Normalization with a mass murderer

Normalization with a mass murderer

A handout picture provided by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) on April 12, 2022, shows Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad (L) meeting with Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Walid al-Khuraiji in Jeddah. Mokdad arrived in Saudi Arabia on April 12, a Saudi statement said, on the first such trip since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. (Credit: AFP)

There is something incomprehensible about the accelerated pace of normalization between a growing number of Arab regimes and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

After the visits of the Syrian dictator to Muscat in February and then Abu Dhabi March, Syria's foreign minister made his first trip last Wednesday to Saudi Arabia since 2011. Moreover, Saudi Arabia will host a meeting of nine regional foreign ministers on Friday to discuss Syria’s return to the Arab League after 12 years of suspension.

Whatever rational-minded analysts propose as the factors behind this turn seem unconvincing and perplexing. However, let us venture among the venturers.

Is this rapprochement motivated by a desire to drive Iran out of Syria or weaken Tehran’s influence in Damascus, as some Emirati and Saudi apologists say? This aim seems to be very unlikely.

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Iran is far more entrenched in Syria, and the relations between the two regimes is too organic and solid to seduce Damascus out of it. The Assad regime cannot sever or even weaken its ties with Iran, and it does not want to. And why should they do anything of this sort? Iran has saved the regime and given it a raison d'etre: fighting the “takfiri terrorism” and being a member of the “axis of resistance,” both of which resonate with the sociocultural constitution of the regime.

The first aim resonates with the MBZ and MBS regimes’ policies as well (and with those of the US, Russia and everybody else), and the second is an ideological cover for a regional sectarian alliance that is organically oriented against the Arab countries (the Saudis in particular) and whose center is in Tehran.

The Arab League is far less important for the regime. It is just a game to play, the way the UN has always been — as Bashar himself said to Barbara Walters in the last month of 2011.

Gaining money from both is always very good of course, but the real thing is power, absolute and permanent power. Iran is a provider of this, with geostrategic determination and geocultural motivation. In Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and in Syria itself, Tehran has proved that it is well prepared to go to extremes for domination.

So, if really this is what the rulers of UAE and Saudi Arabia, and others in Jordan, Algeria and Egypt, think they are doing, they are pathetically mistaken and will come out of the game only as losers.

Stabilizing the region?

Maybe the rapprochement is rather motivated by a will to stabilize the hot struggles in the region.

The UAE is normalizing relations with Israel, while Saudi Arabia is normalizing relations with Iran and sending positive signs to Israel. Both are taking steps back from Yemen.

But apart from the fact that this means accepting a regime that has killed half a million of its people, displaced 7 million of them and destroyed many of its towns and cities, the real question is: does the Syrian regime want to stabilize the region?

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Its history over more than half a century does not validate such a hypothesis — not only in Syria alone, but also in Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. The warlike structure of the regime is inscribed in its nature as a family rule, aspiring to stay in power forever, in a country that was a republic, unlike the Gulf states themselves where dynasties and nations were formed together.

The Assad regime came to power through a coup d’état, and it is essentially a permanent coup against the Syrian state and society, with brutal methods of governance. The failed revolution that erupted 12 years ago only consolidated this warring formation.

Then maybe it is to help the Syrian people who have suffered much since March 2011. Unfortunately, it seems that the normalizers have not bothered to say a word about the more than 111,000 people whose fates remain unknown. They are also silent on the right to the safe return of close to 2 million people living in poor conditions in Lebanon and Jordan, the 3.7 million whose living conditions are only worsening in Turkey, and the half a million in Iraq and Egypt.

Besides, the family regime in Syria is not only corrupt, but also runs like a criminal mafia, and it will aspire to whatever aid regional and international funders may grant, with a minimal impact on the level of human suffering in the country.

Yemen-for-Syria deal?

Is there, behind normalizing with the “chemical” regime, an awareness of a US withdrawal from the Middle East and growing regional centers of power, with good relations with Russia, China and their allies?

In that regard is normalizing relations with the murderous regime a game with the Americans, who dealt in a way perceived as disrespectful by their Saudi allies in the days of Obama, and who are reluctant to deal with MBS?

While one cannot deny emotions and spite in politics, especially when it comes to unelected and unaccountable elites, the normalization with Iran and its protegee in Syria looks like “finding refuge from hot weather in fire,” as an old Arab proverb has it.

Maybe it is a Yemen-for-Syria deal? I.e., the Iranians curb their Houthi outpost, and the Saudis normalize with their outpost in Damascus, giving Iran’s domination over Syria (not to mention Iraq and Lebanon) full Arab legitimacy? Hardly a rational choice.

It would be unimaginable, in any case, that normalizing relations with the regime in Syria is because it has been successful in turning Syria to a narcostate, and resourcefully smuggling Captagon pills to the Gulf markets.

Especially since, for the regime, the narcotics empire led by Bashar's brother Maher al-Assad, who seems to have visited Saudi Arabia a few days ago, is probably not only a matter of money: it is a war aimed at destroying Saudi society from within, the way it did to Syria itself.

The Emarati-Saudi normalization with the Assad regime is baseless from a rational point of view. But maybe we can find a quite “rational” explanation in the field of the irrational.

What’s left to consider, in my opinion, is an extremely common ideal shared more and more by the Arab “elites:” politics without politics, rights, debate or even society — a dynamic of Dubaization of many Arab countries.

This ideal consists of a purely material modernity, guarded havens for the super-rich oligarchs and semi-slavery conditions for the social majorities. This is the meaning of MBS’s NEOM and its “ Line,” of “Sissi City” in Egypt and of reconstruction dreams like Marota City of the narco-elite in Damascus.

These birds of a feather have come from quite different backgrounds but are now coming to share a modernist fascist utopia. Issues of justice, human dignity and even uncontrolled societal interactions are untranslatable to the language of these predatory thuggish aristocracies. Mass murder is not an obstacle to normalization from this perspective. Rather, it can be a radical option to be deployed in time of need.

It seems that a new Arab system is emerging, one extremely reactionary, brutal and centered on crushing any popular movements. Hard times are ahead of us.

Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a Syrian writer and dissident, and winner of the Prince Claus Prize. He is co-founder of, a website created in Istanbul by a group of exiled Syrian intellectuals.

There is something incomprehensible about the accelerated pace of normalization between a growing number of Arab regimes and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. After the visits of the Syrian dictator to Muscat in February and then Abu Dhabi March, Syria's foreign minister made his first trip last Wednesday to Saudi Arabia since 2011. Moreover, Saudi Arabia will host a meeting of nine regional...