Syria back in the fold
At the Arab League’s annual summit in May, Syria was welcomed back after a 12-year suspension. It lost its seat at the table over the gross human rights violations committed during its civil war. Its return has come as regional disagreements are being patched over, at the prompting of Saudi Arabia, with China playing an increasingly active role. While regional alliance-building could bring some positive effects, such as the end of conflict in Yemen, none of it will bring accountability for human rights abuses of the kind Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, is responsible for. It falls to regional and global civil society to keep up the pressure to end impunity.
It was all smiles. Syria’s authoritarian leader Bashar al-Assad was warmly greeted by his Saudi Arabian host, Mohammad bin Salman. The occasion was the annual summit of the Arab League, held in Saudi Arabia in May.
There’s nothing particularly new in fellow dictators using the secure surroundings of summits to meet up, safely insulated from public dissent. But it had been 12 years since Assad could join in.
Syria was suspended from the Arab League – the 22-country member organisation stretching across the Middle East and North and East Africa – following the eruption of its civil war in 2011, initially triggered by widespread anti-government protests. Assad unleashed sheer brutality. His forces are credibly alleged to have used chemical weapons, barrel bombs and cluster munitions, while Syria’s Russian allies have provided devastating aerial bombardment. The United Nations (UN) has estimated that over 300,000 civilians have been killed as a direct result of the conflict, with true figures likely higher. By any count, the biggest killers have been the Syrian military and its associated militias.
Assad has evaded any form of justice for his crimes, although two of his former intelligence officials have been found guilty of crimes against humanity by German courts acting on the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Now it’s as though none of this ever happened. Syria has been readmitted to the Arab League. Assad’s renewed participation makes clear he can expect zero accountability over the gross human rights violations he’s presided over. It also communicates the status of bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de factor ruler, as regional supremo, the one pulling the strings.
A reengineered region
The move reflects bin Salman’s determination to rework regional relations, with Saudi Arabia at their heart, in the service of his sweeping Vision 2030 economic development plan. Saudi Arabia recently put an end to its simmering dispute with Qatar. But the long-running faultline has been the division between Saudi Arabia and allies on one side and Iran and allies on the other.
Syria’s isolation pushed it more closely towards Iran. It also brought it into closer alignment with Russia, whose military intervention proved decisive in enabling Assad to regain control of the majority of Syria’s territory.
In contrast, Saudi Arabia’s strongest global ally is traditionally the US government. But this recent move signals a willingness to break ranks, since the US government would prefer Syria’s continuing isolation – although an evident loss of interest in the Syrian crisis among democratic states can only have helped encourage Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s fossil fuel-based power has only been further strengthened by Russia’s war on Ukraine. Western states have scrambled to replace Russian oil and gas supplies with those from elsewhere, and prices have soared. Last year bin Salman played host to US President Joe Biden, who’d come to plead with the Saudi government to extract more oil; if it had done so, the global price would have fallen. But Saudi Arabia – lynchpin of the cartel formed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and 10 associated non-member states that include Russia, collectively known as OPEC+ – offered virtually no movement, and this year the group even cut production.
High prices have given bin Salman continuing leverage over western leaders, who’ve now dropped the outrage they once expressed over the state’s assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Meanwhile abundant oil revenues enable extensive sportswashing and other intensive forms of PR that burnish Saudi Arabia’s image and distract from its many human rights abuses.
If US influence has declined, then alongside Russia, China has become more active in the region, as in other parts of the world. In March it brokered a surprise agreement for Saudi Arabia and Iran to resume diplomatic relations, suspended since 2016. The US government’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, with the aim of countering Chinese influence there, may ironically have opened the door to China in the Gulf region.
What all recent machinations have in common is that they’re the actions of a handful of men heading unaccountable elites making decisions in their own interest, buffered from dissent by extensive machineries of repression.
Amid these shifting regional dynamics, Assad took his first tentative steps towards rehabilitation in March 2022: the United Arab Emirates (UAE), customarily a close Saudi ally – although recently relations have come under stain over the conflict in Yemen – welcomed him in a visit, his first to any Arab country since the start of the war. The UAE had previously been the first to reopen its Syrian embassy.
Since then, politicians from multiple states in the region have visited Syria, incrementally chipping away at the policy of isolation. The devastating earthquake Syria and Turkey experienced in February provided a further opportunity for the region’s states to renormalise relations; the Syrian government took a heavily top-down approach to the distribution of aid that obstructed independent responses, making Assad the gatekeeper. Assad followed up with a visit to Oman this March, a key move, since the state, while a Saudi ally, has traditionally maintained friendlier relations with Iran.
