better life," the ECFR's Barnes-Dacey said. "That means questions related to the role of the regime's security branch, access to detainees and I think crucially it does mean providing a way for Syrians to grow their economy so they can provide for themselves. These are little things. But it [normalization] is still going to feel very unsatisfactory for many Syrians and for many in the West today."

Chatham House's Mehchy agreed. There are pros and cons for ordinary Syrians in the normalization of the Assad regime, he told DW. "But I believe the disadvantages for them are greater due to widespread corruption, inefficient institutions and cronyism in regime-controlled areas."

Getting a good deal for ordinary Syrians out of normalization is highly unlikely, he said. "There is no good deal with an authoritarian regime," Mehchy argued. "And now we imagine there will be a good deal between two authoritarian regimes?" he said, referring to the governments of the Gulf states and countries like Tunisia. "There's no polite way to say this, but quite frankly, that's nonsense."

Edited by Timothy Jones

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.