After brutal Syrian war, how ready is region to do business with Assad?

Much blood has been spilled in Syria's civil war, and many of Assad's neighbors have supported forces that sought his ouster. Whether to reengage with someone accused of crimes against humanity is more than just a tactical decision.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad greets his supporters during Eid al-Adha prayers at a mosque in the town of Qara, Syria, north of Damascus, in this handout picture provided by SANA on Sept. 1, 2017.

After more than six years of bloodshed and destruction, Bashar al-Assad’s hold on the presidency of Syria seems assured for now, which leaves neighboring countries beginning to ponder if, how, and when relations can, or should, be restored with Damascus.

The issue for Syria’s neighbors is more than a tactical one. The civil war has convulsed the region. Nearly half a million people have been killed, 117,000 have been detained or simply disappeared. In addition, 6 million have been internally displaced and another 4.8 million have swarmed into neighboring countries and migrated en masse to Europe and around the world.

The Assad regime stands accused of crimes against humanity for using chemical agents against its own citizens. And President Assad’s opponents in the region have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to opposition forces dedicated to removing him from power. Can regional leaders ignore that brutal legacy and resume ties once the fighting ends?

Certainly, the war in Syria is far from over. Assad holds only about 60 percent of the country, and that is largely due to the military support provided by his allies – Russia, Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah organization, and other Shiite paramilitary forces drawn from Iraq and further afield. The armed opposition groups maintain their grip on Idlib province in northern Syria, and US-backed Kurdish and Arab forces control much of the northeast of the country.

“We are probably entering a period where Assad will rule over a weak regime controlling only part of Syria, with considerable help from Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia,” says Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian diplomat and politician who is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This is not a sustainable formula, but one born out of necessity while the Russians, in particular, look for an exit strategy. This may take years, but it is difficult to see Assad turning the clock back to pre-2011.”

Nevertheless, the war does appear to be entering a less intensive phase, which raises the question of how Assad’s Syria can be reconciled with other Middle East countries, some of which – like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan – have openly sided with the Syrian regime’s enemies since the beginning of the conflict.

Will Assad be shunned as a regional pariah, his regime starved of reconstruction aid, and any talks regarding Syria’s future conducted via Moscow and Tehran? Or will cold strategic politics prevail, gradually allowing Syria’s neighbors to restore relations with a regime that, as described last week by Frederic C. Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Middle East Center, “has all-but destroyed Syria, destabilized the neighborhood, roiled the politics of Europe, facilitated the rise of ISIS and Al Qaeda, and created the signature humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century?”

Pressing debate in Lebanon

The debate about if and when to restore full ties with Syria is topping the political agenda in Lebanon, Syria’s tiny neighbor to the West. Lebanon has a complex and at times violent history with Syria that has left the country sharply divided between supporters and opponents of Assad.

In late 2012, Saad Hariri, a leading critic of Assad whom he blames for the death of his father in 2005, described the Syrian leader as a "beast who has lost humanitarian and political ethics," adding that he would be brought to trial for "bloodshed in Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq and for killing children and massacring the Syrian people."

However, today, Mr. Hariri is prime minister of a government that includes members of Hezbollah, Assad's battlefield ally. He is still opposed to Assad but his tone has softened considerably as Assad's hold on power grows more assured.

In June 2012, the Lebanese government had declared a policy of disassociation with the Syria conflict, effectively a stance of neutrality to avoid any potentially dangerous spillover. However, the following year, Hezbollah began intervening militarily in the Syrian war, helping shore up the regime in Damascus but stirring anger and resentment from Assad’s opponents in Lebanon.

With Assad gaining ground in Syria this year, his allies in Lebanon are displaying greater confidence and are pushing for a full normalization of ties. A Lebanese ambassador to Damascus was appointed in July. The following month, three government ministers ignored Prime Minister Hariri's protestations and attended the Damascus International Fair, an event designed to showcase that Syria was ready to resume business with the world.

Last month, the pro-Damascus Syrian Social Nationalist Party closed off a normally traffic-clogged street in the bustling Hamra district of Beirut to stage a paramilitary parade with dozens of uniformed men. While the event is an annual commemoration of an act of resistance against Israeli troops occupying the city in 1982, its scale this year was much larger than usual and was widely interpreted as a display of muscle-flexing confidence.

