Assad will demand high price for return of refugees

The Arab League is reportedly on the verge of voting on Syria’s readmittance to the Arab League on Sunday in what would be a stunning, if symbolic, turnaround for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

The league suspended Syria’s membership in 2011 in response to the government’s brutal crackdown on mass demonstrations against Assad’s rule. 

Normalization of ties with Syria has been gaining momentum in recent years. There’s no understating the plight of Syria’s people; 90% live below the poverty line, and US and Western sanctions have compounded their economic misery. Arab countries have seized on the drift in US Syria policy to press for a new course, rooted in the reality of Assad’s staying power and to prevent Syria’s economic collapse. The earthquake in Syria and Turkey in February accelerated the normalization efforts. On May 1, the foreign ministers of Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq met in Amman to establish a framework for Syria’s return.   

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al-Safadi briefed US and Western leaders on the plan, which he says will track with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015), the long-standing (if outdated) resolution outlining the political transition in Syria. We made the case here that, in theory, a return to Arab league engagement with Syria could give a needed boost to the UN political track

Qatar, Kuwait and Egypt are the hold outs on normalization, but it’s unclear if they will continue to resist an overwhelming Arab consensus. 

If the league votes to readmit Syria, it will be in defiance of the Biden administration. US Assistant Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated US opposition to normalization in a call with Safadi on Thursday

There is, however, an underlying realism to US Syria policy. Washington knows that normalization has its own momentum. US Assistant Barbara Leaf told an Al-Monitor audience in March “[that] if you’re going to engage with the regime, get something for that.” And Blinken made clear to Safadi that any step by step process should be linked to UNSCR 2254.

The Biden administration has also resumed talks with the Syrian government over the fate of missing journalist Austin Tice, as the Wall Street Journal reported this week. Assad has linked cooperation on Tice with the lifting of sanctions and the withdrawal of some 900 US troops in Syria.

The Arab diplomatic initiative ushers in a new chapter in Syria’s regional role. Assad, still weakened, has more cards to play than ever. For example, the Arabs don’t want to cede Syria to Iran, but Iranian influence is well entrenched. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Iran last week, including an overnight stay. His visit was a victory lap, a message that Iran, and its so-called resistance axis, scored a major win and is now ready to help rebuild Syria, as Ali Hashem reports.

Assad is therefore taking offers in a bidding war for Syrian reconstruction. He also holds the cards on two issues of urgent concern to the region: the plight of 5.5 million refugees living in neighboring countries, and his multibillion dollar Captagon empire, which has become a scourge across the region.

Let’s start with the refugees. In addition to the 5.5 million abroad, there are 6.8 million internally displaced. Those outside the country are located in Turkey (3.6 million), Jordan (1.8 million), Lebanon (1.5 million) and Iraq (260,000). There are also an estimated 700,000-2.5 million Syrians in Saudi Arabia, although the kingdom does not refer to Syrians there as refugees. 

All the host countries, as well as the UN and the United States, want the refugees to return to Syria, under the right conditions. The question is threading the needle on conditions agreeable to Assad, the international community and the refugees. The Syrian government may consider some of them enemies of the state for their, or family members’ part, in the Syria uprising or association with opposition groups.

We wrote here last week about the role of the refugees in the Turkish election. Among the Arab countries, Jordan and Lebanon, in particular, facing their own economic distress, are especially burdened by the refugee crisis.

For Assad, any appeal on refugees will come with a massive price, and rolled into the offers of reconstruction assistance from Arab capitals. And even then, expect some slow going, as many may prefer life outside Syria to a risky return — and that’s fine with Assad.

There is also the matter of the Captagon trade, which is now headquartered in Damascus. Assad has made tens of billions of dollars in the drug business over the last decade. The highly addictive stimulant has caught on among the poor and disaffected in the region, compounded by the hardships of the COVID 19 pandemic. For Assad to crack down on this lucrative financial lifeline, given the numerous sanctions on his country, will require a return well above the bar of just being a good neighbor and global citizen.  

Assad doesn’t need a return to the Arab League to cut the reconstruction deals he is envisioning. He will, however, take the symbolic win while weighing his offers. His ask may also at some point include the piecemeal lifting of US and Western sanctions, as in the case with the US regarding Tice, putting his newfound Arab partners in a potentially awkward position with Washington. Arab countries wanting to do reconstruction work in Syria will otherwise need to work around sanctions. Any profit made in Syria will be the result of difficult and likely agonizing wrangling. The return of perhaps some of the 5.5 million Syrian refugees meanwhile seems only somewhat less remote.

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