Assad out of the cold

Assad Out of the Cold…Again

At conferences held virtually during the Covid pandemic, which focused on the various foreign relations of the Persian Gulf Arab states, from ties with Israel to those with Iran, the discussion typically migrated toward US policy in the Middle East. Heavy criticism of the United States bordering on vitriol oozed out of the mouths of Saudis, Emirati and other Gulf officials and academics. They repeatedly said the United States was unreliable, unpredictable, ungrateful, and/or was pivoting out of the Middle East toward East Asia.

Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003—and subsequent insurgency-fed quagmire—the US has been retreating (or at least wanting to retreat) from the region. President Barack Obama’s mantra coming to power was no more Middle East wars.[i] He was seen as only half-heartedly supporting the opposition in the Syrian civil war[ii] while negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran.[iii]

This perceived retreat by the US, combined with a hard-charging China and Russia in the region over the last decade, has reset the diplomatic and security architecture in the Middle East.

While President Donald Trump cozied up to various regional leaders, including Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the UAE’s President Muhammad bin Zayed, and Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in the process laying the foundation for the Abraham Accords, he was unpredictable. In Syria, he twice ordered missile strikes in response to the Syrian government’s reported use of chemical weapons[iv] [v], but then seemingly out of nowhere ordered US troops to evacuate their positions in northeast Syria[vi] and hanging the US’ erstwhile Kurdish allies out to dry by acquiescing to Turkish military incursions[vii] into northern Syria.

Although Trump quickly reversed course regarding the presence of US troops after pushback from the Pentagon, this did not sit well with a number of US allies in the region. Finally, President Joe Biden’s administration came into power immediately antagonising many long-time allies over human rights[viii], policy differences, oil issues, and focusing more on China[ix] and, certainly after February 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the reaction to which by most of the US’ Middle East allies has been disappointingly muted[x] from the perspective of Washington.

More than anything else this perceived retreat by the US, combined with a hard-charging China and Russia in the region over the last decade, has reset the diplomatic and security architecture in the Middle East, the result of which first and foremost has been the rapprochement in 2023 between Saudi Arabia and Iran mediated by Beijing.[xi] These systemic changes have accelerated the normalisation of relations by a number of countries in the Middle East with what had been an ostracised and isolated Syrian government.

Geopolitical shifts

The hinge that moved things along was the devastating earthquake that rocked Turkey and Syria.

In an immediate sense, the hinge that moved things along was the devastating earthquake that rocked Turkey and Syria in February 2023.[xii] Earthquake diplomacy[xiii], as it was called, ensued, as Assad asked for and received humanitarian aid from across the Arab world, therefore opening the door for dialogue with Damascus and a number of Arab countries who had vigorously supported the Syrian opposition in the civil war; even the US temporarily lowered the threshold for humanitarian aid to Syria[xiv], a country it had heavily sanctioned since the beginning of the civil war, especially with the so-called Caesar Act in 2020.

For Assad this was the beginning of what would be a triumphal return to the Arab fold, culminating in his government’s readmission into the Arab League in May.[xv] It is a desperately needed lifeline if he hopes to solidify and rebuild his power base in Syria, much less rebuild the country. For the Arab states, normalisation with Damascus has been a slow process for the past five years since the UAE led the way in 2018 by re-establishing diplomatic relations with Syria.[xvi] At first, it was more strategic, trying to reduce the Iranian footprint in Syria—and for some even countering Turkish influence in the country.

However, other important matters surfaced in recent years, with the earthquake diplomacy creating the opportunity for concerned Arab states to address these issues directly with Damascus. It is less about Iran today than substantive and specific problems.

This includes trying to prevent Syria from becoming (if it is not already) a narco-state, as it is the centre of the Captagon drug trade in the region.[xvii] In addition, aggravated by the negative economic fallout of the Covid pandemic, the millions of Syrian refugees in countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey[xviii] have stressed economies to the breaking point. To ameliorate the economic problems, Syria’s neighbours want these refugees to be repatriated[xix] [xx], but Syrians caught in the middle of statecraft will only willingly return if they are confident they will not be exposed to retribution by the Syrian government, get their property back, and do not get conscripted immediately into the army—but will they have a choice?

Finally, there is a sense that Assad survived and is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and with his country located at such a strategic nodal point, leaders in the region believe they best deal with what they know.

Outlook for a US Rapprochement with Syria

The obstacles in the way of any sort of rapprochement with the US...are many and powerful.

Even the Biden administration has backed off Syria a bit. While clearly stating its opposition to any normalisation with Assad, it is not saying “no,” not that the Saudis, Emiratis, or Turks would listen anyway. Rather, US officials have been saying that if regional allies decide to normalise, they should get some concrete concessions in return from Damascus in a transactional sense, in particular expanding humanitarian access, combatting ISIS, reducing Iran’s influence, and countering the trafficking of Captagon.

