by Ambra Visentin
The light at the end of the tunnel, beyond the rubble. Bashar Al-Assad and Syrian diplomacy are hard at work, using every opportunity for diplomatic contact offered by the earthquake emergency to finally bring the country out of isolation. The government is also trying to free itself from heavy Western sanctions that it says are hampering aid. Since 2011, Assad has been internationally isolated and suspended from the Arab League following the uprising that turned into a bloody civil war between the regime and opposition forces backed by foreign actors who wanted him out.
Two recent events mark a paradigm shift. Last week, the first Saudi rescue plane landed in the city of Aleppo. It was a move that broke a long rift in relations. In 2016, a bombing campaign by Assad and his ally Russia had hit Aleppo in an attempt to retake the city from opposition forces, then backed by Riyadh. After years of infighting in Syria, Assad regained control of most of the country with the help of Moscow, except for a northern strip still controlled by various opposition forces, some of them backed by Turkey or the United States.
The second turning point was the president’s visit to the Sultan of Oman in the capital, Mascate, on Monday 20 February. This was Bashar Al-Assad’s second visit to an Arab capital since he was ostracised by the Gulf monarchies. According to official Omani and Syrian communiqués, Sultan Haitham Ben Tareq and Bashar Al-Assad spoke of “joint cooperation” and “efforts to consolidate security and stability in the region”. “The Sultanate is the secret workshop for regional reconciliation agreements. Oman has the trust of Iran [Damascus’s ally] and the United States [which opposes Syrian rule]. Al-Assad undoubtedly needs informal channels to move the lines,” says Amman-based political analyst Amer Sabaileh.
The main Arab television channels, owned by various Gulf monarchies, are now broadcasting Assad’s words, after years of denial or reticence towards Damascus. The resumption of bilateral relations is being sought not only by countries that have long been in the process of reconciliation, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria and Oman, but also by states that have so far hesitated and sided with Assad’s opponents, such as Egypt. Egypt, dependent on US financial aid and the main recipient of German arms exports, avoided any official contact until President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi phoned Assad for the first time the day after the earthquake.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar could now join the United Arab Emirates, which hosted Assad in March 2022, in their desire to bring the Syrian president, who was kept in power with Russian and Iranian help, back into the Arab sphere of influence. Indeed, however weak and devastated Syria may be at the moment, its geopolitical position between Turkey, Israel, Iran, the Mediterranean and the Arab countries makes it an important hub in the Middle East. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s announcement months ago that he wanted to reconcile with Assad served as a wake-up call. From Riyadh’s point of view, it is important not only to avoid losing Syria to Russia and Iran, but also to avoid exposing it to Turkish influence in the future.
Cover image: © Antonio Marin Segovia on Flickr