How far can the rehabilitation of Bashar al-Assad’s regime go?

A handshake that could go down in history. Pariah for ten years, since the regime engaged in a war against its own people, Syria is regaining ground on the international scene. Bashar al-Assad received the head of Saudi diplomacy in Damascus on Tuesday. An exceptional visit which had never been considered since 2011 and which consecrates the reconciliation between the oil monarchy and the Assad regime. Before Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates had already begun this process of rehabilitation of the Syrian dictator in the Arab-Muslim world.

How far can this normalization of relations go? For the moment, the West seems impervious to this rapprochement but “the powerful activism and the means of influence of countries like Saudi Arabia can weigh in the balance”, fears the Syrian opponent Firas Kontar, joined by 20 minutes.


This beginning of normalization with Syrian power by Riyadh appeared shortly after the earthquake that violently shook part of Syria and southern Turkey in early February. Several countries then came to the aid of Damascus for humanitarian reasons. Bashar al-Assad had thus thanked Abu Dhabi for its “enormous humanitarian aid. This earthquake in which nearly 6,000 Syrians were killed was then an opportunity seized by Damascus to sell its speech. “After the fall of Aleppo in 2017, Damascus and its allies proclaimed themselves the winners of the war and started issuing this reconstruction narrative saying that Bashar al-Assad is the only one who can rebuild the country, which he himself destroyed”, analyzes Marie Peltier, historian specializing in propaganda in Syria, contacted by 20 minutes. It is this discourse that today “gives a varnish, a justification” to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for this rapprochement which is part of a geostrategic and geopolitical reflection.

Indeed, for Firas Kontar, this reversal of the jacket of Saudi Arabia, which had so far refused any contact with Syria, “signifies to the American administration that Riyadh is no longer following the United States, that the country is changing of camp after years of disappointment”. Remember that Syria is heavily supported by Iran and Russia. “Riyadh is thus turning its back on its Western partners and we are witnessing a reconfiguration of Middle Eastern alliances,” adds the opponent.

As Nicolas Tenzer, teacher at Sciences Po and specialist in international issues, points out, the war in Ukraine has also been there. “If the West helps kyiv until Russia is defeated, the Syrian regime will no longer be able to count on Moscow’s support,” he continued. And by domino effect, without this weighty ally, it risks collapsing. If the Syrian regime falls, it is one less dictatorial regime, but Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates today seem to be choosing the camp of the autocracies rather than that of the Western democracies and “are scared to death of a contagion of democracy in their own country”, adds Nicolas Tenzer.

Normalization to the West?

It is also an anti-revolution wind blowing in several countries of the Arab world. “A kind of dictatorial ideology which is becoming dominant” and brings together several states, underlines Nicolas Tenzer. Egypt, which is closely linked with Russia, could thus be one of the next countries to cross the door of the presidential palace in Damascus. At the end of 2021, Bahrain had already taken a step by appointing an ambassador to Syria, a first in ten years. But for the moment, several Arab League countries are resisting and do not want to hear about this normalization, like Qatar or Kuwait. “Even if two countries are blocking, things are moving forward”, nevertheless blows Firas Kontar for whom a return of Syria to the Arab League would in any case be more symbolic than anything else. “They have no weight in the region, they have never managed to unite on a file”, he slices.

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On the other hand, Firas Kontar seriously fears a Saudi influence on the West. Close to the United States or France, Saudi Arabia is a heavyweight in the region and beyond. And his economic and diplomatic arguments could bend some Western nations, according to the opponent of the regime. “The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are active in this process of rehabilitating the Assad regime and they have the means to influence countries like France,” he explains. In 2021, Saudi Arabia became France’s leading arms purchaser with orders amounting to 703 million euros for this year alone, according to the annual report of the Ministry of the Armed Forces.

“What prevents France from getting closer to Damascus is not a moral posture, it is that there is no economic interest, if Saudi Arabia and the Emirates get entangled, that can take another turn,” still fears Firas Kontar. A scenario still far from being on the table but which is not totally excluded for Marie Peltier. “Democracies could have this temptation, they do not always take human rights into account, precedents are not lacking”, recalls the historian citing the example of the decoration of the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor of the Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi by Emmanuel Macron. And if a far-right party came to power in France, the United States or other influential countries in the Western world, “then everything becomes possible”, warns Nicolas Tenzer. The latter, on the other hand, does not believe in a change in France’s posture vis-à-vis Syria with the current government, even if he points to the lack of pressure from the West on Riyadh concerning this renewed link. with Damascus.

A “betrayal” for the Syrian people

This normalization “is already experienced as a betrayal” for many Syrians who have already felt abandoned for years by Arab countries, notes Marie Peltier. Their daily life could be even worse if Damascus regained a place on the international scene. Bashar al-Assad “will take advantage of this to further strengthen his security and repressive system and the daily life of Syrians will deteriorate even more”, warns Firas Kontar.

“Especially since impunity for crimes committed and in progress will leave the dictator’s hands free even more, knowing that repression today is harsher than it has ever been,” adds Marie Peltier.

Even if a lifting of the sanctions could possibly give a breath to the Syrian economy, “they represent today the last lock which does not jump against the violence of the regime against its people”, abounds the historian. Finally, “this would show the total inconsistency of the West and would have a disastrous effect in terms of international politics”, also points out Nicolas Tenzer.

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