March 2, 2023

IntelBrief: Assad Uses Earthquake to Advance Normalization

AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The regime of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has manipulated the urgent need for earthquake relief aid in an attempt to break out of his decade-long stretch of global isolation and pariah status.
  • Damascus sought to burnish its image by allowing additional border crossings for U.N. humanitarian aid deliveries into northern Syria, though critics warn these reach largely government-controlled areas
  • Assad achieved a breakthrough by visiting Oman in late February, while several Arab states sent high-level delegations to Damascus or renewed direct contact with Assad after the quake; several regional actors have called for Syria’s reinstitution in the Arab League.
  • Though U.S. officials insist that engagement with Syria on earthquake relief should not promote the normalization of Assad’s regime, Washington is unlikely to punish allies that re-engage Syria economically.

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad immediately sought to exploit the humanitarian catastrophe resulting from the earthquake that struck southeastern Türkiye and northwestern Syria in early February to break out of more than a decade of regional and global isolation pariah status in response to his regime’s use of brutality and military force to crush a popular uprising that began in 2011. Assad’s main political opposition is now confined to the northwestern province of Idlib, the Syrian region most affected by the natural disaster. Prior to the earthquake, few Arab leaders engaged with Assad directly – a notable exception being the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which hosted Assad in March 2022 in his first visit to an Arab country since the start of the Syrian civil war. Most regional states, many of which are U.S. allies, remained in step with Washington’s insistence that normalization of relations with Assad be contingent on his willingness to meaningfully engage with the opposition, including ceding some authority. Russian and Iranian support allowed Assad to offset risks of remaining isolated and unable to attract foreign reconstruction investment, and he consistently refused to yield any of his authority. Assad remained confident that his two main allies, Moscow and Tehran, would assist enough financially to keep his regime afloat. Yet Assad’s grip over the territory under his control was deteriorating as his national economy collapsed, his country endured day-long cuts in electricity, and even his Iranian ally, itself under substantial pressure from U.S sanctions, doubled the price of its oil supplies to Syria and demanded payment in advance.

Since 2020, Russia has used its position as a veto-wielding permanent member of the UN Security Council to help Assad pressure the international community to engage with his regime directly. In 2014, the U.N. Security Council established a Türkiye-Syria cross-border aid program, arguing that Syrian officials routinely deny the UN permission to deliver aid across front lines into opposition-held areas and siphon aid funds. However, UN officials required Security Council authorization for the program due to the Assad regime’s refusal to grant them unfettered access to its sovereign territory, even territory controlled by regime opponents. Seeking to force global aid agencies to deliver all aid into the country through the Syrian government, Russia compelled the Council (with the support of China, another veto-wielding permanent member) to progressively narrow the program’s access from four border crossings down to one at Bab al-Hawa along the Türkiye-Syria border. UN officials and several Council members have argued that one border crossing was insufficient, but terminating the cross-border program and delivering all aid via regime-controlled institutions was not an acceptable alternative.

The recent earthquake, which damaged the road to the Baba al-Hawa crossing, provided Assad with an opening to ingratiate himself into United Nations and the global community. On February 13, after meeting in Damascus with Martin Griffiths, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Assad agreed to allow deliveries into Syria for three months via two additional crossings from Türkiye. The decision, marking Assad’s first act of cooperation in opening opposition-held territory to such assistance since Syria’s civil war began in 2011, coincided with UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ appeal for $397 million to support earthquake recovery efforts in for Syria over three months. It also gave several Arab states cover to justify flying aid deliveries to Assad-controlled territory as Saudi Arabia, the major regional power that had resisted any re-engagement with Damascus, began sending planeloads of aid along with other Arab states into the government-controlled city of Aleppo.

Other signs suggest Assad is succeeding in exploiting the earthquake to advance regional integration. Jordanian, Emirati, and other Arab state officials have argued that rather than force Assad to compromise, isolation had simply enhanced Iranian influence in Syria. In the aftermath of the earthquake, Assad received UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan (his first visit to Damascus since November 2021) and the foreign minister of U.S.-allied Jordan, Ayman Safadi (marking the first high-level Jordanian visit to Damascus since the Syrian conflict began). Meanwhile, two close U.S. partners – Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa (who restored bilateral relations with Syria in 2018) called Assad to offer condolences. Syrian officials used their return to international media to claim that Western sanctions were hampering the earthquake relief effort (the United States exempted earthquake aid-related transactions from its Syrian sanctions regime four days after the quake struck).

One day after Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud told the Munich Security Conference that a new consensus was building in the Arab world that “the status quo” approach to Syria “was not workable” and that another “is still being formulated,” Assad achieved his most significant post-earthquake breakthrough to date when he met with Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said in Muscat. During this meeting, the Omani leader not only extended condolences for the earthquake, but also reportedly discussed regional and bilateral issues. Oman’s hosting of Assad comports with the country’s relatively independent policy among the Gulf states, as demonstrated by the sultanate’s engagement with Tehran and such Iranian allies as the Houthi movement in Yemen. Oman was one of the few Arab states to maintain diplomatic relations with Syria after the uprising broke out in 2011, and in 2020 became the first Gulf state to return its ambassador to Damascus.

Still, U.S. officials have largely maintained their opposition to welcoming the Assad regime back into the community of nations. As many of Washington’s closest regional partners re-engage with Assad, it remains an open question whether U.S. officials can arrest, or even slow, the gradual regional normalization with the Syrian dictator. Yet most experts consider it unlikely that U.S. officials will impose sanctions or other penalties on regional governments – particularly on close U.S. partners – if they materially re-engage with the Syrian government in the wake of this natural disaster.