Syria’s nearly 11-year civil war is entering a crucial phase as multiple competing diplomatic efforts converge around the crisis. With strong support from Russia, Iran, and many non-state actors, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has emerged as a victor militarily. At the same time, with Washington waging financial warfare against Syria, Assad rules over a nation hard-hit by US sanctions that greatly contribute to poverty, food insecurity, and widespread deprivation.
Arab states find themselves between these two camps. Although regional leaders largely welcomed pressure tactics against Damascus following the 2011 Arab Spring that led to the war, sentiments towards Assad are shifting. Today, most of the governments in the region have welcomed the Syrian president and his regime back into the regional fold. Such a shift has metastasized itself in small but significant diplomatic overtures through regional organizations, such as the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) and the Arab League.
A debate is underway in Washington about how to approach this evolving dynamic.
Against this backdrop, a debate is underway in Washington about how to approach this evolving dynamic. This has not produced a consensus among US leaders. On one side of this conversation, Brett McGurk, the US National Security Council’s Middle East policy coordinator, called for US efforts in Syria to reflect “the reality of the staying power” of Assad.
Conversely, lawmakers on both sides of Washington’s partisan divide are expressing increased frustration with what they perceive to be the Biden administration’s willingness to soften US pressure on Assad. This group has demanded that the White House intensify the US government’s enforcement of the Trump-era Caesar Act (the most wide-ranging US sanctions ever imposed on Syria) and put pressure on Arab states to not renormalize their relations with the Damascus regime.
Syria and OAPEC
Monitoring how the Biden administration chooses to address warming ties between Arab governments and Damascus will be important this year. Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Jordan, have all worked to rehabilitate Assad’s government. There are also regional efforts to reinstitute Syria into the Arab League.
A recent OAPEC decision placing Syria as the chair of the council of Arab oil ministers within the organization further compounded such efforts. In a virtual meeting hosted by Kuwait, all OAPEC member countries – Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, and the UAE – agreed that its 2024 Arab energy conference will take place in Damascus as well.
Such decisions are difficult to separate from the Arab world’s grander rapprochement trend with Assad. It is quite possible that OAPEC choosing Syria to host the Arab energy conference in 2024 is how “Syria’s re-integration will look like: small, graduate, deliberate steps until Syria is brought back into the regional fold,” Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst at the risk consultancy Stratfor/Rane, told Inside Arabia. “It’ll be a slow process, and I suspect the day that Syria actually is back to the status quo ante 2010 won’t be notable because it’ll take place over such a long time with so many slow steps.”
Within this context, the decision to make Syria the host of the 2024 OAPEC Summit could partially be designed to gauge the White House’s reaction. So far, the Arab states that have decided to reaccept Assad as a legitimate head of state have done so despite Washington’s objection. To be sure, the US took no serious action beyond making tough public statements against such decisions.
The US took no serious action beyond making tough public statements against such decisions.
“Among certain regional players such as Jordan, the UAE, and Egypt, this appears to be an experiment of how rapprochement can unfold with Syria and its Arab neighbors at large,” Caroline Rose, a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute, said in an interview with Inside Arabia. “It also accomplishes another objective for Arab states: a test to the Biden administration to gauge their limits for engaging with the Assad regime.”
What is the Anti-Assad Bloc Thinking?
Notably, two OAPEC member-states – Qatar and Saudi Arabia – supported anti-Assad groups in Syria earlier during the civil war, and neither Doha nor Riyadh have resumed diplomatic relations with Damascus. Hence, their decision to make Syria the 2024 OAPEC Summit host and chair of the council of Arab oil ministers raises some important questions.
The decision to allow Qatar to host the OAPEC Summit in 2023 may be the reason why Doha supported OAPEC’s Syria decision for 2024, according to Dr. Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma.
“Qatar is the state that objects most vociferously to normalization of relations with Damascus and its return to the Arab League,” Dr. Landis told Inside Arabia. “Presumably, Qatar’s objections were assuaged by the vote to have it host the meeting in 2023.”
Furthermore, certain economic factors could have allayed potential Saudi and Qatari concerns regarding the political ramifications for their support of Syria’s OAPEC involvement.
“An opportunity to increase trade and investment and reverse the trajectory of [Syria’s] sliding economy.”
“Despite Syria’s lower capacity and smaller-scale reserves, this role within OAPEC has been framed among some members as an opportunity to increase trade and investment opportunities and reverse the trajectory of its sliding economy – a possible reason why some states like Qatar that have traditionally opposed normalization have voted in favor of Syria hosting,” explained Rose. Such thinking would reflect Doha’s shifting regional strategy, which has gradually become more pragmatic due to humanitarian and economic considerations.
Indeed, Doha’s decision may be a sign that the Gulf emirate is beginning the renormalization process, albeit with much caution and at a slower rate. “Qatar appears to have joined the move because it is so low risk and because this is where the trend is going,” said Bohl. “Qatar already decided to restore overflights with Damascus’ permission in 2019…Qatar is less likely to send back an ambassador or attempt to invest in Syria, as it waits to see how the US treats other countries, like the UAE, who are already doing so. They’re willing to take the dive, they just want to see others do it first.”
A Collision Course?
There is no doubt that Syria hosting the 2024 OAPEC Summit will not sit well with the West. Washington and most of its allies in the EU oppose recognition of Assad as a legitimate president. Yet, in the Arab world, the trend is in favor of renormalizing relations with Damascus. Within OAPEC, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia, and the UAE all publicly support Assad’s return to the Arab region’s diplomatic fold. To various extents, these states have also made efforts to push for Syria’s return to the Arab League.
“The Arab decision to have Syria host the [OAPEC] meeting is a slap in the face to both the US and EU,” explained Dr. Landis. “They are trying to isolate Syria diplomatically and economically…This vote [by all OAPEC members] puts western and Arab countries on a collision course over Syria policy.”
It remains to be seen just how far Washington will go to prevent such diplomatic overtures. Certainly, Syria’s involvement in OAPEC is largely symbolic, reflecting additional diplomatic overtures to the country as Arab states appear to be testing the scope of their actions with the United States and western European governments. The Biden administration almost certainly understands this, as reflected in its relative silence following the announcement of the conference.
Still, the Biden administration appears to have no interest in lifting sanctions without pre-conditions – specifically a political transition that removes the Assad family and its cohorts from power. Moreover, the Caesar Act carries legal obligations for the administration as it is a Congressional act, meaning the Biden team must enforce it as a statute regardless of the White House’s interests. This suggests that growing tensions between Washington and certain Arab states could occur, making their choice of gradual reintegration to test the limits of their engagement with Damascus even more understandable.
Regardless, for now, it seems that the OAPEC decision will do little if anything to ease the economic hardships endured by the Syrian people.