The Platform

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Valentina Petrov)

The Arab world is ready to welcome Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back into the fold.

In the last few months, there have been a lot of diplomatic initiatives taken up by the Gulf states to improve relations with Damascus. The most significant was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud. This meeting is viewed as the most significant step towards ending Syria’s decade-long regional isolation.

In a recent visit to Abu Dhabi in March, Assad was given the full red-carpet treatment which was a brazen display of defiance against the United States and Europe who insist on the continued isolation of Syria. Oman also warmly welcomed Assad, on his first official trip to the country in more than a decade. In the past, depending on your perspective, Syria has long been considered an important player in the Middle East. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Syria hoisted the banner of Arab nationalism. But that was then and now when one hears the word Assad, they are bound to associate it with crimes against humanity and mass atrocities.

Just after the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Syria was diplomatically isolated throughout much of the Arab world. But dynamics have changed in Syria’s favour. It’s a reality that almost everyone agrees on. The Syrian government, and Assad in particular, have shown an extraordinary ability to survive.

The recent talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran mediated by China have resulted in the re-establishment of diplomatic relations after seven years. This is having a domino effect throughout the whole region. The Iranians have welcomed Arab efforts to reengage with Assad. The Saudis have taken the lead in welcoming Syria back into the Arab fold and having the Arab League reinstate Syria’s membership which had been suspended during the country’s civil war.

Having more cordial relations with Arab states comes with some important benefits for Syria. It could result in more humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to help rebuild the country where over 90% of Syrians live in abject poverty. Rebuilding Syria will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, which neither the Russians nor the Iranians have. For Assad, the only viable option are the wealthy Arab states like Saudi Arabia or the UAE.

However, there are certain expectations of Syria. It has to redefine its political approach. The Syrian government should hold renewed talks with the opposition, allow Arab forces to be stationed in Syria to protect returning refugees and stop smuggling in the region.

Overall good relations with the Arab world may provide Damascus with maneuvering capabilities among a wider range of actors and therefore reduce its dependence on Tehran. By doing so, Assad may even demand that Iran and by extension, Hezbollah, reduce their presence on Syrian soil.

Syria is set to continue its gradual reintegration into the Arab world. While each member of the Arab League has a unique perspective on the Syrian crisis as well as Assad’s leadership, Arab governments seem to be prepared to let bygones be bygones.

Manish Rai is a geopolitical analyst and columnist for the Middle East and Af-Pak region and the editor of geopolitical news agency ViewsAround (VA). He has done reporting from Jordon, Iran, and Afghanistan. His work has been quoted in the British Parliament.