Is Syria No Longer a Pariah State?

Is Syria No Longer a Pariah State?
A poster with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is pictured on the wall during the country's presidential elections in Douma, Syria, May 26, 2021 (Sputnik photo by Mikhail Voskresenskiy via AP).

For many years, Syria has been a pariah state, shunned by most of the international community. But there are signs that things are changing. Several key countries are starting to rebuild relations with Syria, and its suspension from the Arab League may soon be lifted. So, is Syria really regaining international acceptance?

Syria as a Pariah State in International Relations

Pariah States—sometimes known as rogue states—are a fascinating feature of international relations. They sit outside the international order because they seek to subvert the rules of the global system or systematically undermine other countries. Sometimes, this can be because they export a revolutionary ideology or launch wars of aggression. At other times, it could be because they seek to develop weapons of mass destruction or commit genocide or gross human rights abuses. Occasionally, they’re countries that have been captured by organized crime.

One of the most interesting examples in the modern international system is Syria. For over half a century, it’s been a repressive dictatorship seen as a destabilizing actor in the broader Middle East. On top of this, the last decade has seen it locked in a brutal civil war that’s left hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced, and seen the government commit human rights abuses. But there are signs that it’s slowly being accepted back into the international system. This was highlighted by reports that there have even been moves to lift its suspension from the Arab League, which was imposed in 2011. So, why exactly is opinion seemingly changing?

Syria: Location and Population

The Syrian Arab Republic lies in the Middle East. Along its northern border is Turkey. To its east is Iraq, and to its south is Jordan. To its West, it shares a border with Israel and Lebanon and has a Mediterranean coastline. At 185,000 square kilometers or 71,000 square miles, it’s the 87th largest country in the world. Its population is estimated to be close to 21 million. Additionally, millions have fled the country mainly to neighboring states, such as Turkey and Lebanon. While the majority of Syrians are Arab, there are also Kurds, Circassians, and Turkic communities. And while three-quarters of the population are Sunni Muslims, several large minority religious groups also exist. The most significant of these are the Alawites. An offshoot of Shia Islam, they make up a highly influential 10 percent of the country.

The Origins of Syria

Syria has a long and rich history stretching back into antiquity. Having been a Roman province, it came under the influence of Islam in the 7th Century before becoming a key battleground for Christian Crusaders in the Middle Ages. Then, in the 16th century, it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. This lasted until the First World War, when Britain and France carved up the Middle East, and Syria, incorporating what is now Lebanon, came under French rule—a move confirmed by the League of Nations in 1923.

Having declared independence during the Second World War, in 1945, Syria became a founding member of the United Nations and one of six founding members of the Arab League—alongside  Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia.

Syrian Independence, Instability, and Union With Egypt

From the start, the Syrian state faced massive problems. Aside from internal tensions across its diverse society, it suffered a heavy defeat in 1948 when it was part of the unsuccessful Arab attempt to destroy the newly created state of Israel. In March 1949 Syria suffered the first of many military coups.

All the while, a significant new political force was emerging: the Ba’ath Party. Built around left-wing socialist ideology, it espoused secular pan-Arab nationalism. This would have profound implications just a few years later. Facing a challenge from the Communist Party, Syria turned to Egypt and its charismatic leader, Abdul Gamal Nasser, for help. Following separate votes in February 1958, the two countries merged to create the United Arab Republic under Nasser’s leadership. However, it was a short-lived union. Syrians quickly became unhappy with Egyptian dominance and, following another coup in September 1961, Syria left the UAR.

The Rise of Hafez al-Assad

Over the following years, the country continued to be plagued by political instability, frequent coups, counter-coups, and changes in government. But things began to change in February 1966 when, following yet another military takeover, a young Alawite Air Force general, Hafez al-Assad, was appointed minister of defense. At first, it seemed he wouldn’t last long. The following year, Israel heavily defeated Syria and other Arab states in the Six-Day War—a conflict that saw Israeli forces seize the Golan Heights, a strategically vital area between the two countries. However, Assad managed to remain in place and build up his power over the next few years. In November 1970, he too launched a coup, becoming president of Syria the following year.

The Hafez al-Assad Regime in Syria, 1970-2000

After a quarter century of political turmoil, things now changed dramatically. Internally, Assad instituted a harsh and repressive regime that eliminated all opposition to his rule. While he strengthened the armed forces, he also made sure to concentrate political power and state security in the hands of the Alawite minority.

Meanwhile, externally, he tried to make Syria a leading actor in the Arab world. In addition to aligning with the Soviet Union and taking a fiercely anti-American position, he took an uncompromisingly hardline stance on Israel—especially after Egypt became the first Arab state to make peace with the Jewish state. To this end, Damascus began supporting militant Palestinian groups—a step that saw Syria become the first country to be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism by the U.S state Department; a status it still retains. Additionally, it sent troops into Lebanon during the country’s Civil War, eventually becoming an occupying power. And it also built close ties to revolutionary Iran, facilitating Tehran’s efforts to undermine Israel and assist militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Syria under Hafez al-Assad came to be regarded as one of the most repressive, dangerous, and destabilizing states in the Arab world.

