IN MORE THAN two decades of covering the Middle East, I have rarely seen diplomacy provide forward movement toward solving the region’s problems. More often than not, it brings to mind two cliches about momentum: Wheels spinning in mud and a slow-motion train wreck. Syria’s readmission to the Arab League falls in the second category.
On Sunday, after months of diplomatic maneuvers — sometimes in the dark, but mostly in plain sight — the 22-member bloc moved to bring Bashar al-Assad in from the cold. Next week, a head-of-states summit in Riyadh is expected to formalize the process.
The rehabilitation of the Arab world’s bloodiest regime in a generation is being portrayed variously as a sensible accommodation with reality (sanctions against Assad haven’t dislodged him, so let’s try something else) and, even less plausibly, a smart geopolitical stratagem (this way, we can pull Damascus away from the orbit of Tehran). These assumptions are deeply flawed. Far from solving any problems, the return of Syria into the comity of Arab nations will exacerbate the region’s existing crises and create new ones.
The Assad regime, which is as much a family-run narcotics enterprise as it is an authoritarian political entity, will use the opening to enrich itself while expanding markets for its principal export: the amphetamine fenethylline, better known as Captagon. Many Arab states are already grappling with a Captagon epidemic and should brace for much worse to come.
Any monetary support the Arab League now provides Assad toward rebuilding the country he has devastated over the past 12 years will mostly be diverted to his coffers and those of his cronies. That is, if any money changes hands at all. Engaging with the Syrian regime will put Arab states — and any Arab businesses that follow the lead of their governments — into direct conflict with US and European sanctions.
For the US and Europe, this sets up a doozy of a dilemma: How do you punish your friends for putting their faith, however foolishly, in diplomacy with an enemy? The Biden administration insists that its position hasn’t changed. Secretary of State Tony Blinken “made clear that the US will not normalize relations with the Assad regime and does not support others normalizing until there is authentic, UN-facilitated political progress in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254,” the State department said in a statement.
But the real test for the administration will come with when Arab states start to put their money where their mealy-mouthed excuses are — and ask the US to look away. Some League leaders say they want to provide succor to the millions of Syrians who have endured a dozen years of slaughter and destruction by the regime. They will argue that funds provided for reconstruction of devastated towns and cities should be exempt from sanctions on humanitarian grounds.
Can the West hold the line when the Arab states have dropped it? Calls for Washington to go along with Syria’s readmission to the League are inevitable: If those who were once the most ardent supporters of sanctions have changed their minds, then why not drop them?
This would not only represent a betrayal of principles — the Biden administration is no stranger to that practice — it would neuter the principal non-kinetic weapon the West can use against tyrants everywhere. Sanctions may be slow to work, but they do serve as shackles: Without them, Assad would undoubtedly have slaughtered many multiples of the 300,000 civilians who have fallen in the Syrian civil war.
Allowing the Arab states to aid Damascus would also be a geopolitical blunder. It would reward Russian and Iranian efforts to protect Assad from his own population and give them a propaganda victory over the West. Having provided the dictator with the weapons to savage his own country, Moscow and Tehran would like nothing more than to have the Arab states pay for its repair as well as his rehabilitation. They can see what the League won’t: Assad will remain loyal to those who propped him up when the world was against him.
More than likely, Iran will exploit Syria’s return to the Arab League to use the country as cover for sanctions-busting of its own. This would be bad news for Israel: Only last month, Iran was revealed to have used flights meant to be supplying humanitarian aid to earthquake-hits parts of Syria as cover for shipping arms to its proxy militias. Some, like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, rely on such subterfuge to acquire more missiles and rockets to use against Israel.
While Assad will be more than happy to take any money the Arabs have to offer, in return they will not get much purchase on his policies. The League should know from the example of other places where Tehran wields malign influence — Lebanon, for a start — that money doesn’t buy leverage. If they won’t learn from the error of their ways, the Biden administration should provide some object lessons by increasing vigilance against any sanctions-busting and penalizing those who try.