The Arab Regional Order and Assad: From Ostracism to Normalization

Arab leaders and officials of the League of Arab States pose for a photo ahead of the 32nd Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia - 19 May 2023. © Saudi Royal Court / AA


On 19 May 2023, the Assad regime regained Syria's seat at the 32nd League of Arab States’ Summit that took place in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, marking the end of over a decade of regional boycott and Assad’s exclusion from Arab circles. This shift from ostracism to normalization did not occur because the Assad regime changed the brutal treatment of its citizens; it is – as this paper argues – a reflection of a profound transformation in the broader Arab regional order.

Since the late 1990s, two interconnected factors have made the Arab regional order relatively more responsive to extreme state violence and brutality despite its authoritarianism: the rising influence of the Arab public sphere and the emergence of a “reformist” legitimization discourse. These developments occurred at a time when the region was under a high level of US influence and marked by Arab rivalry with Iran. However, since 2013, this regional order has undergone a significant shift, becoming, at the very least, indifferent toward how states treat their citizens. This transformation has been driven by a waning influence of the Arab public sphere, and the rise of a new Arab legitimization discourse that replaces the previous “reformist” narrative. These changes have coincided with a prevailing regional perception of a declining US influence, a rising regional presence of China and Russia, and a shift in the Arab approach to Iran.

The first section of this paper demonstrates that the primary reason for the Arab regional order's decision to ostracize Syria in 2012 was the Assad regime's brutality, rather than its relationship with Iran or its policies towards Israel or the United States. It traces how, before the Syrian revolution, the Assad regime’s position in the Arab regional order was significantly improved and highlights how, even during the early months of the revolution, the Arab regional order maintained its support for Assad while pressuring him to implement limited reforms and concessions. The section then explains how the aforementioned factors (the Arab public sphere and the adopted discourses) shed light on why a regional order made up of authoritarian states would be sensitive to Assad’s brutality. The second section reconstructs the Arab path towards normalizing relations with Assad and shows how significant changes in each of these factors have facilitated putting Assad back in the game.

The Arab Ostracization of the Assad Regime

On the eve of the Syrian revolution, Bashar al-Assad was in his most powerful regional position since he inherited Syria’s rule from his father in July 2000. By August 2010, the Syrian regime faced few threats to its standing in the region. By then, the 2007 US withdrawal from Iraq was partially completed, leaving behind a political system under the influence of Assad’s ally, Iran. The 2008 Doha Agreement, which ended a two-year Lebanese crisis, institutionalized another Assad ally, Hezbollah, which had been emboldened since the 2006 Israeli attack after it was expelled from the country. Assad’s relations with both Turkey and Qatar also reached their highest level after the first Gaza war (2008-2009) when Qatar hosted the Emergency Gaza Summit with both Turkey and Iran attending despite objections and boycotts by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Even his relations with Saudi Arabia were restored and improved starting with the Arab Economic Summit in Kuwait in January 2009. From January 2009 to October 2010, Assad met in person with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia more than five times and visited Riyadh three times. In a 2008 poll conducted by the University of Maryland in six Arab countries, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Bashar al-Assad ranked second after Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, as the most popular world leader in the Arab World.

By the time the Syrian revolution started in March 2011, the Arab regional order had already adopted three different approaches in dealing with the Arab uprisings underway in Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya. In Bahrain, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries sent the Peninsula Shield Force to maintain Bahrain’s Al Khalifa regime in place – a move endorsed by the Arab League, including the Syrian regime.  In Yemen, the GCC adopted a mediatory role that resulted in the Gulf Initiative which included a plan of a peaceful transition of power in exchange for a complete immunity of the old regime. In Libya, the Arab League suspended the participation of the Qaddafi regime’s delegates and called upon the UN Security Council to impose a no-fly zone on Libyan military aviation, thus contributing to the passing of Resolution 1973 which formed the basis for NATO’s military intervention in Libya.

When the Syrian revolution began, the Arab regional order’s approach started softer than its approach toward Yemen but later shifted to a stance closer to how it dealt with the Libyan case. In the first few months of the revolution, many Arab countries encouraged Assad to adopt some political reforms, while at the same time circulating Assad’s narrative that labeled the protests as Fitna (sedition) that were influenced by foreign elements. However, in the summer of 2011, a new semi-unified Arab position emerged in the form of the Arab League’s sponsored Arab Initiative, which called for an immediate halt to all forms of violence, and for organizing a comprehensive national dialogue. The Assad regime did not outright reject the Initiative but moved to evade its implementation and circumvent it. Thus, on 12 November 2011, the Arab League decided to suspend Syria’s membership to pressure the regime to comply with the Initiative and followed with another decision to impose economic sanctions on Syria. To reverse these decisions, Assad agreed in December 2011 to implement the Initiative, allowing a mission of Arab monitors into the country to observe its implementation. However, the mission ended its operations a month later, citing “the critical deterioration of the situation in Syria and the continued use of violence,” therefore dissipating all hopes for an Arab solution.