The Biden administration itself has been having not-so-secret meetings with Syrian officials in 2023 mediated by Oman[xxi], discussing a variety of relevant topics, especially, from the US perspective, the return of Americans missing in Syria, first and foremost Austin Tice, the journalist who went missing in August 2012 and is believed by US officials to be alive and held in some form or fashion by the Syrian government.

The obstacles in the way of any sort of rapprochement with the US, that would then open the door to Syria’s total rehabilitation, are many and powerful. The US Congress is in no mood to rehabilitate Assad, holding the Biden administration’s feet to the fire in maintaining the stringent sanctions regime against Syria and even trying to get the administration to punish those countries who have normalised with Damascus.

[The US is] trying to walk a fine line between the pressures to maintain an antagonistic stance toward Assad and opportunities to engage on specific issues.

For instance, at about the same time the Arab League welcomed back Assad, a bipartisan group of congresspersons introduced a bill[xxii] intended to bar the US government from recognising Assad as Syria’s president, normalising relations with Syria as long as he is president, and enhancing the administration’s ability to impose more sanctions as a warning to those countries normalising with Syria. As one of the bill’s sponsors stated, “Countries choosing to normalise with the unrepentant mass murderer and drug trafficker, Bashar al-Assad, are headed down the wrong path.”[xxiii]

The State Department, trying to walk a fine line between the pressures to maintain an antagonistic stance toward Assad and opportunities to engage on specific issues, said that, “Secretary (of State Antony) Blinken made clear that the United States will not normalise relations with the Assad regime and does not support others normalising until there is authentic, UN-facilitated political progress in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254,” a 2015 resolution that calls for free and fair elections in Syria under UN supervision.[xxiv] While Blinken has driven home this point to US allies in the region, he added that “they have to make their own decisions.”[xxv]

Moving Forward

The agreements between Damascus and its Arab brothers cannot be expected to pass muster for long.

So, it seems to be a bit of a dance right now regarding normalising with Assad. The agreements between Damascus and its Arab brothers cannot be expected to pass muster for long. Jordan is already taking some matters into its own hands with regard to the Captagon trade, recently shooting down a drone carrying the drug from Syria[xxvi] as well as launching an attack against a suspected drug smuggling centre just across the border.[xxvii] Maybe that is the price Damascus is paying for rehabilitation, i.e. if it cannot take care of matters, others will do so unilaterally.

Damascus will not open its arms to Syrian refugees returning home either, as the Syrian government really does not have the capacity nor the will to integrate them back into the country. This is a situation that could become ugly very fast, particularly for refugees themselves. Whether other countries in the region will cast a blind eye toward this for the sake of regional harmony is the question. As long as the US Treasury Department is poised to enact punishments against countries and companies doing business with Syria, any sort of meaningful reconstruction aid for Syria from countries in the region will be minimal at best.

With ninety percent of the population below the poverty line in Syria[xxviii] amid a host of other problems, this may, in the end, be a lot of pomp and circumstance but with little substance, diplomatic window dressing with little to show for it when you look through the window—a function of other forces rather than an end in and of itself.

One thing seems inevitable. Once before Assad came in from the cold. His government was initially accused of carrying out the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005.[xxix] The international community came down hard on Syria, forcing it to remove its troops that had long been stationed in Lebanon.[xxx] Many predicted this was the end for Assad. Not so. He adeptly used the crisis to strengthen his position in the country. And within a few years, Syrian diplomats were participating in a US-sponsored peace conference[xxxi] and Assad and his wife visited (and were feted in) Paris.[xxxii] Assad waited patiently for circumstances to change in a way that allowed him back into the international community.

Perhaps it is only a matter of time before the West engages with Assad.

The Syrian civil war has presented a much more challenging situation for him. This time the bombs did not go off in a neighbouring country but all over Syria itself and for over a decade. The diplomatic isolation and accompanying sanctions were and are much deeper than in 2005.

With the help of motivated allies in Iran and Russia along with a tightly knit core of supporters in the country, in contrast to the larger, but fragmented opposition, he survived again. He has stayed in power long enough for regional and international circumstances to change, allowing for a window of opportunity to come in from the cold one more time.

Perhaps it is only a matter of time before the West engages with Assad. But there is still much work to be done, as his country is in shambles, with significant portions of it still outside of Syrian government control. Assad may feel triumphant, but perhaps the bigger question for his and his country’s long-term future is not whether he can continue to normalise relations with the outside world, but whether he is able to normalise relations with his own people, a population that is weary, wary, and regardless of affiliation, wants something much better than that which exists today—or even that which existed before the civil war.

