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Welcome back, Bashar Assad: Has the Syrian dictator won?

January 10, 2023

Recent comments by Turkish and Arab leaders indicate that Bashar Assad and the Syrian regime are being rehabilitated. Despite accusations of war crimes and torture, barriers to international acceptance are falling.

A demonstrator holds a placard representing Turkey's president devouring the Syrian opposition flag, during a rally against a potential rapprochement between Ankara and the Syrian regime, on December 30, 2022,
Thousands of Syrians in opposition-held Idlib have protested against any potential reconciliation between Turkey and SyriaImage: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP

Thousands of Syrians in the north of their country protested about it. Syrian activists and human rights organizations are staunchly opposed to it. Yet, despite the outcry and ongoing protests, Syria's authoritarian leader, Bashar Assad, is slowly being groomed for rehabilitation on the regional, if not the global, stage.

Shortly after the beginning of the revolution in Syria in 2011 and the Assad government's brutal repression of peaceful anti-government protests, most Arab nations cut ties with Assad. But just over a decade later, the tide appears to be changing as regional leaders reconsider ties to Damascus with a view toward migration as well as as their own security and economic affairs. 

Last week, the United Arab Emirates foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was in Damascus to meet with Assad. Also last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — known as a longtime Assad foe — said he too might soon meet with the Syrian ruler and his Russian allies. 

Favorable regional reception

For years, Syria has enjoyed support from the UAE. In late December 2018, the UAE and Bahrain reopened their embassies in Damascus, after both were closed in 2011. Since late 2018, support for Assad's government, which is accused of a wide variety of war crimes and crimes against humanity, has been gradually building. 

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) shakes hands with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan before their meeting in Istanbul on September 16, 2009.
Before the Syrian civil war, Assad (right) and Erdogan (left) met frequently and were known to have had a friendly relationshipImage: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

Among various milestones: In September 2021, energy ministers from Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt agreed that Lebanon would import Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity via Syria. 

In October 2021, the Jordanian king, the first Arab leader to call for Assad to step down, telephoned the Syrian leader. It was the first such conversation between the two in a decade and came after several months of Syrian-Jordanian cooperation on security and trade.

Several countries, including Iraq, Lebanon, Oman and Algeria, have also called for Syria to be welcomed back into the Arab League, which has 22 members and fosters regional ties. Syria was suspended from the body in 2011.

Barriers to reconciliation

But, as Christopher Phillips, a professor of  international relations at the Queen Mary University of London, wrote in a Washington Post analysis in 2019, following a flurry of pro-Assad gestures in the Arab world, "Assad's road to full rehabilitation remains blocked by three significant obstacles: the United States, the European Union and NATO-ally Turkey."

However, this month, as Turkey's Erdogan speculated about a high-level meeting, Phillips' final point looked as though it might not be a barrier much longer.

Erdogan's comments about meeting Assad came after senior Turkish and Syrian officials had already met in Moscow. Russia, an important Syrian ally, has been heavily involved in its civil war and pushing for better relations between Turkey and Syria. The three countries' foreign ministers will likely meet later this month.

But one should be careful about seeing Erdogan's overtures as a genuine reconciliation, Phillips told DW.

"There's a big difference between security ministers and foreign ministers agreeing to see each other and a full reconciliation," he explained. "There are huge obstacles to that, most notably in Idlib and northern Syria, the areas that Turkey is currently controlling." 

A view of the damaged Maram camp, hosting internally displaced civilians, after the cluster bomb attack carried out by Assad regime forces in Idlib, Syria on November 06, 2022.
The Assad regime continues to bomb civilians in opposition-held IdlibImage: Izzeddin Kasim/AA/picture alliance

Turkey has continuously supported the Syrian opposition during the conflict, and Idlib, the last rebel-held territory in Syria, is protected by Turkey as are other, smaller areas in northern Syria. Turkey is unlikely to want to withdraw from these parts of Syria anytime soon.

