Syrian dictator reenters Arab fold, reviving old dilemma for US

Twelve years ago this week, 100,000 Syrians packed into the main square of Homs to demand that President Bashar al-Assad resign. Today, after a brutal civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians and seen government forces use tanks, indiscriminate air strikes, poison gas, and Russian military assistance to help to preserve his power, Mr. Assad is taking a diplomatic victory lap.

Last week his foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, was discussing with neighboring states whether the Arab League might lift its 12-year suspension of Syrian participation in the group. This week, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister traveled to Damascus, while Mr. Mekdad flew to Tunisia to restore bilateral relations.

Why We Wrote This

The Arab Spring has turned into more of an Arab ice age, as autocrats throughout the region solidify their power. Washington faces a difficult but familiar choice – to back democracy or stability.

The Arab Spring is looking more like an Arab ice age, with autocrats back in charge in Tunisia and Egypt, and still in charge throughout the Gulf.

Syria’s rapprochement with its dictatorial neighbors raises thorny questions for U.S. policy in a region where Russia and China are wielding ever greater influence. It also highlights a core tension that has long vexed Washington’s Mideast policy – between a commitment to human rights and reliance on alliances with Arab states that routinely violate those rights.

That is no easier to resolve today than it has ever been.

The murderous regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is taking a diplomatic victory lap.

For millions in the Arab world who had yearned to cast off government by coercion, corruption, force, and fear, the moves now afoot to bring Syria back into the Arab League will feel especially disheartening.

They seem to represent a final step on the road from an Arab Spring to what is looking more like a new Arab ice age.

Why We Wrote This

The Arab Spring has turned into more of an Arab ice age, as autocrats throughout the region solidify their power. Washington faces a difficult but familiar choice – to back democracy or stability.

And the rapprochement raises thorny questions for the United States – about past, present, and future policy in a region where Russia and China are wielding ever greater influence.

It also highlights a core tension that has long vexed Washington’s Middle East policy – between America’s public commitment to basic human rights and reliance on security alliances with Arab states that routinely violate those rights.

These allies, chiefly Saudi Arabia, have shrugged off U.S. objections to normalizing ties with Mr. Assad – a leader who has used tanks, indiscriminate air strikes, poison gas, and Russian military assistance to help to gain control over most of his country after a dozen years of civil war.

In recent days, the signs of regional entente have been getting clearer.

Last week, Mr. Assad’s foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, joined regional leaders in Saudi Arabia for talks on whether the Arab League might lift its 12-year suspension of Syrian participation in the group. This week, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister traveled to Damascus, while Mr. Mekdad flew to Tunisia to seal an agreement to restore bilateral relations.

The diplomatic shuttling is a dramatic sign of how starkly the region has changed since the outpouring of popular protest that became known as the Arab Spring. It also presents a complex policy challenge for the U.S. as it decides how far it’s willing – or able – to deploy its influence to shape what comes next.

It was 12 years ago this week that 100,000 Syrians packed the main square in Homs, north of Damascus, and called for President Assad to resign.

The Arab Spring, sparked by the self-immolation of a lone protestor in Tunisia, seemed to be gaining force. Tunisia’s president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, had been forced to step down after 21 years in power. A tide of popular anger in Cairo had toppled an even more deeply embedded autocrat, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

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Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/File

Egyptians celebrate in Tahrir Square on Feb. 11, 2011, following the announcement that Hosni Mubarak would step down as president. Today Egypt lives under an even more repressive military regime than the government Mr. Mubarak headed.

But the autocrats fought back. U.S.-allied governments in the oil-rich Gulf used carrots and sticks – handouts and handcuffs – to reinforce their position. In Egypt, the first free elections brought the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to power, but army Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi led a coup to overthrow their government. He is still in charge, overseeing a crackdown on dissent more brutal and widespread than Mr. Mubarak’s.

Syria’s political spring soon ended, too, when Mr. Assad decided to crush dissent and send his tanks to storm a number of cities; full-scale civil war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians and displaced 13 million, ensued.

What of Tunisia, where Syria’s foreign minister was welcomed this week?

It was the last surviving democracy born of the Arab Spring. But since 2019, when Kais Saied won the presidency on an anti-corruption platform, he has disbanded parliament, adopted a constitution placing unfettered power in his own hands, and arrested his critics.

The latest arrest, coinciding with Mr. Mekdad’s visit, targeted opposition party leader Rached Ghannouchi, speaker of the shuttered legislature.

American policymakers are now left to ponder what they can or should do in response to the autocrats’ return.

That’s partly a puzzle of their own making. Amid the political trauma stemming from the Iraq War, successive presidents have moved to scale back U.S. diplomatic engagement in the region, redirecting their focus toward China and, more recently, Ukraine.

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Tunisian Presidency/Reuters

Tunisia’s President Kais Saied meets with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in Tunis, Tunisia, April 18, 2023. Syria is breaking out of its regional isolation, and finding autocrats such as President Saied, who has disbanded parliament, receptive to its efforts.

As both China and Russia move to expand their own Middle East influence, Washington is pondering how, or whether, to use its still-considerable sway to resume a more active role.

That would mean again confronting the familiar tension in America’s Mideast calculations, between ambitions to promote human rights and decades-old alliances with regimes that flout them.

Even in the early days of the Arab Spring that tension sparked intense debates over how far Washington should go to encourage the pro-democracy protests. And when Islamist political parties expanded as the grip of autocracies loosened, the U.S. seemed increasingly to opt for the stability of its old-style alliances.

For both America and the demonstrators so hopeful of fundamental change during the Arab Spring, there remains an imponderable: Could another similar wave of popular unrest surge again?

Though the protests that erupted in 2011 demanded an end to autocracy, the main catalysts were economic and social – a thirst for jobs, affordable food, and a decent living, especially among young people in a region where youth unemployment remains the world’s highest.

And the 2011 Arab Spring taught the world one clear lesson, embodied in the dramatic demise of Egypt’s Mr. Mubarak.

It is that autocracies look unbreakable.

Until they are not.