When Jordanian King Abdullah II spoke with Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, on the phone earlier this month, it set a precedent that thawed a decade of ice between the two. A week prior to that, Amman had fully re-opened its main border crossing with Damascus, and the intelligence chiefs of both countries met and agreed on cooperation.
It was a stark contrast to Abdullah’s initial stance in 2011, when he condemned the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protestors at the start of the Syrian revolution, making Jordan the first regional country to cut ties with Syria and support the opposition.
Jordan is not the only country which has implemented a supportive stance on Assad. Two weeks ago, Egypt’s foreign minister also met with his Syrian counterpart and vowed to help return Syria to the Arab League and restore its position in the Arab world. All these,, of course, came after the normalisation processes initiated by Gulf states such as the UAE, Oman and, partially, Saudi Arabia.
The flurry of efforts to restore and normalise ties with the Assad regime is, in many ways, understandable. As was the case with Arab states joining the international community in normalising ties with the likes of Israel, to do so with Assad is simply an extension of that recognition of geopolitical reality.
After a decade of war and the involvement of numerous foreign actors in the country, the relative territorial victory of Assad—thanks largely to his Russian and Iranian allies, of course—has compelled his neighbours to accept him back into the fold. Whether it is proof of ‘might is right’ or just the fact that the regime is there to stay and they may as well put up with it, is not important: they simply see that dealing with Assad is the only and best practical solution.
Of course, the best time to ensure a transition of government in Syria has long passed. That opportunity presented itself in the early years of the revolution, when the opposition was still largely unified and gathering velocity in its fight against the regime. Back then, when the opposition was requesting arms and military assistance from the US and Western nations, however, all it was given were supplies of food packs.
In the current situation and the efforts to restore diplomatic ties, everything that the Syrian military forces did is dropped and forgotten. This includes the countless and indescribable war crimes, the disappearance and torturing to death of tens of thousands, the dropping of barrel bombs on civilian areas and their populations, the (disputed, apparently) chemical weapons attacks on civilians and opposition alike, and the regime’s vast and nightmarish prison system which is still very much intact.
What governments in the region fail to realise, however, is that they are most at risk of the crimes of the Syrian regime than even its enemies. While Assad does provide a measure of stability and security, albeit in a way that labels any form of dissent as ‘terrorism,’ that is only a short-term stability.
Firstly, there is the obvious social and political instability caused by unrestrained human rights violations, as suppressed dissatisfaction amongst the population has a way of resurfacing in later years, if left unresolved. We witnessed that fact with the Syrian revolution itself, which was built upon decades of repression and massacres such as that in Hama in 1982.
Aside from that, there is also the major obstacle of the narcotics trade that has emerged from Syria over the course of the conflict. The production and smuggling of drugs such as captagon and hashish—especially the former—have been a nightmare for customs and border officers throughout the region, with neighbouring states, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan, having busted numerous shipments of narcotics, as well as states as far away as Libya and Greece.
Those narcotics smuggling operations have had their source in Syria, and not under militias like Daesh, as many initially thought, but under the Assad regime and its overwhelming amount of manufacturing sites which it runs throughout its territory. If states in the region and beyond allow the Syrian regime to reign unhindered, they will be making themselves vulnerable to the ever-growing transnational narcotics trade coming from the ‘narco state’ at their doorstep.
One surprising phenomenon throughout the normalisation process has been the silence of the US. Under the former Trump administration, despite all of its many faults, there was an active effort to check the Syrian regime and its allies. From Trump’s revelation that he considered assassinating Assad, to the implementation of the major Caesar sanctions on Damascus and its affiliates, that administration had a distinctive policy on Syria and a force behind its words.
Under the current administration of President Joe Biden, however, there are no distinctive goals in Syria and Washington’s policy is notably unclear. Apart from assurances that the US does not plan to restore ties with Assad and its urging of its regional partners to cease their normalisation efforts, no serious steps have yet been taken.
Even the Caesar sanctions —those hard-hitting measures implemented in 2019 against the Syrian government and any individuals, companies, or states that dealt with it—seem to have been forgotten. According to that landmark act, sanctions should have hit numerous entities dealing with Assad by now.
There are cases where exceptions are understandably granted, such as the US’s assurance to Lebanon that it can import from, and export to, Syria during Beirut’s ongoing economic crisis and lack of essential goods, including fuel. Other states in the region, however, are not in such desperate straits.
The fading of the Caesar sanctions shows both the US’s allies and adversaries in the region—and certainly around the world—that it may not enforce what it rules. In fairness, though, many have attributed that lack of a clear Syria policy to Biden’s own health concerns, which have also fuelled theories that he is not truly at the helm of the US government and that he does not even occupy the White House’s oval office.
The entire debacle also, ultimately, proves to states that sanctions can be outmanoeuvred and overcome, especially with the right geopolitical allies, a booming drug trade, and an international network of businessmen and front companies.
States in the region and beyond who intend to normalise relations with the Syrian government should know that such a regime is not conducive to long-term stability and prosperity. Normalisation will come back to haunt them.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.