The failure of the Arab Initiative, coupled with the Assad regime’s escalating brutality towards its citizens, prompted the Arab League to seek a resolution from the UN Security Council following the approach adopted in the case of Libya. On 4 February 2012, this peace proposal failed as it was vetoed by Russia and China. As a result, the Arab collective role in Syria was gradually weakened over the following four years. Starting in December 2016, Turkey, Iran, and Russia held several talks in Astana with no Arab representation. This further marginalized the Arab countries' role in the Syrian conflict. Between 2012 and 2018, with the exception of Algeria and Iraq, all the Arab countries severed their relations with the Assad regime.

As this narrative shows, the main reason for the shift in the Arab approach toward the Syrian regime from the 2009-2010 recovery of relations was the regime’s increased brutality towards its citizens despite the dominant non-violent nature of the revolution in its first year. Indeed, in the first eight months of the revolution, the total documented number of people killed according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was 10,000. During the same period, another 10,000 individuals were reported to have been arrested. In 2010, the UN Higher Council of Refugees reported that the total number of refugees and displaced persons originating from Syria were 28,216. This number rose to 48,497 in 2011, representing a 72% increase, and reached around 2.8 million in 2012, representing a 5760% increase. The stated justification for the Arab League’s suspension of Syria’s membership was the emphasis on “putting an end to the continued violence and killings, and responding to the aspirations of the Syrian people in achieving the desired political, economic, and social changes and reforms.” The individual Arab countries that decided to cut relations with the Assad Regime justified their move as a protest against the regime’s brutality; this is how, for example, Saudi Arabia and Morocco justified their move.

Of course, the Assad Regime’s brutality alone would not have generated this reaction from other authoritarian Arab states were it not for the pressure of two interconnected factors. The first is the growing power of the Arab public sphere, which started to expand since the late 1990s. The Arab states’ monopoly over media access and reach within their boundaries started to crumble with the spread of satellite TV channels, and particularly with the launch of Al-Jazeera in 1996. Furthermore, the Internet provided Arab citizens with spaces and unprecedented opportunities to access information, channel grievances, and mobilize to influence the political agenda.

Between 2005 and 2014, the number of individuals using the Internet in the Arab World soared from 9% to 40%. This surge coincided with the consequential gradual transition from the static one-way nature of Web 1.0 to the more dynamic Web 2.0, which facilitated the emergence of social networking platforms like Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005), and Twitter (2006). After 2011, these platforms became the main political forums of interaction and mobilization among Arab citizens.

The second factor that influenced the reaction of other Arab states was the adoption of a reformist legitimization discourse since the late 1990s. This discourse justified authoritarian rule as temporary, but acceptable so long as states took gradual steps towards democracy. Within this framework, when an authoritarian state regresses or resorts to extreme violence against its citizens, its justification for authoritarianism ceases to hold.

The development and utilization of this discourse by Arab governments was in part to cope with the global wave of democratization that followed the post-Cold War era. However, it took a more defined shape following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the aftermath of the invasion, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria sponsored an Initiative to Reform the Arab Situation. At the 16th Summit of the Arab League hosted in Tunisia in 2004, Arab countries adopted this initiative as a “covenant” among them, pledging to take significant steps toward “comprehensive reform”. These steps included an “expansion of political participation, support of responsible free speech, and the protection of human rights.” During this summit, the Arab Charter on Human Rights was approved and came into effect later in 2008 after it was ratified by 10 countries, including Syria. The Arab League also issued a declaration titled “Regarding the Journey of Development and Modernization in the Arab World”, in which Arab leaders expressed their commitment to “deepening the foundations of democracy and consultation and expanding participation in the political realm, public affairs, and decision-making within a framework of the rule of law and the fulfillment of justice, equality, and respect for human rights and freedom of speech.” In 2005, the Arab League Summit in Algeria reaffirmed these commitments and announced the establishment of an Arab Parliament to be based in Damascus. Hence, the prevalence of this reformist discursive trend in the Arab World since its emergence in the late 1990s compelled many Arab states to seek to differentiate their “reform-oriented” authoritarianism from the brutal practices of the Assad regime.

In addition to the increasing influence of the American hegemony in the region, these two factors were amplified by the intensifying rivalry between many Arab countries and Iran. Before the Syrian revolution, the Assad regime was delicately balancing its alliance with Iran, on one hand, and its relations with Turkey-Qatar and Saudi Arabia-Egypt, on the other. However, the regime’s brutal crackdown on its own citizens drove it closer to Iran and away from other regional players. From the perspective of Arab rulers, Assad’s growing reliance on Iran and its sectarian militias in Iraq and Lebanon removed the remaining obstacles to adopting policies that are more in line with the Arab public opinion and consistent with their declared reformist ideology. This shift allowed them to align themselves with the sentiments of the Arab population and reinforce their commitment to reform.