[i] The White House Office of the Press Secretary (2011), ‘Remarks by the President on the Middle East and North Africa’, 19 May 2011,
[ii] Mardell, M. (2013), ‘Obama’s half-hearted push into Syria’, BBC News, 14 June 2013,
[iii] The White House (2016), ‘The Historic Deal that Will Prevent Iran from Acquiring a Nuclear Weapon’, June 2023,
[iv] U.S. Department of Defense (2017), ‘Trump Orders Missile Attack in Retaliation for Syrian Chemical Strikes, 6 April 2017,
[v] The White House Office of the Press Secretary (2018), ‘Statement by President Trump on Syria’, 13 April 2018,
[vi] Barnes, J.E. and Schmitt, E. (2019), ‘Trump Orders Withdrawal of U.S. Troops From Northern Syria’, The New York Times, 16 October 2019,
[vii] France24 (2019) ‘Turkey launches air and ground military operations against Kurds in northern Syria’, 9 October 2019,
[viii] Emmons, A., Chavez, A. and Lacy, A. (2019), ‘Joe Biden, in Departure from Obama Policy, Says he Would Make Saudi Arabia a “Pariah”’, The Intercept, 21 November 2019,
[ix] Sanger, D.E. (2022), ‘Biden’s National Security Strategy Focuses on China, Russia and Democracy at Home’, The New York Times, 12 October 2022,
[x] Middle East Eye (2022), ‘Gulf states abstain as UN suspends Russia from rights council over Ukraine abuses’, 7 April 2022,
[xi] Nereim, V. (2023), ‘Saudi Arabia and Iran Agree to Restore Ties, in Talks Hosted by China’, The New York Times, 10 March 2023,
[xii] Holmes, O., Morresi, E. and Sheehy, F. (2023), ‘Thousands dead, millions displaced: the earthquake fallout in Turkey and Syria’, The Guardian, 21 February 2023,
[xiii] Hilani, F. (2023), ‘Disaster Politics and Earthquake Diplomacy in Syria and Turkey’, Arab Center Washington DC, 6 March 2023,
[xiv] Marsi, F. (2023), ‘US exempts Syrian earthquake aid from sanctions’, Al Jazeera, 10 February 2023,
[xv] Said, S. and Faucon, B. (2023), ‘Syria Readmitted to Arab League, Bringing Assad Back Into the Fold’, The Wall Street Journal, 7 May 2023,
[xvi] Reuters (2018), ‘UAE reopens Syria embassy in boost for Assad’, 27 December 2018,
[xvii] The Economist (2021), ‘Syria has become a narco-state’, 19 July 2021,
[xviii] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2022), ‘Syria Situation Response’, 16 June 2022,,23%2C500%20in%202018%E2%80%932019).
[xix] France24 (2023), ‘Turkey kicks off Syria housing project for refugee returns’, 25 May 2023,
[xx] Al Jazeera (2022), ‘Lebanon begins “voluntary” repatriation of Syrian refugees’, 26 October 2022,
[xxi] Syrian Observer (2023), ‘Americans Negotiating with Assad in Oman: A Comprehensive Political Paper’, 17 April 2023,
[xxii] House Foreign Affairs Committee (2023), ‘MCCaul, Wilson, Gonzalez, Hill, Boyle Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Hold Assad Regime Accountable’, 11 May 2023,
[xxiii] Psaledakis, D. and Gebeily, M. (2023), “US lawmakers introduce bill to combat normalization with Syria’s Assad,” Reuters, 11 May, 2023,
[xxiv] Al Jazeera (2023), ‘US says it will not normalise relations with Syria’s Assad,’ 5 May, 2023,
[xxv] Harb, A. (2023), ‘Conundrum: How the US is dealing with Assad normalization,’ 19 May, 2023,
[xxvi] Farhat, B. (2023), ‘Jordan shoots down drone carrying drugs from Syria’, Al-Monitor, 13 June 2023,
[xxvii] Al-Khalidi, S. (2023), ‘Jordan strikes Iran-linked drugs factory in southern Syria’, Reuters, 8 May 2023,
[xxviii] United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (2023), ‘Syrian Arab Republic’, 29 June 2023,
[xxix] Bell, J. (2021), ‘Rafik al-Hariri’s murder was “Iranian-Syrian decision,” executed by Hezbollah: Tlass’, Alarabiya News,
[xxx] Strucke, J. (2005), ‘Syria confirms full troop withdrawal from Lebanon’, The Guardian, 30 March 2005,
[xxxi] Mohammed, A. (2007), ‘U.S. courts Arabs by inviting Syria to peace talks’, Reuters, 28 September 2007,
[xxxii] Black, I. (2008), ‘Boycott lifted as France hosts Syria’s president’, The Guardian, 12 July 2008,

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