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Assad's Normalisation: A Mirage of Stability Amidst Syria's Tragedy

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

On April 13, 2023, a final statement was issued by GCC states, as well as Jordan, Egypt and Iraq following their consultative meeting. Among other things, it focused on the importance of reaching a political solution in Syria and did so without making reference to international resolutions, including UN resolution 2254. Instead, the statement put forward six points, which include: "combating terrorism", "supporting state institutions", and "the return of refugees and displaced persons".

Incidentally, these are all points that form part of the Syrian regime’s narrative, led by Bashar al-Assad, for a proposed settlement in Syria. Moreover, they are presented as being in exchange for assurances from the Syrian regime on issues such as drug control, the delivery of aid, and support for measures which promote stability. This comes after the Syrian regime regained its seat in the Arab League, officially ending more than a decade of isolation on the world stage, a development which was strongly opposed by Western powers and Syrian activists. Assad, whose regime is accused of killing more than half a million people and displacing millions more, was officially received in Saudi Arabia, which had previously supported the armed opposition that sought to overthrow his regime and has more recently engineered his return to the Arab fold. However, if we analyze this Arab normalisation of Assad through a pragmatic or Machiavellian lens while ignoring the humanitarian and ethical implications, it becomes evident that there are no tangible benefits for the Syrian people, and it remains unclear how this development will address their ongoing suffering.

Let us look at the aforementioned three points in closer detail. The proposed political solution of Arab states included a point about combating terrorism through cooperation with the Syrian regime. Here, the question arises: What do they mean by terrorism? In the consciousness of the Syrian people, the regime led by Bashar Al-Assad embodies its very definition.

It is not possible to find any form of terrorism in the Syrian context which exceeds that of the Syrian regime, whether in terms of scale or manner. Moreover, if what is meant by the word "terrorism" are the Islamist military factions, then despite their perpetration of horrific crimes against the Syrian people, we cannot cooperate with Bashar al-Assad to combat them. A terrorist cannot meaningfully fight and defeat another terrorist.

As for their plan to “support state institutions”, this is a slogan that the Syrian regime has not grown tired of repeating since the outset of the Syrian revolution. It is a slogan repeated by the regime with the aim of portraying itself as a protector and sponsor of the state’s stability and a bulwark against its collapse. But is it true? We need only look at the state institutions to realize just how catastrophic the situation in Syria is in terms of services and dealing with the conditions of citizens. This was clearly demonstrated in their handling of the recent earthquake disaster.

Despite the international aid sent to the Syrian regime to overcome this crisis, there were clear signs of the regime's involvement in the theft of aid, including videos and photographs of aid being re-sold by street vendors. Citizens did not notice any improvement in the quality of support provided by state institutions in the aftermath of the tragedy. The so-called support of state institutions which Arab states are discussing boils down to the regime devising new and creative ways to steal the state's wealth at the expense of the Syrian people.

The most amusing point, however, is the condition that Arab states have put forward before the Syrian regime related to the combating of drug smuggling in Syria. During the onset of regional normalization, the Jordanian Air Force carried out an airstrike on one of many Syrian drug smugglers, Mura'i al-Ramathan, in southern Syria. The operation killed his wife and seven children in the process and echoed the approach followed by the Syrian regime in “combating” the drug trade within the country prior to the revolution. Simply, the regime would enable its cronies to manufacture and smuggle drugs into the country, before proceeding to chase small-scale dealers in cities and exploit them through blackmail.

At the time, the Ministry of Interior also established a special division called the "Narcotics Branch" in most Syrian provinces. The procedures and methods followed by this branch were no different from other state security and intelligence divisions. But the brutality experienced within branches of the narcotics division reached new heights in some provinces after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution. Like many other places, they were transformed into centres for the detention and torture of activists and opponents of the Syrian regime.

The Assad family has a history of cooperation with influential individuals affiliated with Hezbollah in Lebanon as part of the drug smuggling process into Syria. These relationships are not a well-kept secret from Syrians. For instance, there are close connections between Nouh Zaiter’, a prominent drug trafficker linked to Hezbollah, and members of the Assad family such as ‘Waseem Badee Al-Assad’, ‘Fawaz Al-Assad’, and ‘Ayman al-Jaber’.

Of course, none of this is new, but Arab states are now concerned because Assad’s narco-state is not limiting its activities to its borders.

Neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia have been suffering for a long time from captagon smuggling activity worth hundreds of millions of dollars which they are frequently intercepting at their borders. Drug manufacturing became a major source of income for the Assad family after the revolution. Rosie Diaz, the spokesperson for the British government in the Middle East and North Africa, has stated that Maher Al-Assad, brother of Bashar Al-Assad and head of the IRGC-led 4th division of the Syrian Arab Army, personally oversees the trafficking of captagon outside of Syria, but he is not an outlier. The drug trade and its supply to neighbouring countries from areas under regime control, such as the port of Latakia, has increased the wealth of various individuals close to Assad, as well as militias and warlords, all at the expense of the Syrian people.

Asking the Syrian regime to combat the regional drug trade is the equivalent of the U.S. government asking Pablo Escobar in the 1980s to do the same. Arab states are unwilling to admit that the drug crisis will not end as long as the Syrian regime remains in power.

