While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is still shunned by the West, who blame him for a decade of brutal war in Syria, a shift is under way in the Middle East, where Arab allies of the US are bringing him in from the cold by reviving economic and diplomatic ties.
The extension of al-Assad’s two-decade-old presidency in an election in May did little to break his pariah status among Western states, but fellow Arab leaders are coming to terms with the fact that he retains a solid grip on power.
The US’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has firmed up a belief among Arab leaders that they need to chart their own course.
Anticipating a more hands-off approach from Washington — which is preoccupied by the challenge of China — Arab leaders are driven by their own priorities, notably how to rehabilitate economies hammered by years of conflict and COVID-19.
Political considerations also loom large in Arab capitals such as Cairo, Amman and Abu Dhabi. These include their ties with al-Assad’s most powerful backer, Russia, which has been pressing for Syria’s reintegration, and how to counter the influence carved out in Syria by Iran and Turkey.
While the signs of Arab rapprochement with Damascus are growing — King Abdullah of Jordan spoke to al-Assad for the first time in a decade this month — US policy remains a complicating factor.
Washington says that there has been no change in its policy toward Syria, which demands a political transition as set out in a UN Security Council resolution.
US sanctions targeting Damascus — which were tightened under former US president Donald Trump — still pose a serious obstacle to commerce.
However, in Washington, analysts say that Syria has hardly been a foreign policy priority for US President Joe Biden’s administration.
They say that Biden’s focus has been on countering China and that his administration has yet to apply sanctions under the so-called “Caesar Act,” which came into force last year with the intent of adding to the pressure on al-Assad.
After being warned against dealing with Damascus by the Trump administration, Arab states are pressing the issue again.
“US allies in the Arab world have been encouraging Washington to lift the siege on Damascus and allow for its reintegration into the Arab fold,” said David Lesch, a Syria expert at Trinity University in Texas. “It appears the Biden administration, to some degree, is listening.”
It marks a shift from the early years of the conflict when Syria was expelled from the Arab League and states including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, backed some of the rebels that fought al-Assad.
Jordan, Syria’s neighbor to the south, has been leading the pack on the Arab policy shift with an ailing economy and a rocky patch in relations with its wealthy Gulf neighbor Saudi Arabia.
The border between Syria and Jordan was fully reopened for trade last month, and Amman has been a driving force behind a deal to pipe Egyptian natural gas to Lebanon via Syria, with an apparent US nod of approval.
The crossing was once plied by hundreds of trucks a day moving goods between Europe, Turkey and the Gulf. Reviving trade will be a shot in the arm for Jordan and Syria, whose economy is in deep crisis. It should also help Lebanon, now suffering one of the sharpest economic depressions in modern history.
“I’m absolutely sure the Jordanians feel that the US will not sanction them,” said Jim Jeffrey, a former US special envoy for Syria under Trump.
“There’s a tremendous buzz among media, among friends in the region, that the US is no longer aggressively sanctioning al-Assad under the Caesar Act or other things.”
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