Syria Normalization Faces Challenges in the Region and Beyond

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

By Middle East Policy

A new journal article by Saban Kardas and Bulent Aras examines the calculations of Arab states, American indifference, and the possible limits on the regime’s rehabilitation. 

An increasingly dire economy and humanitarian crises have sparked a fresh wave of uprisings in southern Syria against President Bashar al-Assad. Following his decision to double public-sector wages, the country’s currency has fallen to an all-time low. Citizens choked by skyrocketing inflation have taken to the streets for weeks, tearing down posters of the strongman, vandalizing buildings, and even welding shut the doors to a local party office.  

The unrest, evoking the 2011 protests that set off the devastating civil war, has compromised the momentum Assad gained earlier this year with his reintegration into the Arab League and his address to the organization’s May summit

An article in Middle East Policy explains how Damascus was able to repair these relationships despite deeply held reservations by most regional states, who kicked Syria out of the Arab League in response to allegations that the regime used chemical weapons on its citizens. The “drive to re-regionalize the Syrian crisis represents a realistic reading of the international community’s conflict-resolution mechanisms and the limits of Western commitment,” contend Saban Kardas and Bulent Aras, scholars at the Gulf Studies Center of Qatar University.  

After more than a decade of war, Arab states now see the regime’s persistence as a given. An ineffective opposition, undermined by American hesitance to fully commit to regime change, all but assured the regime’s survival. And major actors like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE have been more concerned with checking Iran’s influence as a supporter of Assad than ousting him altogether. 

Arab states have pursued this reconnection “because of its utility to each actor’s priorities,” the authors write. “The growing consensus…saw the status quo as unworkable, and engagement was needed to address humanitarian and other concerns,” from the “refugee flows to instability in border areas to smuggling and organized crime.” 

The diplomatic stage had been set as early as 2017, the scholars write, by efforts to reduce tensions around the region, including the Al-Ula summit to resolve the crisis with Qatar, the Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE, and the restoration of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran. “The drive to bring Syria back into the mainstream is in many ways a culmination of these regional normalization drives,” Kardas and Aras argue. 

The normalization process has been relatively quick, with Saudi Arabia leading the charge and most other states going along, though Qatar has refused to meet with Assad. However, Kardas and Aras contend, “the price paid for diplomatic flexibility and pragmatism has been sidestepping the root causes of the conflict.”  

Before the process is completely resolved, they say, many challenges remain. One is Syria’s territorial integrity, as the regime does not control the northwest or northeast, and it does not have a clear pathway to reasserting sovereignty. Perhaps more important is whether Assad can actually deliver what the Arab states are looking for, including turning his back on one of his main benefactors, Iran. As well, regional states and the West are hoping to resolve the humanitarian and governance issues surrounding Assad’s rule, but there are few good options. 

“In its current form,” the authors conclude, “normalization does not guarantee the end of the Syrian conflict; it may instead open a new chapter.”  

Among the major takeaways readers can find in Saban Kardas and Bulent Aras’s Middle East Policy article, “What Drove Syria Back into the Arab Fold?”: 

  • The Assad regime has survived the civil war and Western sanctions, leading regional states to recognize its durability and readmit Syria to the Arab League. It was kicked out in 2011. 

  • Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE were more concerned with checking Iran’s influence than ousting Assad. 

  • Challenges like the refugee crisis and the rise of ISIS sidelined some regime-change initiatives.  

  • Efforts to de-escalate tensions spread across the region between 2017 and 2023, easing the process for Syria’s normalization, including 

    • restoring ties between Qatar and the UAE, the Saudis, Bahrain, and Egypt 

    • the Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain in 2020 

    • and the UAE and Saudi Arabia working with Turkey and Iran. 

  • Within the Arab world, three positions formed on Syrian normalization: 

    • Support: UAE, Bahrain, Oman, and Jordan. 

    • Criticism of normalization as “a betrayal of the victims”: Qatar. 

    • Wait and see, try to extract concessions: Saudi Arabia.  

  • Syrian reintegration accelerated as the UAE, Egypt, and Turkey jumpstarted the process. 

  • Despite hesitation, Saudi Arabia led the recent effort, and Assad addressed the Arab League summit in May 2023. 

    • Qatar allowed Riyadh to act but refused to meet with the strongman. 

  • The bid to “re-regionalize” Syria is driven by the beliefs that the status quo is untenable and the West is not committed to regime change.  

  • The Syrian regime has sought normalization on three levels: bilaterally, with the Arab League, and internationally.  

    • The next step is economic normalization, with Assad in dire need of assistance.  

  • The United States condemns normalization but is not threatening sanctions, allowing Arab allies some leeway. 

  • Challenges remain:  

    • Syria still faces territorial fragmentation. 

    • The Assad regime may not deliver on demands like cutting ties with Iran. 

    • Assad has not been given clear guarantees that he will benefit from normalization.  

    • The Arab states may not agree on how to tackle the humanitarian crisis and the future of the regime. 

You can read Saban Kardas and Bulent Aras’s article, “What Drove Syria Back into the Arab Fold?” in the Fall 2023 issue of Middle East Policy, forthcoming in September.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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