Syria’s Return to the International Stage

Syria’s Return to the International Stage

As the Syrian civil war continues to de-escalate, European and Arab countries are beginning to normalize relations with the Assad regime while current US policy remains unchanged.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

As the Syrian civil war continues to de-escalate, European and Arab countries are beginning to normalize relations with the Assad regime while current US policy remains unchanged.

KEY INSIGHTS

– The Arab world seems poised to welcome Syria back into its ranks, with prominent Arab countries normalizing ties.
– Some EU member states are beginning to re-establish bilateral relations with Syria, despite the EU’s vocal opposition to the regime.
– US policy towards Syria is unlikely to change as there is no incentive for the Biden administration to reshape its involvement.

ASSAD STILL STANDS

President Bashar Al-Assad has managed to reassert control over a majority of Syria, leading some observers to conclude his hold on power is the strongest it has been since 2011. Rebel forces have been driven back to Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold. Although the fighting in Idlib is ongoing and the rebels still desire to overthrow Assad, their odds of success have dwindled.

The seeming inevitability of Assad’s reassertion of power has led to a loosening of the international isolation the regime has experienced since the beginning of the civil war. The Arab states that supported the Syrian rebels seem to have accepted the failure of their intervention: Jordan, the UAE and Bahrain have reopened their embassies, Oman has reinstated its ambassador and Saudi Arabia – a stalwart supporter of Sunni rebel groups – has reportedly engaged in intelligence discussions with Damascus.

This renewed acknowledgment of the Syrian government is not limited to the Arab world. Despite the EU’s continued denunciation of the Assad regime, some eastern and southern European member-states, such as Greece and Hungary, have begun rebuilding ties. Additionally, Syria has been readmitted to international organizations such as Interpol and the World Health Organization despite protests from human rights advocates.

EXHAUSTED FROM CONFLICT

Throughout the Syrian civil war, the United States encouraged its allies and partners to shun the Syrian regime on humanitarian grounds. UN reports have documented evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons on its own people and regularly targeted hospitals and aid workers. However, the US’s commitment to isolation seems to be waning. While Washington still discourages normalization with the Assad regime, it does not appear to be applying pressure on those deviating from this course as it would have done in the past.

The US’ seemingly laissez-faire attitude likely stems from President Joe Biden’s still evolving position on the Syria question. Despite promising to return America to the world stage, Biden is still constrained by the policies of his predecessor. Under President Donald Trump, the US removed most of its troops from northern Syria, leading to a limited US operational capability in the country. As a result, Biden’s Syria policy has been on autopilot while his administration has weighed charting a new course. The current policy entails economic sanctions on Syrian entities, while maintaining a minimal troop presence in northeastern Syria to aid the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. This posture arguably conveys a lack of resolve to change the situation in Syria, making it difficult to justify the expenditure of diplomatic capital to ensure Assad’s continued isolation.

In line with the US, the EU holds a similar position on the Syria issue. While the European Parliament refuses to legitimize the Assad regime, the EU ultimately lacks the tools and the political capital to impose this position on individual member-states. This reality has resulted in a disjointed EU policy on Syria, with some member-states rejecting such policies and pursuing normalization. The focal point of the EU policy divide seems to be isolated to countries that have been most affected by the Syrian refugee crisis. Thus, for countries like Greece and Cyprus, a primary motivator for resuming bilateral ties has been the prospect of returning refugees.

SYRIA’S RETURN SLOWLY ACKNOWLEDGED

In the short term, it is likely that more countries will slowly begin to rebuild ties with Syria as Assad reasserts control. As it stands, there appear to be no countries left with the expressed political will to remove the Assad regime from power. Syria’s readmission to the Arab League appears all but certain: important members such as Egypt, Iraq and the UAE support Syria’s readmittance. These countries do not believe Assad will lose power and prefer to be involved in Syria’s reconstruction. Saudi Arabia will also likely follow suit as Syrian recognition by the league would be hard to ignore.

In contrast, the US is unlikely to recognize the Assad regime or to renew a concerted effort against the regime any time soon. US-Syria policy has been widely panned by experts as inconsistent since the outbreak of the civil war. As such, since there is a lack of incentive to alter commitments within the country, the Biden Administration is apt to maintain a status quo policy until significant changes take place in Syria or until Assad forces Biden’s hand, perhaps by successfully driving the rebels out of Idlib and turning his attention to the northeast.

The EU shares the US’ reservations regarding the Syrian government and will likely follow a similar course. Sanctions on the Assad regime will certainly remain as the European Parliament has continued to express its displeasure with Syria’s human rights abuses. Accordingly, there will likely be no recognition of the regime’s legitimacy as the European Parliament has recently reiterated that without progress towards a more inclusive political system there can be no normalization with Syria.

While Assad is slowly being recognized by his Arab and European contemporaries, he rules over a broken country. Syria has been devastated by conflict and will require substantial foreign investment to rebuild. Assad’s overtures to his wealthy neighbors may be crucial in securing their support. However, in the coming years, much will hinge on whether the US is willing to relax sanctions to allow foreign investment to flow into Syria.