On March 18, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad called on Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai in what is his first-ever visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The political fabric of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is weaved by threads of either dictatorship or monarchy. More than a decade ago, the Arab world was shaken by a series of protests that relocated the political tectonic plates of the Middle East. A Tunisian vendor who set himself ablaze stimulated the masses across the horizon and flames soon encompassed the Arab world. When voices seditions echoed in the streets of Damascus, the government utilized every means available to quell the usurpation.
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It resulted in a prolonged and catastrophic civil war, which has lasted for more than a decade. Following the series of events, the Arab League revoked Syria’s membership and imposed sanctions in November 2011. Ever since the war, more than half of the Syrian population is displaced, culminating in one of the worst humanitarian crises. United Nations estimates that “14.6 million Syrians will depend on humanitarian assistance in 2022, 9 percent more than the last year and 32 percent higher than in 2020.”
Understanding the matter better
It resumed its diplomatic mission in Damascus in 2018, as it severed its ties. Moreover, the political and economic landscape of the Middle East is also in transition which has compelled Arab countries to adopt an assertive foreign policy, independent from external influence and thus narrowing down their objectives on contours of national interest.
Bahrain, Egypt, Oman, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates all have taken steps to reestablish ties with Syria. For instance, last year in Sept 2021 Jordan completely reopened its major border crossing with Syria. Its officials have been vocal on easing Washington sanctions on Syria. In 2019, the United States imposed Caesar Act that barred foreign countries to enter business with Syria. Moreover, Egypt along with Oman seeks to bring Syria back in Arab League. Moreover, in 2024, Syria will be hosting the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries conference.
Ostensibly, on the 11th anniversary of the Syrian civil war, this protracted crisis seems to have reached a deadlock as rebels failed to oust Assad’s government. In addition, the elections held last year in May 2021, have ensured that President Bashar Al Assad is here to stay. The Assad government is now more focused on reconstruction which requires an investment of billions of dollars. As per one UN estimate, the reconstruction cost might be between approximately $260 to $400 billion or even $1 trillion. Syria cannot secure such aid while staying in diplomatic isolation. It must break its diplomatic drought. As erstwhile foes are now becoming friends.
Syria must look for opportunities abroad that can catalyze the reconstruction efforts and keep afloat the economy by bringing foreign direct investment. Since the outbreak of civil war, Assad merely visited Iran and Russia. Both countries have helped him to stay at the helm of a pariah with their economic and military support, despite western and regional efforts to defenestrate his authority. The recent reproaching between Arab states and Syria may neutralize the influence of the former in the region and beyond.
China’s footprints in Syria are not of less importance
On January 16, 2022, Syria and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that brings Syria under the auspices of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Chinaadhering to its win-win strategy pledged to extend the BRI to Syria to assist the reconstruction phase. The project will also connect Syria with Asia and Europe, improving its regional connectivity and access to the foreign markets. This will also revitalize the ancient silk road. The Syrian government is still under the sanction framework of the United States and the European Union. These sanctions may deter the regional country’s efforts to engage the current Syrian government.
However, the engagement with the Arab world is a sign of regional stability and prosperity. In contrast, the United States has spent almost $2.6 billion and used its military leverage to bifurcate Syria and to establish an autonomous region in northeast Syria. However, such a statelet demands long-term commitment and U.S. is not in a position to fulfill. Its withdrawal from the region is imminent. This provides regional countries and great powers a breathing space to inhale peace and security in the region.
Moreover, it goes without saying Syria’s inclusion in the BRI is a prerequisite to any reconstruction of Syria’s infrastructure that has been destroyed- if not completely annihilated-in more than 10 years of war.
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If the current rapprochement efforts by Arab countries succeed in securing a seat for Syria in the Arab League, then one might see the Syrian crisis heading towards its conclusion. Moreover, a stable political system, people’s support along domestic security at home will be necessary for the implementation of any successful reconstruction efforts.
The writer is currently working as an intern in the Center for Afghanistan Middle East and Africa (CAMEA) at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad (ISSI). The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.