After over a decade of political and economic isolation, the Syrian government now appears to be on the precipice of regional reintegration, including rejoining the Arab League. Considering the failure of the UN peace process, it is no surprise that Syria’s neighbors have grown tired of the prospect of indefinite isolation. However, the Assad government continues to perpetrate serious crimes against its own people. Normalization not only symbolically condones these crimes, but will likely increase the government’s economic resources, further empowering criminal behavior. While this turn of events is a stunning failure for international community’s efforts under resolution 2254, it does not need to represent a total loss for states still dedicated to strengthening human rights in Syria. The current moment provides the international community with powerful leverage to pursue concrete progress, including for Syria’s missing persons.
Recent weeks have seen the final stages in a process of normalization that has been accelerating for years. In November 2011, in response to increasing violence against civilians, the Arab League voted to suspend Syria’s membership, with most Arab states cutting diplomatic ties and implementing economic sanctions, travel bans, and other policies meant to isolate Syria and force cooperation in a peace process. These steps were taken when a change in government, with the backing of the international community, seemed inevitable. As the tides turned, neighboring states began to realize that by isolating Syria, they were also relinquishing their power to influence the Syrian government, effectively abdicating to Syria’s regional allies, particularly Iran. The process of normalization in many ways began in 2018, when the UAE reopened its embassy in Syria. In the intervening years, other countries have made incremental steps towards increasing ties, building to a flood of change in the past year and particularly in the aftermath of February’s earthquake. In April, news broke that Saudi Arabia will invite Syria to the Arab League summit this May.
Despite these changes, the U.S. and most European states are remaining steadfast in their stance that a negotiated political agreement is the only road to renewed relations with the Syrian government. It is important that Western states continue to hold this line, and use the tools at their disposal to ensure that Syria is not fully integrated into the international community. However, such a stance does not mean that these states cannot also pursue opportunities for incremental change. If Western states simply stand to the side and critique normalization, seemingly their policy to date, it will proceed outside of their influence. However, as allies of the west, particularly the United Arab Emirates, lead the normalization process, the U.S. and Europe should be pressuring these states to ask for human rights concessions in exchange for reintegration.
One clear opportunity, which could bring concrete relief to millions of Syrians, is to use normalization to incentivize the Syrian government cooperation in a missing persons process. Over the past year, many western states have worked towards the establishment of an international mechanism to search for missing persons in Syria. However, any future mechanism’s efforts will be hampered by a lack of access to the country, or cooperation from the primary perpetrator, namely the Syrian government. The leverage offered by normalization creates a much more promising path towards progress on this file. Arab states could premise league membership on Syria’s taking concrete steps, including releasing detainees and allowing the ICRC to access military detention facilities. States can improve the chance of government cooperation by focusing on purely humanitarian measures. This could also be a boon for Arab states welcoming Syria back, who could claim a major human rights success. The general amnesty decree issued in spring 2022, on the heels of Assad’s visit to the UAE, also suggests a willingness by the Syrian government to engage in releases in exchange for political progress. While it is clear that the west has not had the ability to stall normalization, progress on detainee releases and missing persons is a much more attainable, but nonetheless valuable, goal.
For many diplomats in the west though, any hint of incrementalism when it comes to addressing serious violations of international law is rejected. The only acceptable goal is for the Syrian government to cease serious crimes altogether. That should, of course, continue to be the goal, and these states should not engage directly with the Syrian government until that time. But western states can hold their line, while, even if behind the scenes, working with regional allies to ensure that Syrians receive some measure of relief while they wait for a true end to the conflict.