Geopolitics Global Agenda

Assad’s Quakeplomacy

Martin Gvoth

On February 6 2023, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck southern and central Turkey and northern and western Syria. The quake has caused considerable damage and human tragedy in northern Syria. However, it can paradoxically constitute a fortune in misfortune for the regime of Bashar al-Assad, in terms of Syria’s external but also internal politics. The aftermath of the earthquake provides a unique opportunity and context for Arab countries to publicly re-establish relations with Syria.

Despite supporting the opposition forces in the Syrian Civil War, the UAE has since 2021 been at the forefront of the normalisation efforts with Syria and swiftly responded to the earthquake by sending significant aid to the country. As of March 2, the UAE had sent 134 aircraft carrying 4,413 tons of aid to Syria. Subsequently, six days after the incidents, the UAE Foreign Minister visited Damascus, and presently, Assad is on an official trip to the Emirates. Along with the Emirati minister, the Foreign Ministers of Egypt and Jordan visited Damascus for the first time since 2011.

Even the staunchest critic of the Assad’s regime, Saudi Arabia sent aid to Aleppo almost immediately after the quake. Riyadh, meanwhile, until recently criticised Damascus for its cooperation with Iran and Hezbollah and, together with Qatar, opposed Syria’s readmission to the Arab League. However, that may change in the near future, as regional support for Syria’s entry into the Arab League has increased since the earthquake, and Saudi Arabia’s provision of humanitarian aid indirectly indicates that even Riyadh might not object this time.

What might motivate the Arab countries to seek rapprochement with Syria? Firstly, the reestablishment of relations might pull Syria from the Iranian sphere of influence. Furthermore, the effects of the developing rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran on the normalisation with Syria should not be overlooked. Secondly, normalising relations with Syria could pave the way for increased investment from Arab nations, which could alleviate the economic hardships facing Syrian civilians and facilitate reconstruction efforts. Subsequently, the reconstruction efforts could prevent the outpour of massive waves of migrants to other countries, threatening their stability. Ultimately, the decision to pursue rapprochement could be driven by political realities. Given that Assad will not go anywhere in the upcoming years as he enjoys support from both Russia and Iran, a strategy of cooperation rather than competition might be the most effective way to ensure regional security and further prevent the vast spread of the Captagon drug to neighbouring countries.

Considering the war crimes that Assad’s regime committed against his population, coupled with cronyism, it might be hard to believe that the reconstruction funds would be spent appropriately to benefit the people. This could have been observed earlier during the Syrian civil war, where the regime’s management of humanitarian assistance was defined by predation and corruption. Ultimately, the normalisation of relations might further strengthen Assad politically and legitimise the inhumane acts of the regime committed throughout the civil war.

Assad might also be tempted to use the earthquake as a means to reunite Syria under his control. As he indicated, international aid should be coordinated by the government in Damascus, even though 88% of the population hit the hardest by the earthquake live in territories under rebel control, such as Idlib. However, 90% of the aid had been distributed to the government-controlled territories. Such control over the aid distribution might give Assad leverage over the rebel-held areas.

The earthquake has opened a window of opportunity for the Syrian regime in the domain of foreign relations. The sympathy for Syria may arguably lead to the end of the long isolation of Assad’s regime by Arab countries. Although the process of rapprochement was arguably in motion, the earthquake accelerated it. The man who had presided over the disintegration of Syria, whose rule led to the exile of half of the Syrian population, is now receiving foreign ministers and walking down the red carpets as during the state visit to Oman on February 20. Moreover, control over the inflow of international humanitarian aid into the country further increases the imbalance between the regime and the rebels and creates an opportunity for Assad to gain influence over rebel-held areas.

Photo credit: Canva.com

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