Syria continues to present one of the most difficult challenges in a region that hardly lacks complications. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the rapid slowdown of diplomatic progress witnessed since Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s return to the regional fold in May, when Arab leaders invited his government back to the Arab League. Unsurprisingly, these leaders have achieved minimal progress since this moment concerning concessions from Damascus. Yet Arab leaders continue to engage the intransigent Syrian government in the name of a broader regional thaw currently underway—most recently via the Arab Liaison Committee and other bilateral efforts—in what should still be viewed as a reasonable course correction to end the long-running conflict.
The Arab Liaison Committee
Arab states established the committee in May after opting to begin re-establishing relations with Damascus ahead of its return to the Arab League the same month. As such, it constitutes the core mechanism for Arab engagement with the Assad regime and Jordan’s step-for-step initiative. It is within this mechanism that talks were recently held in Cairo with Syrian officials to discuss files of concern, such as refugee returns, captagon smuggling, sanctions, Syria’s territorial integrity, and early recovery and reconstruction needs.
The summit occurred between August 15–16. The first day included multiple bilateral meetings, of which Egyptian officials met individually with the Syrian and Saudi delegations. The Jordanian and Syrian foreign ministers also held a bilateral meeting. The full committee talks included the foreign ministers of Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. The Arab League secretary-general also participates in the committee.
The discussions focused on the state of the conflict in Syria and topics of regional concern—namely the previously mentioned issues. Interestingly, the group also discussed the Syrian Constitutional Committee and enforced disappearance. Following the joint meeting, Egyptian foreign minister Samy Shoukry announced that they would hold the next meeting in Baghdad. Shoukry also expects the Constitutional Committee to restart its work in Oman by the end of the year—a notable point to raise.
Overall, official statements and reporting suggest the talks were fruitful and cordial. An Egyptian Foreign Ministry statement said that Shoukry confirmed the committee would “offer a helping hand to the brotherly Syrian people to pull through their predicament.” A final statement from the committee was similarly friendly, saying “The committee encourages the Syrian government to continue the steps and measures taken to deal with all the consequences of the Syrian crisis so as to fulfill the aspirations of the Syrian people in pulling through the relevant challenges and move to a better future.”
In this context, Syria’s neighbors are genuinely interested in resolving the crisis given the litany of issues stemming from “the heart of the Middle East.” They are also correct in understanding that issues emanating from this neighbor can have a disastrous impact on regional security and prosperity. For these reasons, the committee is likely to continue its work, even amidst a difficult political environment and the Syrian government’s present disinterest in concessions.
With Friends Like These
The issue at hand, however, is that very little progress has been made since these leaders decided to re-normalize with Damascus. The committee’s members appear stuck today, exemplified by Saudi Arabia’s decision to delay its embassy reopening in the Syrian capital. For its part, Jordan is experiencing minimal progress on captagon smuggling along its border with Syria. Similarly, Iraq is confronting a worsening smuggling issue along its porous western border with Syria. The general gridlock in the Syria-Turkey talks is equally concerning as they are hung up on the issue of the Turkish military presence in northwest Syria (NWS).
Indeed, the reality is that Assad has effectively stonewalled all diplomatic efforts to re-engage his government thus far, demanding strict and unwavering concessions in exchange for items of interest for his neighbors. To be sure, Damascus has attempted to present a better public image, re-opening Turkish border crossings for humanitarian aid. But the devil is in the details—namely that the Syrian government remains the core reason for the suffering of millions in opposition-held NWS and regime-held lands, blocking aid and laying siege to entire cities with chemical weapons. No one should be fooled by false kindness designed to distract from ongoing brutality.
Still, Syria’s neighbors are making the right decision by engaging Damascus. They realistically have little choice at this stage—Syria is too geographically crucial to the workings of the region to be relegated to the status of a rogue state on par with North Korea. Further, the topic of regime change died years ago, leaving much more marginal—yet pragmatic—issues to address today. Even the Biden administration understands this, with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf expressing that regional leaders should “get something” in return.