While Hariri and his allies are resisting a full resumption of ties with Damascus, analysts believe it is inevitable that at some point relations will resume as normal. Lebanese businessmen, at least those close to Assad, are already eyeing the possibility of potentially lucrative reconstruction contracts in Syria. In northern Lebanon, Tripoli is expanding its port and planning to build a railway to connect to the Syrian network in anticipation of becoming a logistical hub for Syria’s reconstruction.

“Once Syria is brought completely back into the fold, Lebanon is not going to have much of a choice on that front. Eventually there will be some sort of normalization of relations,” says Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Signals from Jordan

Lately, Syria’s southern neighbor Jordan has been signaling that it is ready to reengage with Damascus, despite having hosted Syrian rebel training camps run by American and British special forces. Last month, a Jordanian government spokesman said the relationship with Syria was “likely to take a positive turn.”

Negotiations are ongoing in order to stabilize southern Syria adjacent to the Jordanian frontier ahead of reopening the main border crossing. The move will allow Lebanese and Syrian goods to flow south and once more access markets in the Persian Gulf. Stability in southern Syria will also create a safer environment for most of the 650,000 registered Syrian refugees to return to their homes.

“Jordan's main priorities are … keeping the borders safe and helping create conditions under which the refugees can go home,” says Mr. Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister. “Syrian refugees have made it clear that short of ironclad guarantees for their safety, they will not go back, while Jordan has declared that there will not be any involuntary return. Syrian refugees in Jordan are clear that such safety guarantees cannot be given while the Assad regime stays.”

Perhaps the most ardent regional opponent to Assad’s rule was Saudi Arabia. In the years before the Syria war broke out in 2011, the Saudi-Syrian relationship had been marked by bitter disputes, with a strong personal animus, and attempted reconciliations. Under King Abdullah, who died in 2015, Saudi Arabia sought, unsuccessfully, to end Assad’s close alliance with Iran and return him to the Arab fold. When the rebellion against Assad morphed into armed conflict, Riyadh was one of the strongest backers of nascent rebel groups.

Still, since King Salman ascended the throne on the death of his half-brother in 2015, Saudi Arabia has had to grapple with a war in Yemen, Shiite unrest in its eastern province, Iranian power expansion across the Middle East, and a downturn in oil prices which has had an impact on the kingdom’s economy. The goal of overthrowing Assad has diminished in importance.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has been reaching out to Russia, Syria’s staunch ally, in recognition that it is becoming the region’s indispensable new power broker. King Salman recently visited Moscow, where a deal is being struck for the kingdom to purchase the long-range S-400 anti-aircraft system.

“My guess is that the Saudis are just not going to deal with the Syria issue for a while, partly because they don't know what to do, partly because they are tied down in Yemen, and partly because they're dealing with how to balance their feelings about Iran with their feeling about their new buddies in Moscow,” says Thomas W. Lippman, a Saudi expert and a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Turkey's agenda

Turkey also has reshaped its strategic calculus toward Syria. Like Saudi Arabia, Ankara was a staunch supporter of Syrian rebel groups, which benefited from Turkey’s proximity to northern Syria. Relations deteriorated between Russia and Turkey in late 2015 when a Russian aircraft was shot down over the Turkish-Syrian border. But in the past year, as Russian influence in the region has ascended, the two countries have rebuilt their ties and Ankara has focused more closely on looming Kurdish nationalist aspirations in neighboring Iraq and Syria rather than continuing to seek Assad’s ouster.

“Turkey’s priority in Syria is the Kurds, that is, physically making sure there isn’t a contiguous Kurdish entity on its southern flank and politically preventing a formal federal arrangement,” says Asli Aydintaşbaş, a senior fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Iraqi Kurds pushing for independence and Syrian Kurds gaining ground in the northeast of the country have helped drive Turkey’s desire for a rapprochement with Moscow, if not directly with the Assad regime.

“Ankara doesn’t need to shake hands formally with Damascus,” Ms. Aydintaşbaş says. “The sentiment is, that by talking to Russia, they are also indirectly coordinating with Damascus.”

But Ankara is expected to retain its links to some of the opposition groups in northern Syria. The Turkish army’s recent incursion in Syria’s northern Idlib province was a deliberate move to “stabilize the border but also to make sure that moderate opposition isn’t entirely crushed by Russia and Damascus,” Aydintaşbaş says.

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