Arab world beginning to embrace Syria, 12 years into war
By Manolo G. Moreno
Beirut, Mar 15 (EFE).- Twelve years after a popular uprising plunged Syria into a protracted civil war, the Arab world has started to extend an olive branch to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in the form of “earthquake diplomacy.”
Syrians began to rise up against the authoritarian government on March 15, 2011, in what would soon develop into massive demonstrations throughout the entire country as part of the wider Arab Spring movement sweeping the Middle East.
In response, Assad’s government launched a brutal crackdown, leading many countries to vehemently oppose his regime.
However, the Syrian president has over the past 12 years remained in power, and has managed to recapture most of the regions that were under the opposition’s control during the armed conflict.
Since the devastating earthquakes that struck Syria on February 6, several Arab nations have made several high-level visits and deliveries of urgent humanitarian aid, opening the door to potential reconciliation with Damascus.
“The earthquake offered the Arab states who were still boycotting Damascus an opportunity to put forward a plan for renewing contact with al-Assad that they had been considering for months,” Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the US University of Oklahoma, tells Efe.
The tragedy caused some countries, including Washington, to make exceptions to international sanctions against the Syrian leadership.
“The US had been policing the boycott. Its move to lift sanctions, even temporarily, sent a signal to regional governments that they could do the same, which they did,” Landis says.
All eyes now are on mainly Sunni Saudi Arabia after it publicly acknowledged that it needed to change its approach toward Syria in recent weeks.
Landis explains that this new approach would mean “engaging officials and ultimately Assad,” pointing out that much will depend on how Damascus responds to the preconditions Riyadh puts forward.
Those demands, Landis says, include launching serious negotiations with the Syrian opposition to reach a political solution to the civil conflict, and weakening relations with Iran, one of Syria’s main allies.
“All of these demands are vague enough that Damascus can move forward on them,” the expert highlights.
WOLF IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING
Syria’s alliance with Iran has been seen as one of the main obstacles to normalizing relations with the rest of the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, which had severed relations with Iran since 2016.
But Riyadh and Tehran, the region’s major Sunni and Shiite powers, last week agreed to restore diplomatic relations, a step that could lead to a reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Syria.
Landis believes that Saudi will be “key to Syria’s eventual return to the Arab League,” from which it has been suspended since 2011 due to the repression of protests.
The apparent outreach to al-Assad in the last month has drawn harsh criticism from the Syrian opposition and several NGOs.
“Arab states seeking to normalize relationships should recognize that the Syrian government in power today is the same one that has forcibly disappeared tens of thousands of people and other serious human rights violations against its citizens even before the uprisings began,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned recently.