A swift rapprochement with Jordan, a major role in the Lebanese energy crisis or a reintegration at Interpol. The signs are clear: Syria is partially breaking its geopolitical isolation despite the maintenance of heavy US sanctions.
They had not officially spoken to each other for more than ten years. But in early October, Bashar al-Assad and King Abdullah II of Jordan spoke by phone. A simple call, but whose importance is great for the Syrian regime, still excluded by the international community.
For several weeks, the rapprochement between Damascus and Amman has accelerated. The foreign ministers of both countries met on the sidelines of the recent UN General Assembly in New York and several Syrian ministers were received by the Jordanian authorities.
This apparent Jordanian-Syrian reconciliation was crowned by the reopening, at the end of September, of the main land border crossing, that of Jaber-Nassib, in northwestern Jordan, which shares a 375 km border with its Syrian neighbor.
At the moment, it is not a question of normalizing political relations. The exchange of ambassadors is not on the agenda, although diplomatic representations are open.
On the Jordanian side, the objective is above all economic. Before 2011 and the start of the war in Syria, land trade between the two countries represented no less than 615 million dollars a year for the Hashemite kingdom. Following the Covid-19 pandemic and years of regional destabilization, Jordan can no longer afford to turn its back on the Damascus regime.
With this approach, Bashar al-Assad continues his rehabilitation on the regional scene. At the end of 2018, Abu Dhabi – followed shortly after by Bahrain – had announced the reopening of its embassy in Damascus after six years of breakdown. Other countries, such as Egypt, Oman, Iraq or Jordan, have also been softening their positions towards Damascus.
“Some Arab countries have, in fact, continued to maintain discreet contacts with Syria, and governments now approaching the regime publicly have wanted to do so for a long time. In the region, everyone understands that Bashar al-Assad has won the claim. war and that it is necessary to have contacts with him, “said Aron Lund, Middle East analyst associated with the Century Foundation, contacted by France 24.
Another element has contributed to moving the lines in favor of Bashar al-Assad: the arrival of Joe Biden to the White House. “Obama and Trump kept up strong pressure to avoid that rapprochement. This is no longer the case with Joe Biden,” says Aron Lund.
An example of this more pragmatic approach by the United States is the exceptional green light given in August to the Egyptian gas transport project through Syria to a Lebanon in crisis, despite the heavy sanctions of the “Caesar law”. , which prohibits any transaction with the Syrian authorities.
“The US ambassador to Beirut has accepted the principle of a supply through the Syrian gas pipeline, suspending the ‘Caesar law’ in a timely manner. It is about preventing Iran from sending its fuel shipments by ship,” David analyzes Rigoulet-Roze, associate researcher at Iris (Institute for International and Strategic Relations) specialized in the Middle East region. “Without a doubt, Bashar al-Assad will cleverly use this position to show that he cannot be definitively excluded.”
It remains to be seen whether the Syrian gas pipeline continues to function properly after more than ten years of war. An audit is currently being carried out to verify the status of its facilities.
Tour of the Arab world
For Bashar al-Assad, the planets seem to be lining up for him to return to the regional diplomatic game and the question of reintegration into the Arab League is increasingly urgent.
“The most influential countries of the Arab League, except Saudi Arabia, are in favor of the reintegration of Syria. I would be surprised if this reintegration did not occur in the next two years,” predicts Aron Lund, according to which Syria could overcome the last reluctance offering promises of goodwill on the release of prisoners or guarantees on the return of the six million Syrian refugees.
The organization’s heavyweight, Egypt, and intelligence chief Gen. Abbas Kamel are piloting this round of the game. Also in this case it is a question of counteracting the influence of Tehran in the region.
“The ties between Damascus and Tehran are very strong. If Bashar al-Assad won the war, it was largely thanks to Iran. On the other hand, there are those who think that continuing to ostracize Bashar al-Assad amounts to definitively pushing him to the arms of Iran. The idea of these Arab countries is to insist on the “Arabity” of Syria to weaken its ties with Tehran “, analyzes David Rigoulet-Roze.
Assad, persona non grata
The latest development that seems to indicate a turning point for Syria on the diplomatic front is its return to the information exchange system, Interpol.
Damascus was suspended in 2012 when international sanctions were imposed on the country in response to crimes committed by the regime against its people.
“The intelligence services are realistic. They know that they cannot do without reestablishing a minimum of ties with the Syrian services, which have experience in managing terrorist risk,” explains David Rigoulet-Roze.
However, this return of Syria in the world diplomatic game must be largely relativized, according to specialists interviewed by France 24.
“Nobody wants to be in photos shaking hands with Bashar al-Assad,” says Aron Lund. “Beyond the reputation of the regime, there are many obstacles to further normalization, especially with the United States and the EU.”
Since June 2020, the “Cesar law” has allowed people, entities or companies to be dissuaded from collaborating financially with Damascus. Sanctions Syria’s neighbors would like to see alleviated. But, at the moment, the partial lifting of US sanctions, which would require a politically costly vote for Joe Biden in Congress, is not on the agenda.
This article was adapted from its original in French.