Rapprochement with the Syrian Regime… whereto?
- By: Mona Katoub
- updated: March 19, 2023
- reading time: 7 Minutes and 43 seconds
The Syrian issue has witnessed, directly or otherwise, some dramatic developments recently. Most observers are calling them attempts to reapproach or rehabilitate the regime especially by regional states. While hints of these trends have been appearing for years in the form of timid steps or statements here and there, they have been emerging more rapidly and significantly since the devastating earthquake which hit Syria and Turkey on 6 February putting to question the fate of the Syrian issue, the political process and the political transition.
First of all, it is worth looking back to the period before the earthquake and before the rapid moves by some regional states towards what seems to be attempts to reestablish relations with the Syrian regime. Since the beginning of the Ukrainian war on 24 February last year, it has become clear that the Syrian issue was no longer a priority for the international community particularly the West which found itself -for the first time in decades- at the edge of a war. While the military front did not extend to the West itself directly, the ripple effects in terms of thousands of Ukrainian refugees and economic impact especially in term of energy have been clearly felt. In addition, the Ukrainian war has played a role in cutting down western relations with Russia.
These factors have had direct and indirect impact on the Syrian issue as western engagement has been reduced to the bare minimum, namely the usual statements, the humanitarian aid and programs and some limited diplomatic activity with an almost complete halt in the political track. At the same time, most countries in the region -Turkey and some Arab states- have assumed what could be called a middle-ground position of the war in Ukraine, or at least -perhaps for the first time- a position not completely aligned with the West.
In the second half of last year and more rapidly since the beginning of this year, the Syrian issue has come back to the spotlight with the Turkish moves first with Russia and then with Iran, i.e. in the Astana framework, towards reestablishing relations with Damascus. These moves have reached as far as a meeting at the level of defense ministers with some indications of a potential quadrilateral meeting of foreign ministers and later at the presidential level. It was expected that a “technical” quadrilateral meeting at the level of deputy foreign ministers would be held first in Moscow in mid-March but it did not take place because of pre-conditions made by the Syrian regime in relation to Turkish presence in Syria.
On the level of the Arab World, some Arab states never severed relations with Damascus completely over the past twelve years and increased the level of communication every once in a while. Some have even started reestablishing diplomatic relations with the regime. Some Arab states have started pushing for the reintroduction of the regime to the Arab League which has not happened yet because of the rejection by some major Arab states most prominent of which was Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, using the pretext of the ensuing humanitarian disaster in several regime-held areas, Arab states and even the EU sent shipments of humanitarian aid to regime areas. After that, some Arab movements vis-à-vis the regime started to surface most prominent of which was forming a delegation of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union which visited Damascus in late February followed by a visit by the foreign minister of Egypt which constituted the first diplomatic visit in more than ten years. These visits used the pretext of solidarity with Syria and the Syrian people in the aftermath of the earthquake and were described as purely humanitarian.
It is also important to point out other important factors including rumors of some Arab initiatives to solve the Syrian crisis, the visit by the president of the regime to Muscat in addition to some developments which may have a direct impact on the Syrian issue most significantly the Chinese-sponsored Saudi-Iranian deal in addition to the reestablishment of Turkish-Egyptian relations after ten years of being severed.
At the other end, so to speak, some statements by western states and the US reiterated their position against opening relations with the Syrian regime or, to be more precise, that they would not reestablish relations with it. The European Union confirmed it was not going to change its policies towards Syria and reiterated its ‘three NOs’ policy towards Syria: “No lifting sanctions. No reconstruction. No normalization.” without an irreversible political process in place.
Western statements, however, fell short of explicitly and unequivocally protesting rapprochement by other states, especially Arab states. This could be understood as implicitly condoning these moves. For it is no secret that there has been some European and American fatigue towards the Syrian issue and while it may be hard for them to open up to Damascus; should regional states -particularly Arab states- initiate rapprochement, the burden of the Syrian issue would then be shifted to them enabling the EU and US to concentrate on their growing internal issues and addressing the issues that affect them more directly in military and economic terms. Furthermore, reintroducing the Syrian regime to the international community via Arab states and Turkey, for example, would lift the ‘moral’ burden off the shoulders of the West in the eyes of its peoples as opposed to initiating such relations with Damascus themselves.
All this suggests that the recent moves may aim at rehabilitating the Syrian regime as is and reestablishing relations with it and taking it back into the international community and let bygone be bygones. It is worth recalling, however:
First, the humanitarian disaster in Syria did not start on 6 of February in the aftermath of the earthquake. Rather it dates back more than a decade and owes its roots to more than fifty years of tight security grip, suppressing freedoms and corruption at all levels and in all state institutions which exacerbated even more since March 2011. It is worth recalling that hundreds of thousands of Syrian men and women were killed in Syria before the earthquake and hundreds of thousands remain missing and their fate continues to be unknown due to arbitrary detention and forced disappearance practiced by the regime and its formal and informal security arms.
Second, millions of Syrian men and women have been displaced from regime-held areas to other areas inside Syria and millions more have fled to neighboring countries and beyond to survive the Syrian regime’s practices and in search for safety and security at all levels including economic security as more than 90% of the Syrian people today live under the poverty line due to rampant corruption. Millions of IDPs continue to live away from their regime-held areas and have not and will not return. Further, hostilities are still ongoing which means that if the Syrian regime regains control over all the Syrian geography, not only would that mean that refugees would not go back to Syria, but it would also mean that those who remain in Syria would try to flee the country.
Third, there are dozens of reports including by international bodies and organizations, which have proven the regime’s involvement along with many of its figures and personalities, in human rights violations some of which amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Hence, the Syrian Women Political Movement observes closely all developments and moves while reminding that the root cause of the situation in Syria has and shall always be the primarily the acts of the Syrian regime and that the humanitarian disaster and the magnitude of its repercussions before or after the earthquake constitute symptoms of the problem which is, at heart, political par excellence. Sustainable solutions to this issue do not lie in humanitarian support -presently essential nonetheless- rather, in a solution that addresses its root causes. This means that any rehabilitation of this regime would mean sustaining the Syrian quagmire and ensuing humanitarian disasters including the problem of terrorism. Such rehabilitation would only serve to replenish the regime not improve the situation of the Syrian people and would lead to the continuation and deepening of the same factors that led the Syrian people to take to the streets twelve years ago. This also entails that any initiatives for a solution in Syria cannot succeed without the participation of Syrian men and women from all sides and with a no less than 30% participation of Syrian women at all stages and levels.
All this means that rehabilitating the regime would not only fail to solve the Syrian crisis but would also deepen it at the Syrian, regional and international levels. We further believe that these development have brought the Syrian issue back to the forefront which constitutes a chance to revive the Syrian political process aimed at reaching a comprehensive political solution through the implementation of UNSCR 2254 which is the only way out for Syria and the Syrian people and the only way for Syria to be more stable and assume its true and active role on the Arab, regional and international levels.
Political Committee of the Syrian Women Political Movement