The Rise of Bashar al-Assad

On June 10, 2000, after 30 years in power, the Hafez al-Assad died and was immediately succeeded by his son, Bashar al-Assad. At first, there were hopes that the new leader would be a reformer. Having been an eye doctor in Britain, he’d been called back to Syria in 1994 when his older brother, Basil, Assad’s expected successor, was killed in a car accident. But such hopes quickly disappeared. In addition to maintaining strict control over domestic politics, he kept up the country’s hardline foreign policy. Syria opposed the continued existence of Israel, and helped militant Islamic fighters travel to Iraq to join the anti-American Insurgency following the U.S. invasion in 2003.

However, everything began to change with the emergence of the Arab Spring in 2011. Having started in Tunisia when a young market trader set himself alight to protest government corruption, anger soon spread across the wider Middle East. Mass demonstrations in Egypt forced out the country’s long-term dictator, and protests also erupted in Syria. In response, the Assad regime launched a  brutal crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. This led to widespread international condemnation from the United States and the  European Union, among others. But, perhaps most importantly, Syria’s Arab neighbors also called for restraint. As it became clear that Assad would not moderate his response, in November 2011 the Arab League suspended Syria and imposed economic and political sanctions.

The Syrian Civil War

Despite several international efforts to broker peace, the violence continued to escalate, and by 2012 the uprising had become a full-scale civil war. At first, it looked as if the opposition forces were gaining the upper hand. While Iran supported Damascus, there was a growing international coalition against Assad. In addition to support from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, the United States, and other key Western States recognized the opposition as the legitimate voice of the Syrian people. However, despite allegations in 2013 that Damascus had used chemical weapons, the United States was reluctant to intervene more openly.

By 2015, things were changing. Various Islamist groups, including Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, had become significant actors in the  civil war and were making headway. As a result, international attention began to focus on containing this new threat. At the same time, Russia stepped in to support Assad. All this fundamentally transformed the conflict. While opposition forces, including the Kurds, managed to secure the country’s northeast, the Syrian Army began to retake the south.

By 2020, the Islamic State had been all but defeated, Turkey had invaded to limit the power of the Kurds in the north, and Syrian government forces controlled two-thirds of the country’s territory. Although there are still skirmishes today, an effective stalemate now exists. While the country isn’t at peace, and the situation remains politically unresolved,  the war is effectively over—or is at best a frozen conflict. More to the point, Assad is still in charge. His durability as Syrian leader has led to increasing suggestions in certain quarters that it’s now time to accept the reality on the ground and begin re-engaging with Syria.

Growing Arab Engagement With Syria

Indeed, the re-engagement has already started. Several countries have begun to talk openly with Assad. After a first visit in 2022, the Syrian leader has been welcomed for a second time by the United Arab Emirates. And in February 2023, he paid an official visit to Oman. Likewise, Egypt has also moved to mend relations with Damascus.

But most recently, and perhaps most importantly, Saudi Arabia has joined the ranks of these states. This is hugely significant given the strong Saudi opposition to Assad at the start of the war and its support for anti-government forces. Already, there have been reciprocal visits by the country’s foreign ministers. But more remarkably still, Riyadh has led calls for Syria to be readmitted to the Arab League.

Of course, if this does happen, it will be a crucial step in Syria’s rehabilitation. But what exactly lies behind these calls? Will Syria regain international acceptance? Those in favor of engagement argue that, while they may have liked to have seen the end of the Assad regime, it’s still in power and now seems secure. More to the point, many international problems involving Syria need to be addressed, not least the question of refugees, and to do this they need to be able to talk to Damascus.

There are other factors at play as well. Many countries are worried about  Iran’s influence in the region, which is strengthened through its support for Syria. Syria’s role as a leading producer of amphetamines, feeding a growing drug problem for many Middle East countries, is another pressing issue, and other states in the region want to be able to engage with Damascus to try to rein in this trade.

Nevertheless, there’s still considerable opposition to Syria’s rehabilitation. For example, Qatar has insisted that Syria can’t be accepted back into the Arab League until it’s reached a final political settlement to the conflict, the displaced are dealt with, and repression ends. And, at this stage, it seems that the  opposing voices still have the upper hand. Meeting recently, Arab League foreign ministers decided against lifting the serious suspension. But efforts to end Syria’s supsension  will nevertheless continue. Saudi Arabia has already made it clear that it hopes to invite Assad to the organization’s next summit, to be held in Riyadh in May.

Meanwhile, and more widely, the United States and the European Union remain vehemently opposed to the Assad regime. For instance, the EU insists that there can be no normalization of relations until a political solution to the conflict is found. In this sense, it seems highly unlikely that we will in fact see Syria widely accepted on the world stage again anytime soon. But moves to open the door to readmission into the community of Arab states nevertheless signals a significant moment for this long-standing pariah state.

Update: Syria was reinstated to the Arab League on May 7, 2023.

James Ker-Lindsay is a research associate at the European Institute, London School of Economics, and a visiting professor at the University of Kent. His YouTube channel can be found here.

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