December 14, 2021

IntelBrief: Will the International Community Accept Normalization of the Assad Regime?


Bottom Line Up Front

  • There are growing signs that countries in the Middle East are prepared to accept the normalization of Assad’s regime, even after the ten-year civil war in Syria.
  • Many countries, including the U.S. and Qatar, have been outspoken in their opposition to normalizing relations with Assad, while the United Arab Emirates has steadily increased its outreach to the beleaguered dictator. 
  • Assad seems to be growing desperate, seizing and confiscating cash and other assets from businesses inside Syria, as the country’s economy continues its downward spiral.
  • Moving toward normalization with no sense of accountability for the atrocities perpetrated by the Assad regime would merely embolden other dictators to act with similar impunity.

With the recent visit of UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan to Syria to meet with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, there are growing signs that countries in the Middle East are prepared to accept the normalization of the Assad regime. The United States has been outspoken in its opposition to anything approaching normalization. In late September, a spokesperson from the U.S. State Department said: "The United States will not normalize or upgrade our diplomatic relations with the Assad regime nor do we encourage others to do so, given the atrocities inflicted by the Assad regime on the Syrian people.” The official continued, "Assad has regained no legitimacy in our eyes, and there is no question of the U.S. normalizing relations with his government at this time." The Caesar Act of 2019 gives President Joseph Biden leverage in applying targeted sanctions at the Syrian regime and businessmen connected to it. 

Besides the United States, other countries have been vocal about the issue of normalization with Assad. In mid-November, Qatar’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said that Qatar is not considering normalizing ties with Syria and hopes that other countries in the region avoid acquiescing to the Assad regime. However, the UAE has gone on the record to suggest that Syria should be readmitted to the Arab League. The UAE has also agreed to enhance trade and economic cooperation with Syria but has not made demands on Assad’s behavior. Abu Dhabi reopened its embassy in Syria toward the end of 2018. In early October, Jordanian leader King Abdullah spoke with Assad by phone, the first communication between the two since Syria’s civil war kicked off in 2011. Egypt has also engaged in outreach with Syria, with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry meeting with Faisal Mekdad, his Syrian counterpart, during the United Nations General Assembly in September. Saudi and Syrian intelligence chiefs also recently met in Egypt, and regional experts suggest that Syria may be formally welcomed back into the Arab League at the next summit to be held in March 2022.  

The Assad regime seems to be growing desperate, particularly as the Syrian economy continues its downward spiral. According to the Washington Post, regime officials have begun raiding and seizing businesses, illegally confiscating cash and assets. Under the guise of working as auditors and tax agents, Assad’s stooges have extorted business leaders, functioning in a predatory manner that reveals just how bad things are getting inside of Syria. Assad needs to keep funding his vast patronage network throughout the country, which includes senior military and intelligence officials that have remained loyal to the regime for the duration of the civil war, which has now lasted for more than a decade. Assad has also been implicated in the growth of Syria’s captagon drug industry. A blistering New York Times report indicates his top lieutenants are alleged to be the ringleaders of a massive production and distribution network that profits from the sale of the illegal amphetamine, underlining Syria’s potential to become a narcostate in the region.

Along with his Russian and Iranian partners, Assad is responsible for the brutal murder of untold numbers of Syrian civilians. At least 350,000 people have been killed during the span of the conflict, and northwestern Syria, especially Idlib Province, remains a powder keg, currently governed by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a terrorist group previously linked to al-Qaeda. Assad has used chemical weapons on his own population on numerous occasions and is known to detain and torture regime opponents. Moving toward normalization with no sense of accountability for the atrocities perpetrated by the Assad regime would merely embolden other dictators to act with similar impunity and wanton disregard for human life. In a powerful testimony to the Security Council, Omar Alshogre, whose family members were killed by the regime and who was himself imprisoned and tortured, called for accountability: “We have stronger evidence today than what we had against the Nazis at Nuremberg. [We] even know where the mass graves are located. But still no international court and no end to the ongoing slaughter for the civilians in Syria.”

Accountability remains elusive and extremely challenging politically, albeit not impossible. A few avenues for the limited pursuit of justice remain, including states exercising universal jurisdiction, the International Criminal Court (ICC) arguing for jurisdiction, and cases through the International Court of Justice. For example, Germany exercised universal jurisdiction to try a former Syrian government official, reaching a guilty verdict for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity. And, based on precedence set by an ICC determination of jurisdiction over the forcible transfer of Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh, the ICC could potentially argue jurisdiction over the Assad regime’s forcible transfer of Syrians to Jordan, a state party to the Rome Statute of the ICC. Even if any of these avenues for accountability were successful, however, the scale of viable justice will sadly never account for the scale of horrors seen in the past ten years of conflict. 

Still, it remains unclear what Washington’s strategy is toward Syria, and with limited leverage, normalization may simply become a fait accompli as countries weigh the costs and benefits of outreach to Assad, while evaluating the potential for fallout related to U.S. sanctions. American journalist Austin Tice, kidnapped in 2012, is still believed to be a prisoner of the Assad regime. Moreover, it remains unclear how Washington will engage key international partners in this effort, given divergent views among key allies on issues such as: managing the repatriation and rehabilitation of ISIS-affiliated residents in displacement camps in northeast Syria; the framing of counterterrorism and great power competition as mutually exclusive dynamics; the fallout of failing negotiations with Iran; and increased distrust of the U.S. in the wake of the botched pullout from Afghanistan.