Middle Eastern nations must decide for themselves how to engage with Syria

Washington is pushing for ostracism. Moscow is urging a rapprochement. Each is acting in its own interest, and the region should do the same

A Syrian woman walks past a poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Umayyad Square in Damascus on June 6, 2018. / AFP / LOUAI BESHARA
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For several months, the United States has been pushing behind the scenes, and in off-the-record briefings, for the wider Arab world not to re-engage with Syria. Russia, meanwhile, has been doing the opposite, highlighting the benefits of a Syrian return to the Arab fold.

In both cases, these external powers are acting in their own interests, not to the benefit of the Middle East.

Just as the fallout of the Syrian civil war has affected the region more than anywhere else, so too will decisions about the diplomatic future of Syria. As such, they are for the Middle East alone to make.

Towards the end of last year, there was a brief flurry of diplomatic activity in Damascus, as first the UAE, then Bahrain, and then Kuwait reopened their embassies. Since then, Jordan has re-established diplomatic ties, but stopped short of restoring its embassy.

There has also been discussion in Europe of a limited thaw in relations, mainly by countries such as Austria, Hungary and Italy, which bridle at excessive EU interference.

As a senior official recently told the Washington Post, the US still believes that "political isolation and political pressure are the appropriate approach" to Syria. But Washington tried to isolate Syria for years before the 2011 uprisings. That strategy brought about no substantive changes in the regime's behaviour.

Part of the reason is a difference of opinion – both within the West and the Arab world – over what might change the political direction of Damascus. The school of thought dominant in Washington is that political isolation might force Bashar Al Assad to reject Iranian influence. The opposing view is that limiting Damascus's options will more or less guarantee that it runs into the open arms of Russia and Iran.

Russia is the primary proponent of Arab states re-establishing relations with the Assad regime, despite the fact that continued isolation keeps Damascus in Moscow's orbit. However, Russia has a broader objective. It hopes that, by encouraging a rapprochement between Arab states and Syria, it will benefit from reconstruction funds. The thinking is that it is better to have some influence on a Syria that is doing well economically and has reasonable relations with its neighbours, than total influence on a shattered and friendless state.

The truth is that political re-engagement is difficult and divisive, and that no one, in the Middle East or beyond, is sure what to do

The truth is that political re-engagement is difficult and divisive, and that no one, in the Middle East or beyond, is sure what to do. After eight years of war, few in the region want to support the Assad regime. However, they must face the reality that it remains in place.

Every Middle-Eastern country will have its own views on this matter. Most will be torn between accepting the survival of the regime and holding out for political change.

During the civil war, heavyweights such as Turkey and Egypt found themselves, if not on opposite sides, then pursuing very different strategies. For smaller neighbours, such as Lebanon and Jordan, with close ties and hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees within their borders, every move is a political risk. In such an interconnected region, there are also economic costs to consider.

But such decisions need to be made.

Simply following the apparent US line that Syria should be permanently shunned is not enough. For a start, that approach offers nothing to the millions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

That issue alone underscores the fact that answers cannot be imposed by distant powers. It may also be impossible to formulate an approach that will both satisfy those Syrians who stayed and offer justice to those who were forced to flee.

Keeping Syria permanently ostracised rightly penalises the regime, but also punishes millions of ordinary Syrians, those who remained inside Syria and those who have – sometimes reluctantly, sometimes fearfully – returned to a ravaged nation. It also encourages Damascus to play a destabilising role in the Middle East.

These are unenviable decisions – especially as there has been no political change in Syria, and there is little hope of there being any for the foreseeable future. It also hasn't helped that the regime has taken a defensive posture since the beginning, refusing to contemplate even the smallest concessions.

As Arab countries grapple with this challenge, they will have to act in their own best interests. There will be inevitable differences. But, if the nations of the Middle East come to different conclusions about what should happen to Bashar Al Assad, that is only because the Syrian people have too.