Bashar al-Assad will not reflect much when analysts write about the meaning of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s visit to Damascus from a human rights and liberal point of view. He will not look closely into the fact that the visitor doesn’t have any legitimate status to add to him. He is the first president in the world to have an arrest warrant issued against him in the International Criminal Court, even if it was rejected by the Arab League and the African Union and countries like China and Russia. None of these considerations matter in Damascus. What the Syrian regime has done against its people belittles the record of others in similar matters.
Assad is aware of all these contradictions on the Syrian front as he was the reason for the creation of many of them, transforming the Syrian narrative from a peaceful uprising to an armed revolution to the fight against terrorism, to finally bringing Syria back to its traditional norm of investing in the proceeds of its geographical locationNadim Koteich
Reclaiming Arab support
What Assad will consider is that Bashir is the first Arab president to have visited Damascus since Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011. In this context, the few words Assad made during the visit focused on the Arabism of Syria. He said: “Despite everything during the years of war, Syria has remained faithful to Arabism and held to it.” What this means is that Assad assumes that the normalization of ties between him and Arab states is just a matter of time and a mere formality which confers great victory to him, after less than eight years of the outbreak of the Syrian revolution against him.
Bashir's visit to Syria is the strongest signal of this growing trend, preceded by a huge media roar, when photographers' pictured the first meeting of its kind since 2011 between Bahrain's Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa and his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moallem on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. The Bahraini minister stated that “the meeting was not arranged in advance, but it comes within the Arab movement to resolve the Syrian crisis.”
The UAE was the first to begin this review when Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said: “I think it was a mistake to kick Syria out of the Arab league, it meant we had no political leverage at all, no open channel, we could not present an Arab prism to how the Syrian issue should be resolved.”
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I hereby add what I heard directly from a senior Gulf official, that the Arab position should not continue to be based on the facts of 2011, since plenty of changes have occurred in the scene of the Syrian crisis, and on the notion that the fate of an Arab state is being decided by the Russians, Turks, Israelis, Iranians and Americans.
All this is true; but the question remains: Can Assad be trusted? Is it possible to rely on the fact that he will not jump to the assumption that normalization with him is not only a victory for his policy, position and alliances, but also a preamble to settle accounts with his opponents?
There are no easy or conclusive answers to these questions. The whole approach is dominated with adventure and characterized with very rapid changes. The convergence between Assad and some of his opponents over the negative attitude towards Turkey's policies does not constitute a solid ground for taking relations from the space of the situational intersection to building policies that have a minimum of common orientation or common Arab interest.
Furthermore, Turkey which enjoys significant and growing relations with Sudan, is capable of finding its own understandings with Assad, especially on the Kurdish issue. Although Iran is drowning in sanctions, it remains a major player in Syria since it has a huge presence on the ground, through Shiite militias from Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Israel, which has cautiously resumed its strikes against the Revolutionary Guard in Syria, is facing endless constraints, especially Russian ones, in its confrontation with Iran.
Israel is also aware that it’s not the time for any decisive confrontation with Iran yet, and maybe that time will never come, given the anticipated costs of the war. As for the United States, it seems to be stumbling as it is taking its Syrian mission from the scope of eliminating ISIS to the scope of confronting Iran and its militias, while its position regarding the Syrian crisis grows sour.
As for Russia, it is managing a highly sensitive stance over Syria and is combining the attempt to meet Arab interests with ensuring Israel's security, its need for Iran to secure ground and its strategic rivalry with Turkey.
Assad is aware of all these contradictions on the Syrian front as he was the reason for the creation of many of them, transforming the Syrian narrative from a peaceful uprising to an armed revolution to the fight against terrorism, to finally bringing Syria back to its traditional norm of investing in the proceeds of its geographical location and international intersection on his soil.
The Assad experience suggests that he may be closer to investing in this open opportunity with retaliation and vendetta in his mind. There have been many attempts to contain the Syrian regime and to take it out from the crises of its policies, from the 1980s until the initiative of late King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. Each attempt was doomed to fail.
Nothing suggests that we are facing different givens today, and the most dangerous thing at this moment is the hasty answers to how to deal with Assad’s Syria.
This article is also available in Arabic.
Nadim Koteich is a leading Arab satirist. His show DNA airs Monday to Friday on Future and Al Hadath channels. He is a columnist with Asharq Alawsat. He tweets @NadimKoteich.