The Normalization Process (2018-2023)

Starting from 2018, a process of normalization with Assad began, despite no changes occurring in either the regime’s brutality or its close ties with Iran. Shockingly, by the end of that year, the documented death in Syria has reached a staggering 328,882, with the total number of displaced individuals soaring to  6.7 million. The Sultanate of Oman took the initial step towards normalization when it officially received the Syrian foreign minister in March 2018. In October of the same year, Jordan reopened the Jaber border crossing with Syria. In December, the then Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the first Arab leader to visit Assad. A few days later, the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus, and Bahrain released a statement affirming the continuation of its relations with Syria. The process continued in October 2020 when Oman reinstated its ambassador to Syria. Then, in March 2021, Egypt and the UAE called for Assad’s return to the Arab League. A few months later, in September 2021, the Egyptian foreign minister held a meeting with his Syrian counterpart, followed by Jordan proposing in October an initiative to solve the Syrian Crisis. In this proposal, Jordan acknowledged the failure of efforts to remove Assad and suggested a step-by-step gradual approach to engage with him. However, this proposal was ignored by the United States and did not yield any immediate results. On 18 March 2022, marking the 11th anniversary of the revolution, Assad made his first official visit to an Arab country by traveling to the UAE.

The devastating earthquake that struck both Turkey and Syria in February 2023 served as a critical turning point, opening up new possibilities for the normalization of relations with Assad and the potential readmission of Syria into the Arab League. Shortly after the earthquake, significant diplomatic developments unfolded. Foreign ministers of the UAE and Jordan visited Damascus, officially signaling a willingness to engage with the Syrian government. Furthermore, the Egyptian president and the Bahraini King had their first phone call with Assad, showing a thawing of relations. The Saudi government also sent humanitarian aid to Aleppo in an open gesture of support. On 19 February, the Saudi foreign minister called for a new approach in addressing the Syrian crisis. The following day, Assad visited Oman, further solidifying the momentum toward normalization. In March, the Tunisian foreign minister called his Syrian counterpart, leading to the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries by early April. On 12 April, the Syrian foreign minister traveled to Saudi Arabia to discuss the necessary steps for Syria’s reinstatement into the Arab regional order.

Two days after the Syrian foreign minister’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the Arab multilateral efforts to normalize with the Assad regime started to unfold. On 14 April, Saudi Arabia hosted a meeting to revive the Jordanian proposal. This gathering, held in Jeddah, was attended by the rest of the GCC countries, plus Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan. On 1 May, a follow-up meeting took place in Amman with representatives from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt in attendance. During this meeting, the Jordanian proposal was officially adopted, emphasizing a gradual approach along three dimensions: humanitarian, security, and political.

A week later, the Arab League unanimously decided to readmit the Assad regime into the League, marking a significant milestone in the normalization process. Two days later, Saudi Arabia restored its diplomatic relations with the Assad regime. These efforts ultimately led to Bashar Al-Assad’s participation in the Arab Summit in Jeddah on 19 May.

As of today, the only Arab countries that have not restored their relations with Assad are Morocco, Kuwait, and Qatar. Morocco demanded the Assad regime end its support for the Polisario Front in exchange for normalization. The Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that normalization hinges on progress toward a political solution. As for Kuwait, a local newspaper report suggesting that the Kuwaiti foreign minister's plans to visit Syria caused a wave of domestic criticism, leading the Kuwaiti Ministry of Foreign Affairs to release a statement dismissing the report as inaccurate.

The transition from a regional order that penalizes a member state for committing heinous crimes against humanity to one that, at the very least, exhibits indifference towards how its member states treat their own citizens, highlights profound transformations within the two factors outlined earlier. Since the 2013 coup in Egypt, the Arab public sphere has been in gradual decline. The aura of objectivity and independence that Al-Jazeera enjoyed for nearly two decades diminished, especially during the conflict between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt from 2017 to 2020. Throughout this period, the quartet succeeded in portraying the media giant as merely an instrument for a Qatari-Muslim Brotherhood alliance. Similar patterns unfolded in relation to other transnational media outlets with a limited level of independence. Following the 2017 anti-corruption campaign at the Ritz-Carlton in Saudi Arabia, several Saudi transnational media entities, owned by individuals arrested during the operation, became closely aligned with the domestic and foreign agenda of the Saudi state. Consequently, Al-Hayat newspaper disappeared, and Rotana, MBC Group, and the Saudi Group for Media and Research lost much of their already limited independence. Moreover, Arab governments pursued a two-pronged strategy to control social media content, involving the enhancement of their technical capabilities for digital surveillance and online monitoring, along with a persistent campaign to arrest, co-opt, or replace independent and critical Arab influencers.

