The Arab League dealt a painful blow to human rights by normalizing relations with the Assad regime

Devastation in Idlib caused by a Russian missile strike on March 14, 2019, claimed lives and reduced a neighborhood to ruins. Photo by Moussa Mohammed. Used with permission

Despite the devastating earthquake that ravaged both Turkey and Syria on February 6, affecting over 18 million people, causing loss of lives, injuries, and displacement of millions, the Bashar Al Assad regime emerged with plans to exploit this tragedy for personal gain.

The earthquake provided the regime with a pathway to break its isolation resulting from international sanctions due to grave human rights violations. Seizing the chance, the regime initiated the normalization of relations with Arab countries, who used humanitarian aid as a pretext to restore communication -Diplomatic normalization refers to the process of restoring or establishing formal diplomatic relations between two countries or entities.

The Arab League met on May 7, 2023, where they agreed to reinstate Syria's membership in the league. Screenshot from Al Jazeera video. Fair use.

On May 7, 2023, the Arab League welcomed Syria back after a 12-year break, disregarding the Assad regime's atrocities of massacre, torture, forced disappearances, and displacement, dealing a painful blow to human rights in the region.

A decade of brutal suppression and humanitarian crisis

The Syrian civil war began in March 2011, when the Asad regime brutally suppressed peaceful protests. This sparked a relentless ongoing conflict that continues to this day.

Numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria were committed by the Assad regime, according to human rights reports. These offenses include indiscriminate shelling, focusing on medical facilities and personnel, preventing those in need receiving humanitarian aid, and carrying out extrajudicial executions, torture, enforced disappearances, and sexual violence within prisons.

The regime's crimes went beyond that, disregarding international laws and resorting to the use of banned chemical weapons against civilians on several occasions. One incident that stands out is the 2013 massacre in Ghouta, which killed hundreds of civilians, including children.

Furthermore, the regime used famine as a weapon against the Syrian people by blocking aid from getting to areas controlled by opposition, causing civilians to suffer from hunger and malnutrition.

These crimes resulted in catastrophic consequences, displacing over 14 million Syrians globally, including 6.8 million internally. A recent UN report from March 2023 highlighted that 70 percent of the population is in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

Families discovered their loved one's fates through the publication of Caesar's gruesome photos online in 2014. Screenshot from a Middle East Eye video. Fair use.

These crimes led several countries and organizations to impose sanctions on the Syrian regime since 2011. The European Union (EU) froze assets and imposed travel bans on individuals involved in human rights violations, while the United States implemented sanctions under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act in 2019, named after a defector who documented torture with gruesome photos.

Race for normalization with the Assad Regime

The Arab League suspended Syria's membership in 2011, but a shift occurred since 2017 in the international community and anti-regime forces. The regime's military gains, backed by Russia and Iran, against terrorist organizations like ISIS led to a change in focus for some Western countries, including the US, prioritizing defeating ISIS over removing Assad from power.

Bashar Al Assad warmly welcomed during visit to the UAE, meeting with the UAE president, HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, on 19 March 2023. Screenshot from a Gulf News video. Fair use.

Arab countries have recently improved communication with the Assad regime, with several prominent diplomatic attempts to rebuild channels with Damascus. In 2018, the UAE and Bahrain restored diplomatic relations with Syria.

Following the earthquake, Saudi Arabia expressed interest in improving relations with Syria, reflecting the evolving diplomatic developments and new alliances in the Middle East, including the regional impact of the Saudi–Iranian relations, encompassing Syria.

Syrian and Iraq refugees arrive from Turkey to Skala Sykamias, Lesvos island, Greece. Rescue team from “Proactiva open arms“. Photo by Ggia – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Fair use.

Arab normalization with the Assad regime serves different needs and interests. It aims to alleviate the internal tensions caused by millions of Syrian refugees in Arab countries and — hopefully — facilitate their safe return. Moreover, it seeks to curb the flow of illicit drugs, smuggled from Syria to Jordan and Iraq en route to Gulf countries. Additionally, Saudi Arabia seeks to curb Iranian intervention in the region’s security, including in Syria and Yemen.

However, the normalization poses a diplomatic and ethical dilemma for the world, particularly the US and EU, who may need to impose sanctions on their allies in the Middle East to enforce sanctions on Syria. 

Concessions will erode moral legitimacy, especially considering the far-reaching consequences on human rights regionally and worldwide. Normalizing relations with Assad without accountability for crimes or essential reforms obstructs justice for Syrians and jeopardizes peace, cautioned Human Rights Watch.

Furthermore, this normalization sends a chilling message to dictators around the world, allowing human rights abuses to go unpunished, especially in light of the ongoing Russian–Ukrainian conflict.

Reactions to the normalization with Assad

The Syrian opposition rushed to criticize the Arab states’ normalization with the Assad regime. Badr Jamous, the head of the Negotiation Committee in the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, warned against unconditional normalization.​​

التطبيع مع النظام السوري لإعادته إلى الجامعة العربية دون الالتزام بالحل السياسي، وعدم تطبيق القرارت الأممية وعلى رأسها بيان جنيف والقرار ٢٢٥٤، واستئناف عملية سياسية جدية وفق آلية زمنية محددة، سيعطي ضوءاً أخضر للنظام للتهرب من الاستحقاقات المطلوبة منه.
ندعو الدول العربية الشقيقة…

— د بدر جاموس Dr Bader Jamous (@JamousBader) April 12, 2023

Normalizing with the Syrian regime without its commitment to a political solution, disregarding UN resolutions, particularly Geneva Statement and Resolution 2254, and the resumption of a serious political process within a specific timeframe allows the regime to evade its obligations. We urge Arab countries to pressure for genuine national consultations to safeguard Syria and ensure a safe, dignified, and stable life for its people. Unconditional normalization contradicts Syrians interests, hampers stability, and fuels migration by eroding hope for peaceful change.

Thousands of Syrians protested in northern Syria against the normalization of the Assad regime, chanting “No to normalization with the criminal Assad.” 

Lebanese journalist Rawaa Augé questioned if the Arab League would hold the regime accountable.

After Bashar Al Assad's invitation to the Arab League, will the league question him on detainees and disappeared? Demand an end to arrests and bombing? Reprimand him, even with a slight reproach, to feign concern? Or embrace him, declaring it a historic moment, telling us Syria is back to the Arab bosom? They will forget, but will we?

Journalist and human rights defender Ibrahim Zidan emphasized the atrocities committed by Assad.

Political science professor Mark Lynch questioned the surprise over the Arab League decision.

At the same time, the US Department of State reiterated its rejection of this normalization.

​​After Syria’s readmission to the Arab League, questions arise about the decision's impact on the ongoing Syrian conflict and Syrians who paid a hefty price as a result. It remains uncertain if the league will hold the regime accountable or if competing interests will prevail, undermining human rights in Syria and the region, with potential global repercussion.


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