While hundreds of thousands of people in northern Syria are still waiting for tents, water and medical aid, the Syrian regime is celebrating its comeback in the Arab world. Earthquake relief is serving as a fig leaf for Assad's rehabilitation, writes Kristin Helberg

Earthquake aid for Syria
Bashar al-Assad – pariah no more

While hundreds of thousands of people in northern Syria are still waiting for tents, water and medical aid, the Syrian regime is celebrating its comeback in the Arab world. Earthquake relief is serving as a fig leaf for Assad's rehabilitation, writes Kristin Helberg

When President Bashar al-Assad gave a speech on Syrian state television on the eleventh day after the earthquake, a surprising number of people tuned in, not only in Syria but throughout the region. Major Arab television stations owned by the Gulf monarchies chose to broadcast Assad's words – after years of disapproval or reticence with respect to the regime in Damascus.

As expected, the Syrian ruler thanked his "Arab brothers and sisters" for their support in the crisis. Suddenly, however, his invoking of the Arab nation, as the Baath Party has been doing for decades, no longer sounded so hollow and time-worn, but quite genuine.

Assad is back. Ever since the earthquake, following twelve years of isolation, he has been receiving delegations and foreign ministers from countries across the region and even flew to Oman himself on a state visit. The solidarity felt with the earthquake victims –as evidenced by the tons of relief supplies landing in Damascus, Latakia and Aleppo – is quite real and demonstrates how many people in the Middle East and North Africa are ready to stand by the long-suffering Syrians.

At the same time, rulers in the region are using the earthquake as an excuse to normalise relations with Damascus again – among them not only countries that have long since embarked on a course of reconciliation, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria and Oman, but also states that had until now hesitated and sided with Assad's opponents. Egypt, for example, which relies on financial aid from the U.S. and is also the largest recipient of German arms exports, had thus far avoided any official contact with Assad – up until the moment when President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi picked up the phone to speak with him the day after the quake. It wasn't long before the Egyptian foreign minister paid a visit to Damascus.

Jordan's foreign minister visits Bashar al-Assad in Damascus (image: Syrian Presidency via Reuters)
Jordan's foreign minister visits Bashar al-Assad: for the first time since the beginning of the civil war, a Jordanian foreign minister has again paid an official visit to Damascus and delivered a message of condolence from Jordan's King Abdullah II to the neighbouring country in view of the thousands of earthquake victims. Jordan had previously limited its relations with Syria out of deference to Western allies, writes Kristin Helberg

Saudi Arabia and Qatar's support is key

Jordan, too, had limited its relations with Syria out of deference to Western allies. By mid-February, however, Jordan's foreign minister had also visited Bashar al-Assad. Most significant of all is the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The two wealthy Gulf States, along with Turkey, are considered the most important supporters of the Syrian opposition in exile.

The Saudi foreign minister's upcoming visit to Damascus could therefore usher in Assad's full rehabilitation in the region – culminating in Syria's readmission to the Arab League at the next summit in Riyadh.

Those involved seem to have no moral qualms about this development. The autocrats in the Gulf and the military dictatorships in Egypt and Algeria are not interested in the 130,000 people who have disappeared or who are still in prison in Syria to this day, subject to torture at the hands of the secret service.

In the past, the rulers were more concerned with bolstering Islamist forces in the opposition in order to establish a political Islam in Syria. It was the liberal opponents of Assad who suffered the most from this strategy, those committed to the rule of law and to freedom, who ended up being crushed between the regime and the extremists.

If Saudi Arabia and Qatar now choose to follow the UAE's course – the Emirates already hosted Assad in March 2022 – they are apparently motivated by a desire to bring the Syrian president, who has thus far maintained his power with the help of Russia and Iran, back into the Arab fold. For, no matter how weak and devastated Syria may be at present, the country remains a Middle East linchpin thanks to its geopolitical location between Turkey, Israel, Iran, the Mediterranean and the Arab world.

Arab League summit in 2020 (image: Mohamed El Shahed/AFP/Getty Images)
Welcoming Assad back into the Arab League? "The Saudi foreign minister's upcoming visit to Damascus could therefore usher in Assad's full rehabilitation in the region – culminating in Syria's readmission to the Arab League at the next summit in Riyadh," writes Helberg. No matter how weak and devastated Syria may be at present, the country remains a Middle East linchpin thanks to its geopolitical location between Turkey, Israel, Iran, the Mediterranean and the Arab world

Curbing Turkey's influence

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's announcement months ago that he intended to reconcile with Assad had the effect of a wake-up call. From Riyadh's point of view, it became vital to prevent losing Syria not only to Russia and Iran but also to Turkey's influence.

