03/21/2023, 12.23
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Arab world ready to re-embrace Assad (and shelve rights problem)

by Dario Salvi

In recent days, the Syrian president has visited the United Arab Emirates. His wife was also with him, her first visit abroad since the beginning of the conflict. Abu Dhabi leads Damascus' rapprochement policy in the Arab world. The Arab League is also ready to discuss reintegration. The hundreds of phantom deaths in government prisons.

Milan (AsiaNews) - Opposed, isolated, fought with weapons on his own territory, still marked by a conflict ongoing for 12 years at the cost of hundreds of thousands of victims and millions of displaced people.

Yet today, rehabilitated, so much so that an agreement could soon be signed that - if finalised - that would end up restoring the ancient ties between Damascus and most of the nations of the Middle East, also and above all to limit the growing Iranian influence.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is on an official visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and is working to weave a new diplomatic network with the Arab world, which is increasingly willing to re-embrace him within a framework of alliances that were once consolidated.

Arab and European sources explain, this decision would guarantee more aid, subject to a series of requirements that the Syrian authorities would have to accept and respect.

Post-earthquake diplomacy

Recently, the nations of the Arab world, led by Jordan, have begun talks during which they have proposed a billion-euro aid package to help Damascus rebuild a nation battered by internal conflict and hit by the poverty bomb.

There has also been intense diplomatic activity vis-à-vis Washington and Brussels, to obtain at least an easing of sanctions. In return Assad would have to enter into serious talks with the oppositions, welcome Arab troops on the ground to ensure a safe corridor for the return of refugees (mostly in Turkey), fight drug trafficking (starting with captagon) and block the growing Iranian influence. 

For now, it is still too early to speak of a breakthrough and negotiations are still at an early stage. The Syrian leader himself has shown no interest in discussing political reforms or accepting foreign armies on the territory, as several sources confirm.

Similarly, the Western powers also do not seem willing to loosen their grip on sanctions until the human rights situation improves.

However, the devastating earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria on 6 February may have unblocked a long-stalled situation by offering Assad himself the chance to capitalise on the humanitarian disaster to reduce - with the exception of Russia, Iran and a few other states in the world - his international isolation. 

Another key factor is the change brought about by Riyadh, long hostile to a rapprochement with the ruling Alawite leadership in Damascus.

Last month, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan called for an end to the status quo on Syria, to allow for a response to the long-term humanitarian crisis; more recently, the Wahhabi kingdom has re-established relations with the Islamic Republic thanks to the mediation of China, showing openness to a change of course in the regional balance.

The Arab League itself, which groups 22 nations and suspended Syria in 2011 in the aftermath of the violent repression of street protests, is ready to discuss reintegration, an appointment set for the next summit planned by the end of the year in Saudi Arabia itself.

The role of the Emirates

Pulling the diplomatic strings to bring Damascus back into the orbit of the Arab world are the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where President Assad has visited in recent days after having previously visited Oman.

The Sultanate is the only Arab nation to have maintained relations with the Syrian government even in the aftermath of the war, while Abu Dhabi is the first to have normalised relations in 2018 when the conflict was still raging.

It was also the Emirates that were the first to help Syria in the days following the earthquake, giving new impetus to diplomacy that could prompt other Middle Eastern nations to follow suit.

During the meeting, Assad praised their role in strengthening relations within Arab countries, attacking those who seek to break ties between nations that should have 'brotherly' relations with each other.

Since the Arab Spring, the Syrian president has made rare trips abroad, with the exception of allies Iran and Russia, and always alone. The stopover in the Emirates was also attended by his wife Asma al-Assad, a first in a decade, confirming the different climate in the area that has also emerged in the revival of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Assad himself called the turnaround in relations between the Wahhabi kingdom and the Islamic republic a "splendid surprise", adding that "Saudi policy is taking a different direction towards Syria". 

Abu Dhabi has pledged more than 100 million euros in aid to Syria for the post-earthquake emergency phase, by far the largest sum provided by a single nation, in addition to sending relief teams and vehicles, tons of essential goods and medicines.

Moreover, in February, Eau Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan paid a visit to the country, the first and only senior Arab official to personally bring solidarity and closeness.

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati analyst, stresses to Afp that the time has come for Abu Dhabi and "many Arab states" to "reconcile" with Assad and "see Syria return to the Arab League and the Arab fold", turning "enemies of the past into friends of tomorrow".

Various sources within the emirate agree that it is a priority to reach a "political solution" to avert a further resurgence of terrorism and extremism that have proliferated undisturbed for so long thanks to the conflict.

What remains is the wall erected by the United States and Europe who maintain that the earthquake does not represent a reason for a 'radical change' in policy towards Damascus, guilty of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and the use of chemical weapons.

Finally, there is resistance that also persists in the Arab world, in particular on the axis of Qatar, Kuwait and Morocco, which have never sent aid to the government-controlled earthquake zones.

Assad's prisons

There is one final, but not secondary aspect to consider in reintegrating Assad and the government (or regime, according to most) into the international arena. The human rights violations that, according to NGO reports, continue to this day in the silence of the international community.

A report published by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (Snhr) shows that at least 547 detainees died last year in government prisons. Damascus has also reportedly 'registered thousands of people who have been forcibly disappeared as dead, including leading activists who led the popular uprising' in the early stages of the protest.

The activist group claims to have received over a thousand death certificates between 2018 and 2021.

According to Snhr's data, 1,069 individuals 'who disappeared in prisons between the beginning of 2018 and November 2022 were registered as having died' of natural causes, including 24 children, 21 women and 16 doctors. Sources close to the opposition report at least 500,000 people still locked up in prisons or interrogation centres.

Human Rights Watch (Hrw), is also higly critical of the resumption of relations with Damascus which without real change, political reforms and civil rights would simply be a free pass for the abuses committed by Assad in recent years.


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