Finally, and most notably, Arab states had mentioned the return of refugees as part of their plan. This is the most discussed issue in neighbouring countries of Syria, especially Lebanon and Turkey. The Lebanese government and security forces have already begun inhumanely handing over refugees to the Syrian regime, which has in turn sought revenge against them through arrest, torture and forced conscription. In a 51-page report titled “You’re Going to Your Death”, Amnesty has documented dozens of cases of Syrian refugees who have faced detention, enforced disappearance and torture, including sexual violence, at the hands of state security forces on return. As for Turkey, the fate of Syrian refugees has been a focal point in the recent elections and the power struggle between political parties, all of whom didn't forego any opportunity to use Syrian refugees as scapegoats and political pawns.

Turkish public opinion is now divided into two camps. On the one hand, Erdogan called for normalizing relations with Assad in order to facilitate the "safe" return of refugees. On the other hand, Kilicdaroglu launched a hysterical and blatantly racist attack against Syrians, exaggerating the numbers of refugees and engaging in incitement of hatred. This included putting up banners in the streets as part of his presidential campaign that called for the deportation of all Syrians.

In the face of this bitter reality, Arab states have come forward to offer us what they believe to be the optimal solution, which seems to be the return of refugees under the sponsorship of Assad, without providing any guarantees for their safety and security,

Despite Qatar's refusal to normalize relations with the Syrian regime and the expected shift of Erdogan away from the idea of reconciliation with Assad after his recent election victory, Syrians must face a harsh reality: they cannot rely on any one nation-state. All governments in the region act based on their own interests, not according to the aspirations of the Syrian people.

Fear prevails in the hearts of Syrians inside and outside the country due to recent developments. Those residing within Syria know that there is no hope in this regime and that it cannot be relied upon or reformed as it is steeped in ugliness. On the other hand, Syrians living abroad fear the spectre of deportation and forcible return. Even those who live in European countries, perhaps the least affected, fear the rise of the far-right in those countries. Various far-right European political parties have not hesitated to court Assad, visit Syria, take photos with figures associated with the regime, and promote the idea of a "safe" Syria. In France, during the country's electoral race in April last year, the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen strongly announced her intention to restore relations with the Syrian regime. This reaffirmed previous positions she had taken in 2017. There have also been repeated visits by figures from the far-right Front National to Syria to meet with Assad.

In a similar context, notable names such as the Golden Dawn party in Greece have referred to the Syrian opposition to Assad as a "group of killers." In Italy, there are parties like "Forza Nuova" and the "CasaPound" movements. Similar nationalist movements exist in Spain, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, and many other European countries. In February 2021, right-wing parties in Denmark carried out a campaign demanding refugees return to a "sunny Syria," as described by their slogans. In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party began to gain momentum in the recent elections, capitalizing on the energy crisis. The party advocates for openness and cooperation with Bashar al-Assad. Over the past years, delegations from the party have made repeated visits to Syria to meet with regime officials, promote their vision, and urge Syrian refugees in Germany to return. These actions are part of their political agenda. These issues appear against the backdrop of European decision-making regarding refugees, where European interior ministers reached a "political agreement" on June 8th in Luxembourg regarding the issue of migration and asylum after 21 months of negotiations.

Under the new rules, rejected asylum seekers can be swiftly returned from the Union's external borders to their countries of origin or to a third country. In the future, the deporting countries will have the authority to assess whether the conditions in the destination countries are suitable for deportation. The unified list of safe countries, approved by the EU and applicable to all member states, will be abolished. Additionally, the criteria for considering whether a country is safe will be lowered. The new measures will also apply to unaccompanied children and minors. According to the revised border procedures, asylum seekers who have little chance of receiving protection, as they come from relatively safe countries, will undergo screening within a maximum period of 12 weeks, after which efforts will be made for their deportation. This applies to all countries whose citizens' asylum claims have a recognition rate of less than 20 per cent in the European Union.

Syrians cannot rely on the official opposition, which is monopolized by external parties, to provide even simple solutions to alleviate their suffering. The so-called “Eitlaf” does not represent anyone but itself and was imposed on the Syrian people, just like some of the armed factions on the ground.

Therefore, the Syrian people are currently engaged, after their tremendous suffering, in forming pressure groups to demand an end to normalization with the Syrian regime. Thanks to the efforts of the Syrian-American community, particularly the American Alliance for Syria–consisting of ten American organizations which specialize in Syrian affairs and are active in Washington D.C–the "Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act 2023” was successfully put before the Foreign Affairs Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. The resolution was approved by an overwhelming majority after being introduced just three days prior, with only one vote objecting to the procedural rules and not the content of the law.

The Syrian people realize that the war must come to an end and that there is a need to find solutions to the tragedy, in accordance with UN Resolution 2254, which emphasizes the necessity of free and fair elections under the supervision of the United Nations. We also understand that we should not trust Bashar al-Assad and should not reward him for his crimes against the Syrian people, as some Arab leaders are currently doing. We also recognize that the process of rehabilitating Assad is a political matter concerning regional parties and which has nothing to do with the interests of the Syrian people. It was noteworthy that the normalization measures with Assad coincided with the regional normalization process with Israel. An Israeli newspaper, the Jerusalem Post, reported recent phone calls between Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince. According to the newspaper, a diplomatic source stated that Bahrain's Foreign Minister, Abdullatif Al Zayani, had facilitated and coordinated the phone calls between the two parties. Netanyahu reportedly spoke to MBS before the 32nd Arab Summit in Jeddah, and again after it was over. The principle of "step by step" advocated for by Jordan and endorsed by Arab countries has meant a step towards the Syrian regime and another step towards Israel. The regional landscape is rapidly changing, and all the moves have a political rather than a humanitarian dimension.

The question remains: How can the Arab world trust Assad’s movements following his rehabilitation when he was the one engaged in the mass murder and displacement of Syrians at the height of his international isolation?


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