The Arab League summit held in Jeddah last May has reopened the doors to the Assad regime after more than a decade of isolation and exclusion from the regional arena. Sponsored by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the rehabilitation process has recognized the political victory of Damascus in the long war waged against the moderate Syrian opposition and the Salafi-Jihadi organizations. However, this diplomatic manoeuvre did not really affect the stability of the country. Instead, it has exacerbated internal distress, as evidenced by recent protests in Sweida.
To begin with, territorial unity is still far away to be achieved. The Kurdish movements, once considered government’s interlocutors, not only continue to exert control over almost all of the Jazira region [part of the Al-Hasakah Governorate; situated in the North-East of the country. Note of the Editor], but they are also gradually distancing themselves from Damascus. Due to the Russo-Turkish agreements, stalemate in the North endures, preventing the Syrian Arab Army from carrying out any military campaign in Idlib governorate [in the North-West of the country, NoE].
Moreover, national economy is facing a new downfall. Despite a modest recovery in the agrarian sector, extensive war damage to the industry and a lack of proper investments have caused the Syrian pound to plummet once again, losing around 90% of its value. As a consequence, social environment is at its direst, since the majority of the population lives in a perpetual state of misery and deprivation.
To counter the inflationary spiral, Assad issued two decrees raising military and public employees’ salaries by 100%. Contrary to what might be expected, this has been interpreted as merely cosmetic reform, with the sole purpose of appeasing the civil society, thus sparking a new wave of unrest. The Druze minority of Sweida is well known for having organized in the past several anti-government protests and even urban guerrillas; the demonstrations that took place last August follow this trend, as they not only demanded the improvement of life quality, but also questioned the authority of Bashar Assad himself.
The reintegration into the Arab League has not triggered the long-awaited series of reconstruction projects. As the president admitted during an interview with Sky Arabiya, no stakeholder nor political actor is truly interested in investing money in a risky country like Syria.
The crucial point is that Gulf monarchies want the Syrian regime to crack down on the Captagon smuggling, because drug consumption poses a threat to wealthy Gulf societies. Notwithstanding this, a there is evidence that shows that government authorities are directly involved in drug trafficking, which has actually become the most lucrative economic asset of the country. Unsurprisingly, the Arab League ministerial committee has suspended talks with the Syrian government representatives due to their lack of cooperation in stopping the Captagon trade. For the regime, maintaining the internal status quo is essential for its survival; the unwanted side-effect is that it also hampers government’s ability to carry out any reforms demanded by its regional partners, thereby impeding progress on most development projects.
In absence of structural changes in state institutions and in the ruling party, Damascus is attempting to overcome the current impasse by expanding its political reach beyond the Middle East. The recent visit of Assad to China fulfils this purpose.
Being aware that Syria’s economic significance is too small to meet Beijing’s needs, the president stresses the geopolitical discourse, emphasizing the country’s strategic position between East and West. On the one hand, strengthening bilateral cooperation and adhering to ideological commitment of the “anti-Western bloc” agenda would lead China to view Syria both as possible energy hub within the Belt and Road Initiative project, and a strategic access point to the Mediterranean. On the other hand, Assad’s visit could not go beyond symbolism, as his political stance, hindered by state weakness, is unlikely to secure essential funding. Regardless of the outcome, the Chinese overture signals the limits of the support given to Assad by his traditional allies, Russia and Iran, and reveals president’s willingness to demonstrate to the rest of the Arab League a sense of enterprise by venturing into new waters.
Ph.D. in Institutions and Policies, researcher at OASIS International Foundation and Teaching Assistant in Geopolitics, History of Islamic Asia, History of Civilization and Political Culture at the Catholic University of Milan. His research areas include Arab and Mediterranean geopolitics, history of MENA region, Arab secular and religious movements.