Ruthless pragmatism of this type is just that—ruthless but realistic. No one should expect Arab states, particularly Gulf monarchies, to espouse a values-based approach to Syria, making the latter point on realism particularly important. Similarly, Damascus will not provide easy concessions, likely opting to instead use different forums and talks with its neighbors for increasingly better-negotiated outcomes.
Captagon offers a great example in this regard. The regime has increased joint-security efforts with Jordan while simultaneously sitting at the core of the entire drug operation in the first place. All stakeholders focused on Syria understand these contradictions. Yet such issues present the main problem as Assad will not change his behavior without something significant in return—in this case reconstruction funding with as little oversight or strings attached as possible.
Can Step-for-Step Work?
It is this reality that the Jordan-led step-for-step approach utilized through the Liaison Committee is hoping to see progress. Shoukry spoke with UN special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen shortly after the meetings in Cairo to discuss the “agreements” reached. It is certainly interesting to see this collaboration following reports of the Constitutional Committee talks restarting in Oman by the end of the year. Such a move would be a good step forward should it also be understood that it is a relatively small concession on Assad’s part, who used the committee for years to buy time as he recaptured most of his country by force. The hope is that reported discussions surrounding the enforced disappearance can similarly see some progress this year.
Whether the Constitutional Committee will restart remains to be seen but is not impossible. From here, Arab leaders might push Assad to engage in serious talks by offering carrots to Damascus in the form of various early recovery or reconstruction projects. A focal point will be refugee returns and realistic assurances of their safety, although we should not confuse regional leaders with altruism when it comes to refugee protection, let alone Western governments.
Forced refugee returns are already occurring and are likely to expand independently of talks with Damascus. This reality is an issue Washington should intervene to stop at all costs. But it is folly to strategize an approach to Syria with the assumption that such violations of international law simply will not happen. Again, these are not values-based actors—they are ruthlessly pragmatic—and these violations are happening right now.
If talks eventually reach the stage of serious step-for-step exchanges, the focus ultimately becomes how Western sanctions block any potential recovery or reconstruction efforts connected to these discussions and how Syrians will be protected. The current U.S. administration has expressed flexibility on sanctions thus far, allowing regional partners to test the waters of rapprochement with Assad. But bypassing sanctions is another beast with serious challenges that are at least partially dependent on the U.S. Congress’s push for tougher actions against Damascus and the makeup of the presidency—namely the victor of the 2024 U.S. presidential election.
President Joe Biden has thus far not utilized the Caesar Act sanctions extensively, which could indicate how future dealmaking with the Syrian government could look should the executive branch in Washington not utilize sanctions mechanisms. Overt and covert pressure to protect refugees could fall within the White House’s strategy as well.
Biden would be wise to consider this approach. If regional leaders and the UN special envoy finally implement an effective step-for-step strategy, achieving modest but important victories in an otherwise impossible situation, it would be folly for Washington to prevent such a scenario. Such victories should include basic protections for refugees and all Syrian citizens first and foremost, especially considering the inevitability of forced returns already underway in Turkey and Syria. Progress on some reforms and information on the disappeared are also crucial. Finally, solidifying efforts to secure the Arab Gas Pipeline in support of the 2022 energy agreement between Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt can be another huge win from progress on the Syria file.
The unfortunate reality is that Assad is here to stay, leaving strictly bad policy outcomes for policymakers. It is beyond clear that world leaders will not overthrow the regime, nor that a U.S. military presence is legal or necessary in the country’s northeast. In a situation in which economic pressure and diplomatic censure have not worked, it is long past time to apply the diplomatic tools needed to finally end Syria’s war, especially if the current approach only leaves the country in an ongoing conflict and economic nightmare that will worsen with time—leaving increasingly negative impacts on the region as well.