Turkey's domestic politics

Observers have suggested Erdogan wants to use this aspect of foreign policy to bolster his popularity with voters in upcoming elections, due to be held in June. Turkish foreign policy points out that some parts of Syria are controlled by Syrian-Kurdish groups that Turkey considers enemies of the state.

"Especially when it comes to Kurdish issues, I don't see how [Syria and Turkey] can actually come to an agreement," confirmed Bente Scheller, head of the Middle East and North Africa division at Germany's Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin.

Erdogan's statements also have to do with over 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.

"Erdogan is now in campaign mode and, of course, he sees great potential in advertising that the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey could finally go back to Syria, or that he could deport them," Scheller added.

Despite doubts about how genuine Erdogan is, and, therefore, the potential for the Syrian regime's complete diplomatic rehabilitation, there is no question among experts that, in many ways, Assad has already succeeded.

"He's already won, in the sense that the war was primarily about whether he was in charge," Phillips said. "And he is still in charge of most of Syria. In military terms, the opposition is no longer a viable alternative. But, obviously, it's a bit of a Pyrrhic victory because much of the country has been destroyed."

This "victory" also resulted in the increasingly pragmatic approach by regional neighbors. 

There's historical precedent for this, Phillips said, noting that Sudan and Egypt were both isolated by their Arab neighbors before eventually being embraced again. Sudan was ostracized in the 1990s for its support of Islamist terror organizations, and Egypt was suspended from the Arab League for a decade from 1979 because it signed a peace treaty with Israel. 

UN-Generalversammlung Rede Präsident Erdogan - NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds up a photo of Alan Kurdi, a young Syrian refugee who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while he and his family tried to reach Europe amid the European refugee crisis.
The estimated 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey have caused domestic controversyImage: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

"It wouldn't be unusual for Assad to be welcomed back into the regional fold," Phillips argued. "But I think it's far harder for Western governments to reconcile with Assad unless they get something big in return." 

Impact of Ukraine war on Russia's ally

But major concessions from the Assad regime to the West are unlikely, meaning the two other major obstacles to Assad's rehabilitation look likely to remain.

At one time, it seemed that some European Union member states might be divided on whether to continue to isolate Syria. For countries like Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and even Italy and Spain, there are historical ties across the Mediterranean, Phillips explained, as well as issues like irregular migration, humanitarian aid, regional stability and gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean to consider.

However, the Ukraine war changed that, Phillips said. "Prior to [Russia's invasion of Ukraine] there was a realistic chance that some southern European states would have considered quiet normalization with Assad. But the Ukraine war has united Europeans more firmly in opposition to Russia," he argued. Nobody currently wants to reconcile with Assad, one of Russia's staunchest allies. 

Russian soldiers drive an armored vehicle in Ukraine.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has united Europeans against rapprochment with a Russian allyImage: Libkos/AP/picture alliance

The United States is even less likely to relax its position on Syria. "We will not normalize and we do not support other countries normalizing relations with the Assad regime," US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said at a January 5 press briefing when asked to comment on a potential meeting between Erdogan and Assad.

'Stand with Syrians'

Syria expert Phillips suspects the only thing that might change the status quo is if Syrian support was suddenly needed on the international stage. For example, in the early 1990s, after years of Washington viewing Syria with suspicion because of the country's anti-Israel stand, Syria became part of a US-led coalition fighting Iraqi forces in Kuwait following the invasion by Saddam Hussein.

Meanwhile, Syrian activist organizations remain angry about the prospect, no matter how pragmatically other nations may see it. And with good reason, said Laila Kiki, director of UK-based advocacy organization The Syria Campaign.

"Normalizing the regime sends a message to millions of Syrians, who were subject to its atrocities, that their suffering is neglected," she told DW. "This is a regime that has shot dead peaceful protesters and indiscriminately bombed tens of thousands of its own people. It is vital that leaders across the international community, and in particular the EU, stand with Syrians calling for freedom and democracy by speaking out against normalization," Kiki concluded.

With additional reporting by Kersten Knipp.

Edited by: Sean Sinico