Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Damascus
Steps towards normalization: In 2018, the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus. | Photo: Fars Media Corporation via wikimedia commons | CC BY 4.0

Arab States’ Incentives Towards (not) Normalizing Relations with Syria – Islamists and Drug Trafficking?

Syria has returned to the stage of regional diplomacy with the readmission of Damascus to the Arab League after a 12-year suspension. The country’s comeback is the outcome of regional diplomatic efforts that started in 2018 but reached their climax after the devastating earthquake in Syria and Turkey in February. Normalization with Syria comes without any accountability for the crimes the Syrian regime has committed against its own people nor a change in behavior that would signal the end of the suffering of Syrians. We argue that despite international and regional factors setting the stage, domestic factors are Arab states’ main incentives for normalization.

In 2011, Arab states expelled Syria from the Arab League because of the atrocities it committed against its own people. Syria’s seat in the Arab League had been occupied by representatives of the opposition Syrian Coalition since March 2013 until the decision was reversed in 2015 under Egyptian pressure. Since then, Syria’s seat in the Arab League has been vacant and the question of restoring relations with Syria has been raised at every summit of the Arab League.

Following the 2017 Arab-Arab split between Egypt, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on one side and Qatar on the other, the UAE and Bahrain reopened their embassies in Damascus in 2018. This has created a divide between those Arab states that want to normalize relations with Syria and those that oppose such a course.

Looking back, it appears that the earthquake which caused widespread destruction in Turkey and Syria and intensified the suffering of Syrians in the war-torn country ended up benefitting Syrian President Assad, as he was able to use the disaster to his diplomatic advantage. Since the earthquake, Syria has received the foreign ministers of several Arab states and has travelled to the capitals of those countries. However, the catastrophe can be seen more as an amplifier rather than a cause of normalization. We argue that the root causes are shifts in international and regional dynamics that have influenced Syria’s position in the region, but even more so the domestic political interests of Arab states.

A Post-U.S. Regional Order

The re-acceptance of Syria into the regional order of the Middle East can be attributed to several factors. First, since President Biden took office, the U.S. has de-prioritized the Syrian issue. This is evident from Washington’s lack of action in response to the recent normalization efforts. In contrast, in 2018 the Trump administration stopped others from following in the footsteps of the UAE and Bahrain. Russia is one of the actors filling the void left by the U.S., for instance by mediating between regional states. According to some press reports, Russian mediation facilitated the talks on reopening the Saudi embassy earlier this month in Syria, showing the country’s increased influence.

Second, the Iranian-Saudi rivalry has given way to a repositioning of Arab states towards Iran, which has ushered in last month’s China-brokered agreement between Iran and the KSA. Arab states seek to balance Iranian influence in the region, particularly in Syria, by reasserting a more leading Arab role, but are moving towards a less confrontational approach.

The changing regional power dynamics seem to provide Arab states with greater autonomy to act on their own will. But what are the domestic incentives of Arab states seeking to normalize relations with the Assad regime, and why did some Arab states oppose such a course?

Incentives of the “Normalizers”

The recent normalization process with Syria was initiated by the KSA and strongly supported by the UAE. In the wake of the rapprochement with Iran and the reopening of the Saudi embassy in Syria, the Kingdom has been advocating for Syria to regain its seat at the upcoming Arab League summit in Riyadh. This could be explained by two factors.

First, while violence in Syria has declined in recent years, the root causes of the conflict have not been addressed, making refugees in neighboring states reluctant to return to Syria. This is particularly problematic for countries such as Jordan and Lebanon that host large refugee populations amid rising political and economic problems. However, the status quo in Syria is even more problematic for countries such as the KSA and the UAE which suffer from the spillover of drug (mainly Captagon) trafficking from Syria. Almost weekly, large shipments of drugs reach the KSA through its borders with Jordan. This is a major concern for the KSA and UAE that have difficulties controlling their vast borders. To address this problem, the two countries have been advocating for an “Arab-led political path” which recognizes the need to engage with Damascus in order to meaningfully negotiate with Assad.

Second, we see the normalization with Syria as a means for Arab authoritarian regimes to unite against both democratic aspirations and Islamist movements. The KSA, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain have designated the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) a terrorist organization in 2013/2014. The backlash against Islamists in general, and the MB in particular, sparked the Arab-Arab split in 2017, when Qatar was boycotted by the above-mentioned quartet. From the “counter-Islamist” camp, only Egypt was reluctant to support recent calls for Syria’s unconditional return to the Arab League. It seems that those in support of Syria’s readmission (with the exception of Egypt) are concerned domestically about Islamists and any form of democratic demands. Syria was the first country in the region to outlaw the MB in 1980 and harshly repressed both Islamist and democratic movements. This also explains Algeria’s support for the UAE/KSA proposal. The fear of uprisings and Islamists in control of governments, similar to what happened after the elections in Egypt and Tunisia in 2012, shapes many Arab states’ regional alignments.