Behind the gradual rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus – the defence ministers of the two regimes met in Moscow in late December, and Erdogan had already resolved before the presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey to reach out to Assad – is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been working toward the international rehabilitation of his protege Assad since 2018.

Putin has invested a great deal both in military terms and politically to secure Assad's power and thus his own geostrategic interests in the eastern Mediterranean. But he lacks sufficient funds to stabilise Syria. Putin thus needs the Gulf States and the West to cooperate in rebuilding the areas of Syria that were heavily destroyed by his own air force and Assad's barrel bombs; they should foot the bill so that Moscow can continue to rely on its proxy in the Levant.

The EU and the USA are still refusing to provide reconstruction aid to the Syrian regime. For years they have watched as Assad misappropriated the UN humanitarian relief they financed to shore up his own power base. Lucrative contracts go to companies and organisations close to the regime, while people receive assistance according not to their needs but rather their loyalty to the regime. Nevertheless, many in Europe are now calling for more pragmatic dealings with Damascus.

Aid for earthquake victims takes off from a military airport near Baghdad (image: Ahmed Saad/Reuters)
The solidarity felt with the earthquake victims – as evidenced by the tons of relief supplies landing in Damascus, Latakia and Aleppo – is quite real and demonstrates how many people in the Middle East and North Africa are ready to stand by the long-suffering Syrians. At the same time, rulers in the region are using the earthquake as an excuse to normalise relations with Damascus again

After the earthquake, the EU temporarily eased its sanctions against the regime, and humanitarian flights from Germany, Denmark and Norway landed directly in Damascus. According to reports, 90 percent of current emergency aid is going to the regime, even though 88 percent of Syria's earthquake victims live in opposition-controlled areas.

Multipolar world order

The Arab closing of ranks with Assad provides clear evidence that the rulers in the Middle East are no longer aligning their foreign policy with Washington, but have long since diversified. Russia and China are seen as important counterweights to U.S. and European influence in the region, and the Gulf States are today independent and effective actors in a multipolar world order.

Erdogan for his part has been demonstrating for years how allies can be played off against each other to his own advantage. As a NATO member and mediator in the Ukraine war, he is indispensable to the West, while at the same time coordinating every move closely with Putin. In his unconditional drive to win the election, Erdogan has therefore accepted Moscow's proposal to rehabilitate Assad. The Syrian regime would then help him to repatriate refugees from Turkey and crush the Kurdish autonomous region in north-eastern Syria.

The normalisation of Turkish-Syrian relations has however been stalled by the earthquake. Erdogan and Assad are both fighting to stay in power. But while things are going well for the Syrian ruler on the foreign relations front, the Turkish president is under massive pressure at home. Erdogan cannot afford to show solidarity with the Syrians as long as he is not even able to provide for his own people.

Conversely, thanks to his Arab resocialisation, Assad is no longer dependent on Erdogan's handshake – particularly as he can be sure of an agreement with Ankara even if the nationalist opposition ends up forming the next government. He will therefore await the outcome of the elections and then insist on the withdrawal of Turkish troops from northern Syria.

Ankara might very well comply with this demand, as the Turkish-occupied areas along the border have become an additional burden given the severe earthquake damage. In return, the Syrian regime would have to promise to dissolve Kurdish self-government and to resume rule in the northeast.

That leaves the problem of the refugees. For most Syrians in Turkey, returning to areas controlled by the regime is not an option, as they fear persecution, arrest or forced recruitment. And yet thousands are currently making their way to the heavily destroyed town of Idlib. 1.7 million Syrians currently live in the Turkish earthquake zones; many have lost everything and have nowhere left to go, and they receive no government support.

In northern Syria, they cannot expect to receive any more international aid, but they can at least count on the solidarity of their compatriots. Extremist-controlled Idlib could therefore soon become not only a gathering place for people displaced by the Assad regime but also a reception centre for earthquake victims returning to their homeland from Turkey.

Kristin Helberg

© Qantara.de 2023

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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