After 12 Years, Syria Joins the Arab League

After 12 Years, Syria Joins the Arab League

After 12 Years, Syria Joins the Arab League

Will regional reconciliation provide a chance for de-escalation and end a damaging civil war?


Washington, D.C.—Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad took part last week in an Arab League summit in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. This step brought to an end the suspension that the League’s most powerful members had long insisted on, as part of the regime-change campaign that—working closely with Washington—they had pursued against Assad since 2011.

The steps other League states have been taking toward reconciliation with Assad clearly disappointed many in the Biden administration, who had worked to dissuade them from doing so. But they bring hope that the brutal civil war that has devastated Syria’s 22 million people since 2011 may now, finally, be winding down.

The Biden administration’s disappointment in the collapse of the anti-Assad coalition has been echoed in much of the corporate media. Two Wall Street Journal analysts wrote that the League’s decision to reinstate Syria’s membership “represents a rejection of US interests in the region.” That judgment, though huffily expressed, did refer to a deeper truth: The 50-year period in which the petro-states of the Arabian Peninsula remained under Washington’s sway is now coming to an abrupt halt.

Just 10 weeks ago, Wang Yi, China’s highest-ranking diplomat, had stunned Washington by publicly unveiling a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. For many years until then, Saudi Arabia had been a staunch and very powerful US ally, and played a key role in US and Israeli plans to contain or combat Iran. Riyadh’s clear defection from the US-led camp has had a broad, and still continuing, impact on global oil markets, on the world economy, and on the whole of West Asia (the region formerly known by the Eurocentric moniker “the Middle East”).

The Saudi-Iranian rapprochement has already significantly shifted two of the region’s most deeply rooted and damaging civil wars toward some form of resolution. These are the wars in Yemen—where these two powers, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have all been fighting a brutal proxy war since 2015—and in Syria.

Those conflicts have inflicted apocalyptic levels of suffering on the peoples of both countries. But official Washington currently has widely diverging attitudes toward them. In Yemen, the United States gave some early military support to Saudi Arabia’s campaign against the Iran-allied Houthi movement. But that support waned after the extent of the casualties and the intractability of the conflict became evident, and there is now broad support in Washington for any moves that can de-escalate or resolve it. United States policy toward the conflict in Syria is very different. Ever since the summer of 2011, Washington has been a staunch supporter, or even leader, of the project to overthrow the Assad government. So Saudi Arabia’s defection from that project—which has also been paralleled by the UAE, Oman, Egypt, and other formerly staunch US allies—signals a tough new political challenge for Washington.

Today, the situation on the ground in Syria is very complex. Syrian government forces control roughly 60 percent of the country’s terrain, including its major cities. The government has invited Russian and Iranian forces to help it. The country also suffers the military occupation of parts of its terrain by no fewer than three hostile foreign militaries. The Israelis have occupied Golan, in the southwest, since 1967. The Turkish military occupies a portion of northwestern Syria, and has extended an informal umbrella of support over terrain even deeper into Syria that is controlled by an Al Qaeda–linked Syrian opposition movement called Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Along Syria’s eastern border with Iraq, there is a deployment of US forces that also extends a support umbrella over the Kurdish-dominated “Syrian Democratic Forces” alliance that controls Syria’s richest grain-growing and oil-producing areas, in the northeast.

Ever since 1979, Washington has maintained harsh economic sanctions on Syria. In 2011, these were tightened yet further, as part of the overt policy of regime change in Damascus that President Barack Obama adopted in the summer of 2011 in response to the repression there. (These sanctions have never been authorized by the United Nations, which refers to them as “unilateral coercive measures.”) Then, in February, the northwest of the country—including terrain on both sides of the civil war “front line”—was struck by the two earthquakes, which had also struck Turkey.

There are further complex wrinkles in Syria’s situation. Such as the fact that in March, Israel repeatedly bombed the airport in Aleppo, which was the main conduit for aid coming in for Syria’s quake survivors. Or that NATO member Turkey is strongly opposed to the Kurdish movements that dominate the pro-US alliance in the northeast, and periodically bombs or otherwise harasses them. Or that the Kurdish movements have sent out feelers for a reconciliation with the Assad government. Or that the presidential election, still proceeding in Turkey after an indecisive first round led to a runoff slated for May 28, may lead to deep and unpredictable changes in its policy toward Syria.

But the steps that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other formerly staunch members of the anti-Assad alliance have already taken toward reconciling with Assad will anyway have broad consequences across the whole of Syria, given the role those countries have played in instigating and sustaining the anti-Assad movement since its very beginning, in 2011.

Back in the spring of 2011, the anti-Assad movement started out as a string of street protests in various cities, inspired by the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia and Egypt. In Syria, as in Egypt, the protesters met with harsh repression. But in Syria, many of the protest leaders swiftly turned to violence of their own; and that move received generous and speedy outside backing—from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and, soon enough, from the United States. Weapons and money flooded in for the anti-Assad forces across the Turkish and Jordanian borders. In both those countries, the United States established “military operations centers” to coordinate the huge shipments of arms and money that those other countries, along with the CIA and the Pentagon, poured in to the anti-Assad forces inside the country—most of which rapidly turned out to be dominated by Islamist extremists allied to either Al Qaeda or the Islamic State.

In parallel with their donations of arms and money to the Syrian opposition, the petro-states of the Arabian Peninsula also mounted extremely well-funded global influence campaigns whose goals varied according to the target audience. For conservative Muslim audiences, these campaigns stressed the apocalyptic, anti-secular nature of the Syrian opposition. For Western audiences, they branded the opposition as deeply democratic and aligned with Western values.

There is considerable evidence that Assad is a tough-minded, sometimes brutal leader (as are, for what it’s worth, the leaders of the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia). But many of the claims that widely cited (and Gulf-funded) Western scholars have made about the depth of Assad’s moral turpitude have been open to credible challenge. For example, accusations that his forces were responsible for chemical weapon attacks inside Syria have been openly challenged by the veteran telemetry expert Theodore Postol, and others.

Especially since the end of the US-Soviet Cold War, many Americans have been attracted to the idea that our foreign policy should be based on morality. But the version of morality that’s most widespread in today’s America is worryingly vulnerable to the influence campaigns of parties that seek to entangle the United States in regime-change operations in various places. And it pays little heed to the long-existing wisdom that war itself is something that inflicts deep harm on everyone caught in its tentacles, and therefore that bringing a halt to an existing war is itself a deeply moral endeavor.

Regarding the war in Syria, the recent “defection” of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan from the pro-war camp greatly increases the chances that the intra-Syrian differences that sparked the war can now be shifted from the battlefield to the negotiating table. The United Nations has been calling for negotiations since it adopted Resolution 2254 in 2015, which calls for political reconciliation followed by the holding of elections. Unraveling the extremely complex situation inside Syria won’t be easy. But in Syria as in Yemen, the big regional reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia now provides a final chance for de-escalating and finally ending a very damaging civil war.

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