Why Arab dictators are rushing to rehabilitate Syria's Assad
In recent weeks, Arab officials have flocked to Syria - not to offer support to the victims of the earthquake that affected the country’s northwest, killing around 6,000 people, but rather to re-engage and normalise relations with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
On 27 February, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry arrived in Damascus on the first visit by a senior Egyptian official since the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011. A day earlier, a delegation of Arab lawmakers led by Cairo’s parliament speaker, Hanafy al-Gebaly, visited Damascus and met Assad and other Syrian officials.
It should not be surprising that some Arab regimes are normalising relations with Assad, as they exhibit comparable traits of authoritarianism and cruelty
Earlier last month, just days after the earthquake, Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed visited the Syrian capital and attended a meeting with Assad. Days later, Ayman Safadi, the Jordanian foreign minister, visited Damascus in the first such trip by a senior Jordanian official since the Syrian uprising began.
Assad himself made only his second state visit since 2011 last month to Oman, a country that never broke ties with Damascus, where he was received by Sultan Haitham bin Tariq.
These officials have justified these visits in the context of providing support and solidarity to the Syrian people after the earthquake. But this justification is baseless, revealing the extent to which these countries are eager to restore their relations with the Assad regime, amid an ongoing war that has killed more than half a million people, displaced more than 12 million and destroyed the country.
Ironically, the earthquake did not hit Damascus, but primarily affected cities such as Aleppo, Hama, Latakia and Idlib, some of which are not under the Syrian government’s control.
Before the earthquake
Indeed, the process of normalising relations and rehabilitating the Syrian president began well before the earthquake. The UAE has provided support for an extended period of time and was the first Arab country to reopen its embassy in Damascus. Last year, it also became the first Arab state to receive Assad since the outbreak of the Syrian war.
Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed has spoken with Assad by telephone from time to time, with the UAE notably among the few countries that has maintained an open relationship with the Syrian president in recent years.
In addition, the UAE has reportedly provided financial support to the Assad regime, sending millions of dollars to enhance its internal position. This support could be explained in part by the enmity between Abu Dhabi and Turkey in recent years, prior to their rapprochement over the last two years. Abu Dhabi is also keen to distance Syria from its alliance with Iran, which is viewed as a potential threat to the UAE’s national security.
As for Egypt, since the military takeover in mid-2013, its relationship with the Assad regime has been continuously improving through political and diplomatic support, especially regarding Syria’s return to the Arab League, which suspended its membership in late 2011.
There have also been reports about Egypt providing military aid to the Assad regime. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi confirmed his support for the Syrian army under Assad in an interview with a Portuguese media outlet in 2016. Sisi also spoke to Assad after the earthquake, in the first official phone call between the two leaders.
Egypt’s support for the Assad regime can be explained by several factors: the similarity of the two regimes in terms of brutality and oppression in dealing with opponents; their shared view that the Arab Spring was an external “conspiracy” and an existential threat that must be confronted and eliminated; and their individual alliances with Russia, which means solidarity with Moscow’s project in the Middle East region.
Leverage over US
What is striking is that those countries that are normalising relations with the Assad regime are among the most important strategic allies of the United States in the region. The US has rejected, at least for now, normalisation with Assad, and appears to have no interest in rehabilitating the Syrian regime regionally or internationally.
Clearly, these countries see the Biden administration as weak and shaky, unlikely to take action against states that have opted to normalise relations with the Assad regime. They are taking advantage of the American preoccupation with Russia’s war on Ukraine on the one hand, and the US conflict with China on the other, in order to pursue a quasi-independent foreign policy that bolsters their own self-interests.
Lastly, some might be trying to use the normalisation issue as political, strategic or economic leverage over the US.
In summary, it should not be surprising that some Arab regimes are normalising relations with Assad, as they exhibit comparable traits of authoritarianism and cruelty. Their endorsement of the current Syrian regime is thus in line with their own political values and practices.
This normalisation process is likely to persist into the foreseeable future, possibly resulting in Syria’s readmission to the Arab League after years of alienation. And despite the ongoing violence and displacement of the Syrian population, supporters of the Assad regime will surely justify their endorsement under the pretence of aiding “the Syrian people”.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
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