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MENASource May 19, 2023

Experts react: Assad gets warm reception at Arab summit. Where does that leave the US and its allies?

By Qutaiba Idlbi, Gissou Nia, Michel Duclos, and Emadeddin Badi

Twelve years after Syria’s dismissal from the Arab League, President Bashar al-Assad was reintroduced to the regional institution with open arms on May 19. Assad is responsible for widespread destruction, the suffering of the Syrian people, and the displacement of nearly half the population, leading to the country’s ostracization from its regional counterparts and much of the international community. However, the recent February 6 earthquake—which further devastated the Syrian people—was utilized as an opportunity for Assad to regain support from his neighbors, as was the Saudi-Iran normalization deal. These events ultimately resulted in the welcoming back of Syria to the Arab League. The Syrian dictator’s attendance at the summit in Saudi Arabia this week demonstrates the turning of a new leaf for the Assad regime. 

Atlantic Council experts react to this new development and explain its significance below. 

Qutaiba Idlbi: Biden administration contributed to this regional shift 

Gissou Nia: There must be new efforts to hold Assad accountable through bold initiatives

Michel Duclos: The West must not enter unconditional normalization with Assad 

Emadeddin Badi: Assad’s red carpet treatment captures the flaws of US foreign policy in the region

Yaseen Rashed: Syria’s youth, who paid the highest price of the conflict, are left behind

Biden administration contributed to this regional shift 

Efforts to normalize relations with Syria and bring Bashar al-Assad back to the Arab fold materialized after the deadly earthquake of February 6. But Assad’s coronation is a culmination of years-long efforts by many Arab states to normalize relations with Syria, and reposition themselves as balanced entities to the United States on one hand and Russia and China on the other. 

For years now, the US has centered its Syria investment in the northeast. The Joe Biden administration is increasingly focused on supporting the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) to sustain itself—in the absence of a political settlement—through economic development, investment, and institution building. Meanwhile, it continues to minimize the risks for its troops by repositioning them in the ‘East-East’ security zone to reduce the ability of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Iranian militias to attack US troops in the area directly.

Washington’s increasing “if you touch it, you own it” approach, in which the US sees itself responsible only to parties it was directly involved with in northeast Syria, leaves a vacuum in other parts of the country, where Arab states look to Russia and Iran—and Assad as an extension—as their partners to shape their Syria policies. Along with its de-prioritization of Middle East policy, the Biden administration is contributing to this regional shift that subsequently accelerated the reintegration of Assad.

Not much will change in Syria or across the region for now, but keeping Assad isolated would not be as easy as before, especially as he eyes recognition from the West followed by the removal of sanctions and funding for reconstruction.

Qutaiba Idlbi is a nonresident fellow at Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East Programs where he leads the Syria project.

There must be new efforts to hold Assad accountable through bold new initiatives

After more than a decade of conflict that resulted in half a million killed and 14 million Syrians forced to flee their homes, the warm reception of the Arab League of Assad is an affront to justice and accountability.  

The attempts to rehabilitate a mass murderer sends a dark message to not only Syrian victims and survivors, but victims and survivors of atrocity crimes everywhere—from Ukraine to Myanmar to Iran.   

Countries that believe in human rights and redress for victims should not act passively. They should recharge efforts to hold the Assad regime accountable through bold new initiatives. Steps could include setting up a global or regional victims fund to give reparations to Syrian victims and survivors of the conflict—many of whom have yet to be made whole; expanding current investigations into alleged Russian perpetrators in the Ukraine invasion to include Vladamir Putin’s crimes in Syria; supporting the pending complaints to the International Criminal Court’s Office of the Prosecutor to open up investigations into crimes against humanity in the Syrian conflict committed by the Assad regime, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Russian forces; and refocusing efforts to target business links to the Assad regime in Spain, France, and elsewhere. 

Rather than accept normalization and the futility of efforts for justice, like-minded states should support victims and survivors by doubling down on efforts for justice where possible and reject complacency amid mass atrocities. 

Gissou Nia is the director of the Strategic Litigation Project at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East Programs.

The West should not enter unconditional normalization with Assad 

The Arab governments are making a terrible mistake. They cannot expect Assad to deliver on their key expectations. They are whitewashing a mass criminal with no gains whatsoever and no prospects of limiting Iranian influence in Syrian affairs. The Western countries should not enter into the logic of unconditional normalization with Assad. They should hold firm on not lifting sanctions. They should also focus their energy on stabilizing the Syrian northeast to better counter the jihadist threat, find an arrangement with Turkey, and obtain some kind of autonomous status for the Syrian Democratic Forces. 

