Assad’s quest for legitimacy and his efforts to normalize in the Gulf

Along with the presidential elections, Bashar al-Assad looks to normalize his relations with the Gulf countries, most notably Saudi Arabia.

10 mins read

In the elections, al-Assad tried to send a clear message to both the Syrian opposition and his foreign opponents that their dreams of overthrowing him were over, and many of al-Assad’s supporters believe that the elections, with Assad’s mandate with 95.1 percent of the vote, constituted the final nail in the coffin of the international diplomatic effort to achieve any kind of change that affected al-Assad and his regime. It was clear that both Russia and Iran used the election results to send a clear message to Washington and its partners that there is no future for Syria without Bashar al-Assad.

Bashar al-Assad used the phrase “hope with action” as his campaign slogan. As soon as the results of the elections were issued, al-Assad announced the beginning of the stage of work to build Syria as it should be. According to reliable sources, more than 14 million Syrians, out of a total of 18 million people who are entitled to vote inside and outside Syria participated in it.

The number of voters announced by the authorities exceeded analysts’ expectations, especially since the elections took place in areas controlled by the regime forces, which are home to about 11 million people. Al-Assad’s election campaign highlighted the role of Al-Assad as a man who won the war and has enormous ideas for the reconstruction of Syria, in addition to being the only one who was able to restore order after the chaos of the conflict that drained the country’s capabilities and economy, and claimed the lives of more than 388,000 people.

Bashar al-Assad realizes that obtaining funds from the international community for the reconstruction of Syria cannot be obtained outside of a political settlement under the umbrella of the United Nations.

Therefore, before the elections, Syrian officials deliberately leaked information about a major change in relations with the Gulf and about open channels of communication, especially with Saudi Arabia.

  • Buthaina Shaaban: The Special Adviser to the Presidency stated on the local “Sham FM” radio, “There are efforts being made for better relations between Damascus and Riyadh, and we may witness results in the coming days on this issue.”
  • Faisal Miqdad: The Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that “the political discourse has differed, even slightly, and this will pave the way for new developments in the region.”

After years of estrangement between Syria and the Arab League following the outbreak of the conflict, several indications of Gulf openness have emerged, starting with the UAE reopening its embassy in Damascus and sending medical aid, and then its foreign minister confirming in March 2021 that Syria’s return to the League of Arab States is in its interest additionally, the interests of other countries in the region.

This was followed, in May 2021, by the participation of the Minister of Tourism, Muhammad Martini, at the invitation of Saudi Arabia, in a meeting of the World Tourism Organization Committee for the Middle East in Riyadh, which took place after the announcement of the results of the presidential elections in Syria. All these indicators indicate that relations with Arab countries, even if they have gone through rivalries and sometimes enmities or direct clashes, yet this is considered in the context of history as a normal thing. It is likely that work will be done to establish new relations based on criteria that guarantee the restoration of trust between the two parties.

Al-Assad’s opponents and what they might do?

Although Assad’s opponents and Western powers question the integrity of the elections, and the United Nations asserts that the elections “are not part of the political process” that “includes free and fair elections under a new constitution” under its supervision, the margin of maneuvering for Assad’s opponents remains limited and with his victory in a new term, his opponents’ options narrowed.

Al-Assad has always reiterated his intention to recapture the areas outside his control through negotiation or force, but the Turkish-Russian ceasefire agreements in and around Idlib in the opposition-held areas (northwest), and the presence of US forces in the SDF-held areas (northeast) impeded his progress towards the military option.

Despite the Syrian opposition’s description of the Syrian elections as sham and farce, their influence remains very limited, with the exception of perhaps continuing to raise their case on the international arena, and making sure of the involvement for the rest of the “great international powers” that are involved in the conflict.

Although the opposition is still far from reaching the area it has been seeking to reach since the first day of the Syrian revolution, Assad must, at some point, show more flexibility. It may take some time, but sooner or later the rules of the game will change and we might even witness pressure on Bashar al-Assad and his regime from his most important allies.

For international actors, there are two possible scenarios in regard to the 2021 Syrian presidential elections, which are either to recognize them or not. In order to explore the possibilities, it is important to analyze the situation of both the Assad regime and the international actors, from the perspective of their interests and challenges within the Syrian context.

However, especially for the US and their policy toward Syria after the election, we won’t say major changes and US policy will still be defined with the following points:

  • The US Sanctions throw out the Caesar Act, which serves as a political declaration of Assad’s illegitimacy, further its own economic impact.
  • Continue their presence and influence in the Autonomous Administration’s “SDF” held areas, at least for the current time, as it comes as part of controlling a region that interests both Russia and Turkey.
  • Continue their war against ISIS in the SDF-held areas.

In regard to the Iranian file, it is obvious now that the Biden administration will keep on separating the nuclear Iranian deal from their Iranian influence in Syria, but also it is clear now that the US does not care about the economic and societal expansion of Iran in Syria. The only thing that matters to them is related to the security structure of the region and to protect it from any alteration that might threaten US military presence in both Syria and Iraq.

Taken as a whole, these elements create a political environment that keeps Bashar al-Assad in power, but under economic and international isolation that puts pressure on his allies, Russia and Iran, while simultaneously influencing the Gulf’s position by linking Syria’s return to the Arab League to the impact of US perceptions of its return. Consequently, the Caesar Act links the reconstruction and recovery in Syria with the US policy.

The Syrians’ greatest fears lie in the possibility of the US reneging on the terms of implementing the Caesar Act, either by including it in the US-Iranian talks on the nuclear accord or by turning a blind eye to its violation according to political interests or humanitarian considerations.

Such an action could refresh the regime without any recovery of the economy and prolong the conflict. As for the EU policies that tend towards containment, they match the US policies in terms of rejecting Bashar al-Assad and imposing sanctions on his regime, while taking into consideration the EU’s security concerns regarding refugee issues and the question of terrorism.

Navvar Saban

Navvar Şaban is a conflict analyst and expert at Omran Center for Strategic Studies and a non-resident researcher at ORSAM. He is a MBA holder from the Australian University of Wollongong in Dubai. He holds a Bachelor in Computer Science from the American University in Dubai, and a diploma in Military Studies from İstanbul Sabahattin Zaim Üniversitesi in Istanbul. His field of interest is Syria, specializing in Iranian influence in Syria, focusing on their militia activity in the military, economy, and at the administration level.

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