The art of losing isn’t hard to master: Debunking Assad’s Return to the Arab League

    After a long 12-year break, Syria has returned to the Arab League. The talk of normalisation with the Assad regime has been buzzing around, and surprisingly, despite facing isolation and harsh sanctions, al-Assad seems to have outgrown his role as a regional bête noire. While the significance of this diplomatic gesture may be primarily symbolic at this stage, the regime and its supporters have already emerged as the winners of this game. But what other elements are we missing from this picture?

    Arab League and a History of Failure

    After a short hiatus, Syria’s reintegration into the Arab League marks another failure for the organisation. Seventy-eight years since its inception, the Arab League’s track record in conflict resolution is shocking. In its long history, this organisation has rarely, if ever, solved any conflict between its members. Throughout the decades, experts have highlighted the multiple deficiencies plaguing the decision-making of this institution. 

    This is why no one was shocked when learning about the last decision to accept Assad back into the fold. This dysfunctional organisation appears incapable of addressing any challenges in the region, big or small.

    In 2011, the Arab League froze Syria’s membership in response to al-Assad’s crackdown on opposition groups, hoping that the costs of isolation would compel his regime to step back. 

    This approach resonated with the US-declared stance during the Arab Spring, prompting multilateral and international bodies to pursue isolation and impose severe sanctions on Syria. Unfortunately, the member states underestimated the profound impact of Russia and Iran’s unwavering support for al-Assad, ultimately saving his regime. 

    In a testimony before the Congressional Committee of Foreign Affairs in 2019, Andrew Exum, a former senior Pentagon official, shed light on America’s strategic stance towards the Middle East. One crucial aspect he highlighted was the covert communication between Moscow and Washington aimed at preventing the sudden collapse of the Assad regime, which could have had significant repercussions for Russia and the United States. This testimony shed light on the real US policy under Obama, which drastically contradicts the declared goals of the White House in Syria in that period.

    Meanwhile, by systematically targeting moderate opposition factions, Russia forced the world to make a difficult choice between supporting the regime or risking the rise of extremist groups like Daesh. Unfortunately, during this critical period, internal divisions were rife within the Arab League, exemplified by the 2017 Qatar blockade, which the concerned state resolved themselves (no thanks to the Arab League). 

    It was also significant to note Washington’s friendly advice to Arab countries to “get something for that engagement” with Syria. However, the Arab League did not follow this advice and got nothing from that arrangement. This painful episode is another testament to the Arab League’s history of shambolic performance. 

    The Captagon trade issue, a major source of funds for the narco-Assad regime, which pushes hundreds of thousands of Arab youths into drug addiction, was not examined. Worse, Iran’s metastasis-like spreading in Arab countries was not even under discussion. Many observers forget that four Arab capitals are effectively under the yoke of Iranian proxies (Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sanaa), which normally should be very high on the Arab states’ agenda. 

    Hence, no conditions were asked of Assad regarding his regime’s drug trafficking, the return of refugees, or Iran’s aggressive expansion plans in the region. So, what was all the fuss about? The Assad regime is cash-strapped and desperately needs trade and investment deals. While Iran gets the juicy deals, Gulf countries are here to pick up the trash—a complete win-lose situation, which, unfortunately, the Arab League is happy to condone.  

    The Saudis have other objectives in mind.

    Saudi Arabia, the key architect of Syria’s return to the Arab League, has more pressing objectives. The Kingdom’s effective ruler, Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, tries to sweep past unproductive actions under the rug. The latter includes the War in Yemen, which was decided in haste and ended up costing hundreds of billions of dollars.

    The return of Assad to the Arab League appears deeply connected to the Saudi-Iranian reconciliation brokered by China. The Saudis agreed to endorse Assad’s return in exchange for Iran cooling down the Houthis’ zeal in Yemen. While the Saudis gained some ephemeral moments of peace, the Houthis have gained more international recognition, emerging as key players in a potentially fractured Yemen. In any case, the Saudi Leadership desperately wants to put this episode behind its back.

    Meanwhile, Iran has been the region’s biggest winner of the past two decades. Getting Assad back and witnessing the Houthis’ victory are only the latest in a series of actions on the geopolitical chessboard that have reinforced Tehran’s power. 

    While the Saudis seem content to concentrate on improving their economy and trying to make Vision 2030 a reality, they should know that Iranian provocations via proxy against Riyadh will resume at the earliest opportunity. This strategy has brought incremental dividends to Tehran without any significant costs. Thus, there is no reason for it to stop.All in all, Assad’s return to the Arab League is both a victory for Iran and another chapter of failure in the Arab League’s book. While the language adopted in the summit echoes clichéd phrases like win-win, cooperation, peace, and stability, the truth is, in every diplomatic move, there are victors and vanquished. And the outcome bears a striking resemblance to the famous lines of Elizabeth Bishop: The art of losing isn’t hard to master. 

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