In that respect, Western powers should discuss with the main Arab countries some sort of give and take. For instance, they could help their Arab partners with a major concern for them: to cut the production of Captagon by the Syrian regime. In exchange, they could request their regional partners to support them in the stabilization and autonomization of the northeast. 

Michel Duclos is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East Programs. He previously served as ambassador of France to Syria from 2006-2009. 

Assad’s red carpet treatment captures the flaws of US foreign policy in the region

The official return of Assad to the Arab League is explicitly meant to telegraph the triumph of authoritarianism. The move, rationalized by its proponents as pragmatism, is nothing but. In fact, it epitomizes the solidarity between aging dictators in the region and their collective doubling down on tyranny over any meaningful governance and reforms. For the cohorts of young people from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the optics and messaging around this Medusa moment are intentionally meant to silence and frustrate. The youth’s overwhelming feelings of powerlessness are meant to breed an apathetic society, and their desperation is weaponized to disillusion them into accepting injustice and repression as the new status quo. 

For the United States, Assad’s red carpet treatment today captures the flaws of US foreign policy in the region: selectively standing for “democratic principles” is akin to not standing for anything. US policy on Syria is a case in point. Failing to deter Assad and his allies is the by-product of American milquetoast responses, parochialism, and unenforced red lines. American administrations self-sabotaged and lost credibility by violating their stated policy and gradually eroding their leverage. Doubly ironic is the fact that states that have spearheaded Assad’s rehabilitation—forcing the Biden administration into silent acquiescence in the process—are US allies.

Today, the world watches as a war criminal poses for photo ops at a regional summit after displacing half of his nation. An added shade of desolation is his re-inclusion officially represents the nail in the coffin of a forgotten global commitment to center the Responsibility to Protect populations. Even if this depressing canvas isn’t a wake-up call for US policymakers to shift course and revisit their actions and assumptions—one can be sure the injustices therein will one day spark the anger of the region’s battered populations. 

Emadeddin Badi is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East Programs

Syria’s youth, who paid the highest price of the conflict, are left behind

The final nail in the coffin of the 2011 youth-led Arab Spring was hammered in today with the warm reception of Syria’s dictator in Jeddah for the Arab League summit. It follows a line of precedents set by the failed revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. The movement that sought to bring about political agency to its youth seems far removed from the possibilities under Assad’s new Syria, one legitimized by regional hegemons.

As normalization negotiations center around repatriating Syria’s refugees and limiting Iran’s influence in the region, Syria’s youth—who have undoubtfully paid the highest price in the conflict—are left behind. Since protests began in 2011, over 30,000 children have been killed in attacks by regime forces across the country. Furthermore, over 47 percent of the 5.5 million refugees residing in neighboring countries are under the age of twenty-five, and more than a third do not have access to education. Their hopes for a safer, more democratic future—the same hopes that initially ignited the 2011 revolution—are no longer possible in Assad’s Syria.

The memory of the 2011 Arab Spring remains ever-present in the region’s leadership. Fearing yet another wave of uprisings due to bubbling economic frustrations, Arab League member states are looking to scapegoat refugees for misdirected frustrations rooted in governance, accountability, and transparency issues. Using Syria’s youth as political bargaining chips to maneuver domestic pressures is no surprise and will inevitably not fix the structural challenges regional governments face. As Assad calls for “Arab unity” at the summit, it’s clear he is calling for the unity of despots in the region to bolster and legitimize each other’s grip on power.

Instead of supporting these efforts, the Biden administration must prioritize the people of Syria, specifically the country’s vulnerable youth population. The US should leverage its privileged relationship with Arab League member states to champion accountability and justice efforts for victims of Assad’s ongoing aggression. Welcoming Assad back to the international stage without any accountability for his war crimes waged against civilians sends a message to autocrats everywhere: If you play your cards right, you can get away with upending the lives of millions to maintain your place on the playing field.  

Yaseen Rashed is a Media & Communications Program Assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East Programs

Image: Syria's President Bashar al-Assad chats with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, ahead of the Arab League summit, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 19, 2023. SANA/Handout via REUTERS