The region’s powers have various reasons to support Damascus despite US concerns, from the issue of Syrian refugees to the Captagon trade to Turkey’s security objectives.
What would have normally been a significant news item and the catalyst for a deluge of commentary and debate has been overshadowed by the two hot wars of today’s globe, the crises in Sudan and Ukraine.
The Arab League has announced that Syria’s 12-year conflict is officially finished, and President Bashar al-Assad has been extended a warm invitation to re-join the group as dramatic proof.
The change in policy has been brewing for more than a year, but it really picked up speed last month. It has caught the American and western governments off guard and put them in a difficult situation.
Do they concur with the Arab leaders that working with the Syrian government is the best approach to aid in its reconstruction and foster the circumstances necessary for millions of Syrian refugees to safely return home? Or do they make an effort to stop it?
The signs are not favorable at this point. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is adamant that “no normalization” with Syria is something the US will seek. Even harsher responses were received in the US Congress. A measure has been tabled to prolong the so-called Caesar sanctions on Syria in place until 2032 rather of having them expire in 2025. These penalize any investment from any nation that aids in the infrastructure reconstruction of Syria.
Donald Trump’s presidency saw the US publicly accept what Barack Obama had already privately acknowledged: that Assad would not be overthrown as a result of Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015.
However, the US would continue its anti-Syrian sanctions and keep a contingent of about 900 troops in northeastern Syria working in tandem with Syrian Kurdish forces for reasons that smack of utter cynicism.
Significant changes in Saudi policy
According to William Roebuck, a US diplomat who recently embedded with US forces in Syria, this unfavorable US policy now has a Ukrainian component.
He said during a Quincy Institute webinar last week that “the US wants to stay in Syria and keep troops there in order to deprive Assad and Putin of any sort of win.”
Joshua Landis, a renowned expert on Syria and professor at the University of Oklahoma, stated during the same webinar that “the main thrust of American policy is not to allow Syria to rebuild.”. Instead of allowing businesses and outside foreign investment to rebuild the electricity grid, repair schools, and rebuild the state, the Caesar sanctions are intended to keep Assad weak and harm the Russians and the Iranians.”
Saudi Arabia supported and financed the Assad opposition ten years ago. It makes a remarkable U-turn.
Mohammed bin Salman’s third major policy shift in recent months involves re-engaging with Assad. The first was the decision to talk to the Houthis and observe a ceasefire in Yemen. The second goal was to get back in touch with Iran. Presently comes the new strategy on Syria. Equally remarkable is the Saudis’ challenge to US goals and decision-making autonomy.
Other Arab states, particularly Jordan and Lebanon, have good reasons to support the move, despite the fact that the Saudi shift was the primary factor in the invitation to Assad to rejoin the Arab League.