Self-interest the order of the day
One of the reasons states may have wanted to bring Syria back into the fold is the region’s booming illegal trade in the drug Captagon, a highly addictive synthetic amphetamine. Syria is said to produce 80 per cent of the world’s Captagon supply, and Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad, is believed to be heavily involved the industry. Syria is accused of becoming a narco-state, with Captagon now its main export, earning it vital foreign currency that enables it to ride out sanctions.
Other states in the region may want to wean Syria off this destructive trade, but Syria will expect economic help and support in challenging sanctions to do so – and that will still leave open the question of whether it can be trusted.
Another area of self-interest relates to the region’s many Syrian refugees. Around 5.5 million refugees live in Syria’s neighbouring countries; along with over 6.8 million internally displaced people, this means more than half of Syria’s population has been uprooted by the war.
Governments in the region want those refugees to start returning home – and they’re not particularly bothered about the obvious risks to people returning, including arrest and detention in Syria’s already bulging jails, particularly for those identified as enemies of the regime. Numerous abuses have been documented against those who’ve already returned home.
Abuses of returning refugees are among the human rights violations that have continued in Syria as Assad has reasserted control. Arbitrary arrests and torture of people who express dissent are ongoing, with children among those targeted. Extrajudicial killings continue. A cybercrime law passed in 2022 is among the state’s latest weapons to try to put an end to dissent and independent scrutiny of Assad and his regime.
For Syria, alongside resources, what it gets out of its reengagement seems clear: Assad can position himself as a legitimate leader. He can do so knowing there are no prospects of a challenge to impunity coming from the region, and no pressure to seek any kind of truce or power-sharing arrangement with the forces that oppose him, which still control significant parts of Syria. He can keep on with the killing.
Assad used his speech at the summit to call for the region to ‘rearrange our affairs with the least amount of foreign interference’. But what he means, of course, is interference in the form of accountability; closer Chinese and Russian cooperation is welcome. Assad is beholden to Vladimir Putin for his decisive intervention in the war, and is repaying him through staunch support for the invasion of Ukraine – Syria is one of a handful of states that have voted with Russia on a series of UN resolutions. The advantage for Assad and his fellow dictators is that they swap partnerships with more democratic states that at least pay lip service to human rights for those with no interest in the matter.
Assad’s rehabilitation will be taken to the global level this November. The UAE, host of the latest UN climate summit, COP28, has invited Assad to attend, further showing how states with closed civic space support each other. A vital opportunity to address the climate crisis is being used by the host state for its own ends.
No accountability without democracy
Changed regional relationships may also signal an end to the long-running brutal conflict in Yemen, where Iran and Saudi Arabia have backed different sides, helping to sustain a war that has cost an estimated 377,000 lives. Now Saudi Arabia appears to want to see it end so it can move on.
Anything that ends the killing must be welcome – but again, there’s no hope of states in the region holding to account those responsible for grotesque human rights violations.
The reality is that Syria hardly stands out in the Arab League. It’s an autocrats’ club. Every single one of its 22 states imposes serious civic space restrictions, with its members severely limiting people’s ability to speak out, protest and organise. Iran and Saudi Arabia have a history of being at odds, but their response to dissent is remarkably similar: to harass, detain and prosecute people on the basis of biased and opaque judicial processes, and when all else fails, execute people for protesting and speaking out to demand human rights.
What all recent machinations have in common – the diplomatic dances between Iran, Saudi Arabia and others, the rehabilitation of Assad, the deepening links with China and Russia – is that they’re the actions of a handful of men heading unaccountable elites making decisions in their own interest, safe in the knowledge they’re buffered from dissent by extensive machineries of repression.
Democracy is no guarantee against bad foreign policy choices, as the US government’s history of foreign interventions indicates, but it at least offers an opportunity to express disagreement, advocate for alternatives, penalise politicians at the ballot box and demand accountability over human rights violations. In Syria, and in the Arab League fold it’s been welcomed back into, this isn’t allowed to happen.
In this context it falls on the broader international community – including UN institutions – and regional and global civil society to continue to expose human rights violations and work to hold those behind them to account. Their work must continue because so much is at stake.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
United Nations institutions and regional and global civil society should continue to work to hold the Syrian government to account for its human rights violations.
States should commit not to return refugees to Syria until it can be guaranteed they will be safe from persecution.
Democratic states should pressure the United Arab Emirates to rescind Bashar al-Assad’s invitation to the COP28 climate change summit.
Cover photo by Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images