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IranSource May 16, 2023

The Arab League thinks readmitting Syria will push out Iran. They’re wrong.

By David Daoud

Readmitting Syria to the Arab League is a strategic mistake. On paper, the logic behind such a move appears sound. For the better part of the last decade, most of the Arab world hoped that Syria’s uprising would dislodge Bashar al-Assad’s regime. As the dust has begun to settle on that conflict, it is apparent that those hopes were misplaced. In short, Assad won.

The most obvious objection to readmitting the Assad regime into the so-called Arab fold—and the halls of the Arab League—is a moral one. Assad’s crimes over the past decade set him apart from other living Middle Eastern autocrats. They demand that he remain a pariah—not be slowly renormalized as a legitimate international actor. After all, Assad emerged victorious in the Syrian Civil War by slaughtering hundreds of thousands of his people, wounding and torturing scores of others, and displacing millions more. His blood-bought victory has visited immeasurable pain upon the Syrian people and the effects of this could last for decades.

However, reality and history rarely allow for statecraft to be so morally neat. In formulating his concept of raison d’état, Cardinal de Richelieu, France’s chief minister from 1624-1642, declared that “Man is immortal, his salvation is hereafter. The state has no immortality, its salvation is now or never.” In other words, states receive neither credit nor reward in this life nor the next for making the morally correct choice. They are only rewarded for doing what is necessary.

To a degree, that holds true regarding Syria. Reality—and the outcome of the Syrian Civil War—presented the Arab world with two choices: the first is to permanently boycott Assad and allow Iran’s dominance over Syria to continue growing. In the interim, this diplomatic isolation—coupled with a financial siege in the form of US-led sanctions—would prevent Syria’s resurgence or reconstruction. The Syrian people would then continue to suffer from Assad’s dictatorial rule and the various shortages and deprivations brought about by his destructive war, which would be further compounded by sanctions. Alternatively—and that is the path being chosen by the Arab world—attempts could be made to lure this particular fly away from Tehran with honey, begrudgingly reestablishing ties with him to create a counter to unchecked Iranian influence.

However, the logic underpinning the second option—drawing Assad back into the Arab orbit—is unsound, founded on the faulty premise that there remains such a thing as an independent Syrian regime and Assad to woo back from Tehran.

The Syrian dictator can now be effectively considered the glorified “Mayor of Damascus,” merely ruling that fiefdom at Iran’s pleasure. No matter how much Arab backing he has, Assad cannot ask Iran to leave his country willingly. Ensuring Syria does not proverbially fall into enemy hands is an existential matter for Tehran. High-ranking Iranian officials have described Syria as Iran’s “Thirty-Fifth Province” to emphasize that they view anti-Iranian activity in Syria on par with domestic unrest. The Iranians simply don’t trust Assad to be able to hold the country without their presence and control.

Additionally, Iran has invested too much blood, treasure, and political capital in Syria to ever leave the country without a fight. Nor can Assad forcibly eject them, with his Syrian Arab Army having been decimated by defections during the civil war and fighting. As far back as 2016, Hezbollah and Iran’s other proxy militias bore the brunt of fighting opposition forces and assumed control on the ground. By contrast, the Syrian Arab Army assumed a symbolic and secondary role.

That is why this effort to cajole Assad back into the Arab fold—floated by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as early as 2016, but now enthusiastically led by Saudi Arabia since late March 2023—is unlikely to succeed. There’s little left of an independent Syria to work with. Nor can Arab intervention in Syria remedy that shortcoming, since it is unlikely to be as deep nor as intrusive in the country’s internal affairs as Iran’s.

Recalling a 2021 conversation between myself and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on the matter, he said: “We don’t get involved in a country’s internal affairs.” But Iran does.

The Gulf States are, effectively, leading the Arab world into replicating their old approach to Syria’s neighbor, Lebanon, which has also failed to produce any results. This is despite Iran’s influence—through its proxy Hezbollah—being more diluted in Beirut than in Damascus, owing to the Byzantine nature of Lebanese politics. If anything, Hezbollah exploited the stability provided by the Gulf’s assistance to Beirut to grow inside Lebanon. Iran can be expected to do the same in Syria, particularly if reconstruction aid manages to enter the country.

Assad is likely acutely aware of this situation and unlikely to attempt to break away from Iran or undermine its interests willingly. Tehran’s history of dealing with rebellious subordinates is certain to deter him. Assad risks being liquidated for stepping out of line, with Tehran blaming his death on Israel—as Hezbollah did with Rafik Hariri’s—for failing to offer enough concessions. Or they could opt for the route chosen by Houthi proxies in regard to Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, where they declared him a traitor deserving of death.

Russia, the other actor with influence in Syria, cannot be relied on to erode Iran’s control over the country. Since Tehran will not leave the country willingly, that would require Moscow to relitigate the entire Syrian Civil War. But this time, they would have to fight against an adversary in Iran that is more formidable than the Syrian opposition. In fact, even prior to its entanglement in Ukraine, Russian forces repeatedly backed down in the face of Iran and its proxies in Syria, demonstrating who had the upper hand on Syrian soil. Moscow would have to embark upon this task even though its interests in Syria—Assad’s survival, Russia’s armed presence in Syria, and maintaining Damascus as a military client—have been secured.

The absurdity of betting on Russia to restore Assad’s independence from Iran is further compounded by the fact that, to do so, Moscow would have to divert its ground troops away from a war it views as existential in Ukraine—where the Russian army is now bogged down—to fight Iran, an actor that has been acting as its indispensable ally in that war.

Assad’s victory in the Syrian Civil War must not be his ticket to readmission into the family of civilized nations, including in the Arab world. He achieved his victory by mercilessly slaughtering hundreds of thousands of his people. Reestablishing ties with him will not alleviate the suffering of those Syrians who remain under his regime. The ultimate benefit will accrue not only to Assad, but to the power that controls and keeps him in the presidential palace: the Islamic Republic of Iran.

David Daoud is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Further reading

Image: Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi react during the signing of cooperation agreement in Damascus, Syria May 3, 2023. REUTERS/Yamam al Shaar