Furthermore, the Arab uprisings and the emergence of a new generation of Arab leaders marked the demise of the political reformist discourse and gave rise to a nascent discourse characterized by a shared unwavering stance against Islamist movements. Unlike its predecessor, this new discourse does not offer explicit political commitments but instead emphasized  the "original rights" of Arab citizens, as enshrined in the Jeddah Summit Declaration, which prioritizes “sustainable development, security, stability, and peaceful living conditions.” Within this discourse, the era of globalization is seen as having ended, and the world is believed to be entering a new phase where a new international order is taking shape. Nowhere is this theme more evident than in the speeches given by the Tunisian President Kais Saied and Assad. President Saied declared that “the world is undergoing a new formation” and that it “should not be reshaped again at the expense of our nation and the capabilities of our people. Instead, we want to be equal partners.” Assad echoed a similar perspective, stating that “the international order is changing into a multipolar system”. For him, this fact provides Arabs with “a historic opportunity to rearrange our affairs with minimal foreign intervention.” Alongside this understanding of the world was a repeated rejection of foreign interventions. The Jeddah Declaration called for “stopping foreign interference in the domestic affairs of Arab countries.” The same message was repeated in the speeches of many leaders, such as those of Egypt and Bahrain.

This new discourse reflects a set of regionally perceived shifts in the global and regional balance of power. The first perceived shift is the decline of an active American role in the region, whether as a disruptor of the status quo or a protector of it. This perception started with the Obama Administration's response to the Assad regime's Ghouta chemical attacks on 21 August 2013, which provided compelling evidence that the era of direct US intervention for regime change had come to an end. Later, the Iran nuclear deal of July 2015 further fueled skepticism among Arab allies of the US about the American commitment to their regional interests and priorities. This trend reached its peak when the Trump administration gradually distanced itself from supporting the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen and responded underwhelmingly to the multiple attacks on oil facilities and infrastructures in the Gulf.

The second shift involves the gradual yet discernable rise in the influence of Russia and China in the region. In September 2015, Russia intervened militarily in Syria, aligning itself with the Assad regime. A year later, it entered into an agreement with the Saudi-led OPEC countries to coordinate oil production. Similarly, China’s growing reliance on Gulf oil has pushed it to formulate and declare an official policy toward the Arab World, one that aligns normatively with the new Arab regional discourse.

Moreover, the normalization with Assad was facilitated by a shift in the approach of the Arab regional order toward Iran, moving from a confrontational stance to a more reconciliatory position. This shift began when Iran started improving its relations with Qatar after the Arab Quartet boycott of Qatar in 2017. The Saudi and Emirati shift towards Iran came about after the 2019 attacks on the Gulf oil facilities and the ongoing stalemate in Yemen. From March 2021, Saudi Arabia and Iranian engaged in a series of talks in Iraq and Oman. In February 2023, under Chinese sponsorship, the two sides signed an agreement to restore their diplomatic relationships. The normalization with Assad, it seems, was in part an indirect outcome of this improvement of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Concluding remarks

This paper offers three takeaways. Firstly, it is important to recognize that normalization with Assad, similar to normalization with Israel, took place within a highly authoritarian environment in the Middle East. This means that the decision was made without considering the preferences and interests of the majority of Arab citizens. A series of polls conducted in Saudi Arabia between 2019 and 2022 shows that over 70% of Saudis did not consider it important to have good relations with Syria. Similar attitudes are observable in Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, and Egypt. In April 2023, 61% of Saudis believed that normalization with Assad would have a negative impact.

The second takeaway is that normalization with Assad means accepting and normalizing extreme forms of state repression and crimes against humanity. The emphasis on absolute state sovereignty, along with the rise of right-wing nationalist trends, suggests that, at least theoretically, that these egregious acts of violence are now considered acceptable on the Arab agenda.

The final takeaway is that normalization with Assad is an alarming signal and should be a cause of concern for advocates of democracy, political rights, and reform in the region. It highlights a willingness among authoritarian Arab forces to cooperate and seek resolutions for their differences and internal conflicts. This should serve as a moment for proponents of democracy and human rights to reassess and rethink their strategies for the region and move beyond their state-specific focus toward more collaborative and coordinated approaches. The first step, for instance, is for Arab intellectuals, activists, academics, and organizations committed to democracy and human rights to organize an annual parallel conference to the Arab States’ summits. These conferences could provide a global platform for thoughtful debates, discussing alternative policies, building networks, generating innovative ideas and approaches as well as drawing lessons from previous experiences and working together to face this ongoing convergence among the authoritarian forces.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.