Al-Assad’s BLAZING comeback to the Arab League through disaster diplomacy

  • Al-Assad scored a political victory after representatives of the Arab states voted to approve Syria’s return to the Arab League.
  • The readmission is a major step for the President in cementing his government, attracting foreign investments and financial aid to regain control over Syria. 
  • Arab states hope to manage the Syrian refugee crisis, reverse drug trafficking networks, increase border security and lessen the influence of Iranian-backed militants in Syria.
Bashar al-Assad by (CC BY 4.0)
Bashar al-Assad by (CC BY 4.0)

Why is Bashar al-Assad’s heat level BLAZING?

Answer: Reestablishing relations with the Arab states through post-earthquake diplomacy, coming out of isolation.

On February 6th, 2023 Türkiye and Syria were hit by a series of earthquakes. In Syria, more than 7.200 people lost their lives and 8.8 million people were affected by the disaster, with the major damage in the northwest. It is also the area least controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s government. Since the start of a civil war in 2011, the region has been home to millions of IDPs, and opposition forces alongside active Islamist groups, such as ISIS (Daesh) and al-Qaeda. 

The ongoing civil war in Syria is a response to the events commonly referred to as the Arab Spring. The 2011 uprising of movements against authoritarian regimes in Tunisia quickly had a spillover effect and impacted Syria, Egypt and Libya. Alongside corruption and police brutality, youth unemployment was one of the main factors behind the uprising. In Syria, the nature of riots was primarily political. The protests were triggered by al-Assad’s failed promises to introduce democratic reforms and by mass arrests of peaceful protestors. It quickly transformed into a domestic struggle for power in the form of a 12-year-long civil war.

In 2011, Syria was suspended from membership in the Arab League and many Arab states ended diplomatic relations with Damascus, supporting opposition forces. Al-Assad’s government lost northern territories between 2012 and 2013, after which Iran-backed Hezbollah deployed its fighters to support the President. In 2015 Russia increased its support to Syria and deployed weaponry and air defence systems to conduct airstrikes against rebel factions. By 2018, Damascus managed to consolidate control over most of the territory and establish strong diplomatic relations with Moscow. 

The earthquakes brought al-Assad into the global spotlight yet again, creating an opportunity to use disaster diplomacy for his revival on the international stage. He called for sanctions relief, stating that they prevent humanitarian aid from reaching the suffering population and accusing the Western states of ‘politicising’ the crisis. 

Al-Assad’s government had little to no success in easing the US and the EU sanctions after the earthquakes. However, in May the representatives of the Arab states voted to approve Syria’s return to the organisation, which signifies a political victory for al-Assad’s government. The main motivation behind this decision is to overcome the destabilising effects of the 12-year-long conflict on the region, namely managing the Syrian refugee crisis, reversing drug trafficking networks, increasing border security and lessening the influence of Iranian-backed militants in Syria. In the long term, the readmission is a major step for al-Assad in cementing his government and attracting foreign investments and financial aid from the Arab world to regain control over the opposition-held areas. 

What is changing Bashar al-Assad’s heat level?

Answer: Disaster diplomacy and humanitarian aid manipulation allowed al-Assad to restore relations with the Arab states.

The earthquakes accelerated an already existing trend of normalisation with the Arab states, particularly with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. After Riyadh-backed discussions on Syria’s readmission to the Arab League in early May, the official decision in favour of al-Assad was made. As a result, al-Assad visited the 32nd summit of the Arab League in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Having received a warm welcome, he called for non-interference of the Western states in Arab internal affairs and warned against the growing influence of Türkiye in the region. 

Since the start of the civil war in 2011, Damascus made it obligatory for international organisations to seek the government’s approval on any humanitarian aid projects or delivery. The aid is only allowed to the ‘safe zones’ – territories controlled by al-Assad’s government, whilst distribution to the ‘hot zones’ – opposition-held areas – is restricted. The manipulation of humanitarian aid in Syria based on political considerations is not a new practice; al-Assad’s post-disaster diplomacy is no exception. 

Syria did not formally request aid immediately after the first earthquake, ignoring a Security Council agreement, stating that humanitarian aid is allowed to go through the border with Türkiye, and insisting that convoys should go through the state-controlled areas. The delays in Syria’s response to the NGOs both worsened the humanitarian situation in the opposition-controlled northwest and increased pressure on the international community to promptly comply with al-Assad’s demands. The delivery of aid through opposition-held areas was considered as undermining Syrian sovereignty. It took Damascus 5 days to approve cross-border aid delivery to north-west Syria, while convoys were standing across the border for at least four days.

What is driving Bashar al-Assad?

Answer: Foreign investment and the inflow of financial and humanitarian aid to cement his power in Syria.

On the grand scale, al-Assad’s primary motivation is to pull Syria and himself out of more than a decade-long isolation. Despite Washington opposing the moves of regional powers to reestablish ties with al-Assad, the US and allies’ presence in the region decreased significantly after its strategic reorientation to the Pacific. In turn, the Arab states got more room for manoeuvre, resulting in Syria’s readmission to the Arab League. The need to cooperate with al-Assad to deal with the spillover effects of the ongoing conflict, such as an inflow of refugees, drug trafficking and weakened security across borders, was used to justify the decision. For al-Assad, the public welcome signifies that the Arab states accept him and his government as legitimate and it became evident that the opposition overthrowing him is nearly impossible.

Other driving factors for al-Assad are Western funds and humanitarian aid. Western sanctions, civil war and corruption have drastically worsened the economic situation. Incoming funds from Western NGOs and the Arab states are mostly distributed through Damascus, which serves as an additional resource for al-Assad to fund Syrian government operations against the opposition.   

What does this mean for you?

Answer: A political resolution to the 12-year-long conflict is not expected in the near future, whilst Syria’s humanitarian and economic situation is worsening. 

Despite Syria’s official return to the Arab League, there are still some significant challenges to al-Assad’s full-scale rehabilitation. Firstly, Qatar and Kuwait still oppose normalising relations with al-Assad, stating that Damascus has not taken any action towards a political deal to peacefully de-escalate the ongoing conflict in accordance with the pro-human rights framework. Secondly, Western sanctions against al-Assad, which are not expected to be lifted in the near future, will prevent the Arab states from committing larger investments in Syria. 

If they decide to invest in Syria without Western approval, the sanctions imposed on al-Assad will apply to any third-party engaging with the Syrian government, although there is still a remaining loophole in the UN early recovery strategy, the funding corridor from which can potentially become a way for the Arab states to invest in Syria, bypassing the sanctions. Unless regional players manage to convince the US and allies of the necessity to establish working relations with al-Assad, the regained seat at the table will be of no use. At the same time, if Syria fails to implement commitments and demands coming with the readmission, it will also delay the progress in achieving al-Assad’s goal of regional reintegration. 

On a domestic level, the already devastating humanitarian crisis will continue deteriorating. People across Syria, especially those residing in the northwest, require immediate access to humanitarian aid. An unstable economy and high inflation will increase poverty.

Ksenia Kumanina