The “Renegades”

As recently as April, there were five Arab states opposing Syria’s unconditional return to the Arab League: Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco. However, their opposition quickly crumbled: In early May, Morocco agreed to normalize relations with Syria conditioned on the mutual respect for both states’ sovereignty, highlighting the significance of the Western Sahara conflict for Morocco. Jordan and Egypt, on the other hand, have advocated for a different process of normalization that entails more substantial concessions by Damascus in terms of a political solution of the conflict before its readmission to the Arab League. Jordan for instance has pushed for a “step-by-step” approach in line with UN resolution 2254, but this appears futile with Syria’s readmission to the Arab League. Additionally, a safe return of refugees has been a central issue in Jordanian official statements.

In contrast, Kuwait and Qatar have taken a more substantive stance against normalization. We see three reasons for their opposition. First, both states have been more tolerant towards activist Islamists than Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular. Second, Kuwait and Qatar have been less affected by the Captagon trafficking than other regional states. Third, both states have strengthened their relations to the U.S. recently. As a sign of this, in January 2022, President Biden designated Qatar a major non-NATO ally, a title so far held only by Kuwait and Bahrain in the Gulf. In contrast, the KSA, also a long-term ally of the U.S., has charted a more independent course since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, demonstrated for instance by its rejection of President Biden’s plea to increase oil production.

While all three factors are important, we argue that the primary reason for Kuwait and Qatar’s more principled opposition is their more tolerant stance towards activist Islamists, which has markedly differed from the KSA and UAE in particular. Qatar and Kuwait’s support for these actors goes back to the early stages of the Syrian war. While the KSA has mainly backed quietist Salafists to counter activist Salafists and MB-affiliated groups, Qatar has consistently supported activist Salafists, who adhere to a blend of MB and Wahabist thought. The quietist Salafists soon lost favor in the KSA, whereas activist Salafists still have some influence in the Qatari polity and the Kuwaiti parliament.

No Long-Term Solution in Sight

By reinstating Syria to the Arab League, Arab leaders are sending a message of impunity that even the most severe human rights violations will go unpunished. As many of these leaders themselves have records of repression, they have no interest in holding Syrian President Assad accountable for the atrocities he committed against his own people.

While normalization might reduce drug trafficking in the short run, it fails to solve the problem in the long run since it does not eliminate the infrastructure that enables drug smugglers to flood the region with drugs. It is also highly questionable that regional states can get any meaningful concessions from the Syrian regime given its historic intransigence and its dependence on the drug trade as a vital source of income. Furthermore, to the extent that the Syrian state wanted to cooperate, its capabilities are challenged, even in the areas controlled by the regime. In such a context, any meaningful policy-making seems doubtful. Normalization by itself does not change anything on the ground for the moment, but it could soon be followed by real consequences, as Gulf states appear willing to compensate Damascus if it clamps down on the Captagon trade.

Mustafa Karahamad

Mustafa Karahamad

Mustafa Karahamad ist Doktorand im Programmbereich „Transnationale Politik“ und Mitglied der Forschungsgruppe „Terrorismus“ an der HSFK. Er forscht zu muslimischen religiösen Institutionen und der Legitimierung politischer Gewalt im Nahen Osten. // Mustafa Karahamad is a doctoral researcher in PRIF’s research department “Transnational Politics” and member of the research group “Terrorism”. His research interests are Muslim religious institutions and legitimization of political violence in the Middle East.
Regine Schwab

Regine Schwab

Dr. Regine Schwab ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin im Programmbereich „Transnationale Politik“ und Mitglied der Forschungsgruppe „Terrorismus“ an der HSFK. Zu ihren Forschungsinteressen gehören Syrien und der Nahe Osten, Rebellengruppen und politische Gewalt. // Dr Regine Schwab is postdoc at PRIF’s Research Department “Transnational Politics” and member of the research group “Terrorism”. Her research interests are, inter alia, Syria and the Middle East, violent Islamist groups and political violence. | Twitter: @reginesonja

Mustafa Karahamad

Mustafa Karahamad ist Doktorand im Programmbereich „Transnationale Politik“ und Mitglied der Forschungsgruppe „Terrorismus“ an der HSFK. Er forscht zu muslimischen religiösen Institutionen und der Legitimierung politischer Gewalt im Nahen Osten. // Mustafa Karahamad is a doctoral researcher in PRIF’s research department “Transnational Politics” and member of the research group “Terrorism”. His research interests are Muslim religious institutions and legitimization of political violence in the Middle East.

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