(Beirut) Twelve years after being banished from Arab nations, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is on the way to regaining his place among his peers, who have tried unsuccessfully to get rid of him.
This return should help the Syrian head of state to establish his legitimacy at the head of his country, ravaged by civil war, even if he does not control all the territory and if a solution to the conflict still seems very distant. .
Nine Arab countries meet Friday in Saudi Arabia, heavyweight of the Arab world, to discuss a return of Syria within the Arab League, before the next summit scheduled for May 19 in the kingdom.
The meeting comes a day after Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Moqdad made a surprise visit to Saudi Arabia for the first time since the start of the war in Syria in 2011.
“ Assad simply rejected any compromise and waited for his enemies to throw in the towel, and it worked ”, notes Aron Lund, of the Century International think tank.
“ They come back today one after the other to shake his hand, and act as if the last decade had not existed ”, he adds.
Damascus had been diplomatically isolated since the 2011 crackdown on a popular uprising that escalated into a civil war.
The war has claimed around half a million lives, transformed nearly half of Syrians into refugees or displaced persons and made Syria a battleground between foreign forces.
The Syrian regime was expelled from the Arab League in 2011 and the opposition even took Syria’s seat in the body at a summit in 2013.
The Saudi kingdom had severed ties in 2012 with Syria, where it supported rebels early in the conflict, like other Gulf countries.
But more and more Arab countries are now in favor of a rehabilitation of the Syrian regime, while a new regional situation is emerging, in particular with the rapprochement between Arabia and Iran, a great ally of Damascus.
The February 6 earthquake that devastated Turkey and Syria was an opportunity for the Damascus regime to reconnect with Arabia, Egypt and other Arab countries that sent it humanitarian aid.
Assad is counting on normalization with the Arab countries, in particular the rich monarchies of the Gulf, to obtain the funds necessary for the reconstruction of his bloodless country.
But “ US sanctions will continue to deter Saudi or Emirati investment in Syrian projects or reconstruction ”, warns Aron Lund.
Normalization with the Syrian regime will also involve “ increased cooperation in the security field, in particular the fight against drug trafficking ”, explains Syria specialist analyst Sam Heller.
Over the course of the war, Syria has turned into a veritable narco-state and Saudi Arabia is particularly concerned about the trafficking of captagon, a drug for which the kingdom has become the largest market.
On the political level, the rapprochement with the Arab countries will also play into Damascus’ hands, because it should have negative repercussions on the endless negotiations underway in Geneva between the Syrian regime and the opposition, according to Sam Heller.
“ This is exactly what Damascus wanted”, he explains, recalling that Bashar al-Assad’s regime “ has always refused to recognize the representatives of the opposition ”.
Syria’s return to Arab rule “sends a message to the opposition that Assad will ultimately triumph and their foreign backers will betray them,” said Aron Lund.
“ I don’t believe there is a political solution on the table in Syria, there never has been”, says Aron Lund. “And at the moment there is no military solution either, due to the blocking role of the forces involved in Syria,” he adds.
Relations between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, strained for decades by a struggle for influence in the region, have begun to ease since the two countries agreed in March to restore their severed ties in 2016.
After the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in April 1979, Sunni countries accused Iran of wanting to “export” its revolution to them.
In 1980, Iraq attacked Iran, triggering a deadly eight-year war in which Saudi Arabia financially supported the Iraqi regime.
In 1987, security forces in Mecca, Saudi Arabia suppress an unauthorized anti-American demonstration organized by Iranian pilgrims. More than 400 people, mostly Iranians, are killed.
Angry Iranians looted the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, and in 1988 Riyadh severed diplomatic relations until 1991.
As Arab Spring protests hit the region in 2011, Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of stoking tensions.
The two countries clash again in 2012 in Syria. Iran backs President Bashar al-Assad, while Saudi Arabia backs the rebels.
In Yemen, Riyadh formed a Sunni Arab coalition in favor of the Yemeni president in 2015, while Tehran supports the Houthi Shiite rebels.
A stampede during the great annual pilgrimage to Mecca in 2015 killed around 2,300 foreign pilgrims, including hundreds of Iranians.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says Saudi Arabia does not deserve to run Islam’s holiest sites.
In 2016, Saudi Arabia executed the prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, one of the spearheads of anti-government protests, for “terrorism”.
Furious, protesters attack Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran. Riyadh again breaks its relations with Tehran.
The powerful Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, an ally of Iran, was classified as “ terrorist ” in 2016 by the Arab monarchies of the Gulf.
In 2017, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation from Riyadh, citing Iran’s “hold” over his country through Hezbollah. He will later retract.
In 2018, the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, warned in an interview on American television that if Tehran acquires nuclear weapons, “ we will do the same as soon as possible ”.
The Crown Prince describes the Iranian Supreme Leader as “the new Hitler”. “ He wants to create his own project in the Middle East, a bit like Hitler who wanted to expand at the time ”, he says.
On March 10, 2023, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed, under the aegis of China, to resume their diplomatic relations and to reopen their embassies by mid-May.
On the 19th, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi receives an invitation from King Salman to go to Riyadh. The trip is planned after Ramadan, at the end of April.
In the meantime, the Iranian and Saudi Foreign Ministers, during a meeting on April 6 in Beijing, agree to work together for “ security, stability and prosperity ” in the Middle East. Saudi and Iranian delegations visit the two capitals in the following days.
It is in this context that hopes for peace are growing in Yemen, where an exchange of hundreds of prisoners is being prepared, and that a Syrian minister, an ally of Tehran, is being welcomed in Riyadh for the first time since the start of the war. in Syria.
The Syrian political opposition is no more than a shadow of itself. The armed rebels now only control the northern enclave of Idlib, where Turkey and the United States are also deployed.
In recent years, and with crucial support from the Russian military and Iran, the Syrian regime has regained control of most of the country.
For opponent Mohammad Abdallah, who heads the Syrian Center for Justice and Accountability (SJAC), “this return of Assad to the Arab League shows that we are trying to bring the region back to the situation before 2011. when the Arab Spring broke out.
“ But it will not work, because there are still many injustices to be resolved: refugees, displaced persons, missing persons and prisoners ”, he underlines.