The National Interest Foundation Newsletter, Issue 192

The National Interest Foundation Newsletter

Issue 192, May 26, 2023

Welcome to our NIF Newsletter. In this week’s headlines: we examine Assad’s first Arab League summit in over 10 years, analyze the run-off elections in Turkey, and look into the failed ceasefire in Sudan.

Written by Jacob Van Veldhuizen

Assad Returns to the Arab League

Assad’s return to the Arab League has caused much controversy in the international community. (Photo from AFP)

Assad Returns to Saudi Arabia to Participate in the Arab League Summit

Last week Friday, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad appeared at his first Arab League summit since Syria was suspended from the bloc of Arab states after his harsh crackdown on protestors in 2011 during the Arab Spring.  Indications of Assad’s return to the fold have long been visible, but these expectations did not blunt the outrage of his critics and opponents. Assad was warmly welcomed on his arrival by Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This greeting is in stark contrast to just ten years ago when many Gulf monarchies were conspiring ways to oust Assad. Syria was officially brought back into the Arab League on May 7th after member countries agreed to lift the ban they implemented in March of 2011.

During the 2011 Arab Spring, a large wave of anti-government protests and uprisings took place across the Middle East and North Africa. One of the countries it took place was Syria against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who has been in power since 2000. He succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad. When he first took power, the international community was cautiously optimistic as he released several hundred political prisoners and slightly loosened government restrictions on freedom of expression and press. This did not last long, as just a month later the Assad regime began using threats, violence, and arrests to put a stop to pro-reform activism. When the anti-government protests broke out in March of 2011, Assad’s swift and brutal crackdown on protests, often using lethal force, drew criticism from the international community. There were multiple reports of massacres and indiscriminate violence against civilians, often dropping bombs on residential areas. This eventually led to their removal from the Arab League in May of the same year. Syria was further ostracized after its use of chemical weapons on civilians in 2013. This violent suppression led to an extremely bloody, drawn-out civil war which has led to the deaths of more than half a million people and displaced about half of the country’s pre-war population.

The move to accept Syria back into the Arab League has drawn harsh international criticism and sparked protests in rebel-held parts of Syria and from the Syria diaspora around the world. Thousands of Syrians took part in demonstrations in the Syrian cities of Idlib, al-Bab, Azaz, Jarabulus, and Afrin. Demonstrations by the Syrian diaspora took place in Vienna, Amsterdam, London, Vaile, Stockholm, and Lyon. “We demonstrated today to remind those who are seeking to normalize their relations with the al-Assad regime that the Great Syrian Revolution started spontaneously as a response to the internal suffocation we endured under the Assad regime,” said Ibrahim Aboud, a protestor in Idlib. Many of the protestors were profoundly distressed and frustrated by the lack of accountability for Assad’s war crimes, which include the targeting of civilians and the use of chemical weapons. Despite this new normalization between Syria and other Arab countries, many of the protestors remained resolute in their goal. “Our message is crystal clear: Our revolution will continue until we achieve its goal and that’s freedom and liberation from this regime.” Says Jalal Talawi, a protestor from Al-Bab.

Syria joining the meeting was not unexpected, as many countries have been toying with the idea of allowing Syria to rejoin the Arab League. Four major factors contributed to Syria being welcomed back into the fold. First, Assad leveraged the recent earthquake in northern Syria and the subsequent need for aid to accelerate his rapprochement with the bloc. Pleas for humanitarian aid gave him an avenue to quickly and easily reestablish connections with many members of the Arab League. The second factor is this move furthers Saudi Arabia’s goal of projecting power and promoting a sense of stability. Saudi Arabia has been on a recent diplomatic campaign to normalize relations with its traditional adversaries, including Iran. This campaign is part of a larger effort to improve Saudi Arabia’s image around the world and emerge as a candidate to fill the vacuum the United States left in the Middle East.  The third factor is the acceptance that Assad is here to stay. He controls two-thirds of the country and the remaining rebel holdouts are weak. In essence, unless something dramatic happens soon, Assad has weathered the storm. There are no immediate threats to his reign, so as a practical point, it is not beneficial for the Arab League to continue to ostracize Assad. The final factor is Arab countries’ desire to end or reduce the sale of Captagon, a highly addictive drug that Assad has been using to fund his country while he was a pariah. Likely, many members hope that allowing Syria to rejoin the league will reduce the country’s need to fund itself through the sale of Captagon.

It should also be noted that not every member of the Arab League is fully on board with the return of Assad. Qatar, who has been a fierce critic of the Assad government since 2011 was hesitant to readmit Syria. During the summit, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani left immediately before Assad gave a speech to the bloc.

The Biden Administration’s Syria policy suffered a big blow from the move to allow Syria back into the Arab League. It continues to maintain that it will continue to sanction Syria and may even pass stricter sanctions. This will have some effect on Syria’s ability to reintegrate economically into the league but will have little political impact. America continues to lose its status as a player in the Middle East. The U.S. will continue to maintain its troop presence in northern Syria, but with Syria’s readmittance, it is unclear if this will last.

Election in Turkey

The run-off election in Turkey is set to take place this weekend May 28th. (Photo from AFP)

Runoff Election in Turkey

Iran’s continued diplomatic offensive in the Middle East has begun to show promise, as multiple visits between Iranian officials and officials from Iraq and Saudi Arabia have led to warming diplomatic and economic relations. Traditional adversaries in the region, and the warming relations between these countries are a sign of changing dynamics in the Middle East. Most recently, Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid met with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rashid also meets with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf.

Iran has been exploiting a mutual disdain for the United States to court Iraq and continues to broaden their security and economic cooperation. During a meeting between himself and President Rashid, Khamenei stated “The Americans are not friends of Iraq,” and “even one American in Iraq is too many.” Along with his emphasis on expelling the United States from Iraq, Khamenei also urged for the full implementation of the bilateral security and economic agreements that were signed last month. Both countries have a desire to deepen ties and resolve differences, however, rapprochement will still likely prove to be difficult. Iran and Iraq have long been at odds. Iran was invaded by Iraq in 1979 and those wounds are still felt on both sides. After Saddam Hussein was overthrown, however, the two have slowly begun to create a relationship. This relationship will have the potential to increase stability in the Middle East.

Iran has also made huge strides in reconnecting with Saudi Arabia. These efforts were applauded by Iraqi officials during their visit to Iran. Saudi Arabia is and will likely remain a powerhouse and the Middle East. The Iraqi president rightfully stated that it will “strengthen stability and security” in the region. If all goes well for Iran, Saudi Arabia will also likely prove to be valuable in reestablishing connections with other Middle Eastern countries Iran has quarreled with in the past.

A recently China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudia Arabia has also been paying dividends. The main key to this agreement, which was signed in March, was for Iran to stop further attacks on Saudi Arabia and curtail support for militant groups that have targeted Saudi Arabia. The agreement also came with renewed hopes that the proxy war in Yemen, where the two countries support opposing sides. An end to this conflict would mean increased stability in the region and allow much-needed aid supplies to flow more freely into Yemen. The growing relationship between the two countries was especially shown when Saudi Arabia helped evacuate 65 Iranian citizens from Sudan. This sign of cooperation signals a complete reshuffling of traditional alliances in the Middle East.

As Iran continues to fill the power vacuum left by the United States in Iraq, they gain a valuable strategic advantage in the region. Iranians have growing access to Iraqi oil and development and water purification projects. They also have growing access to many Iraqi military officials who were trained and supported by the United States during the occupation. This allows Iran to collect valuable intel, such as training techniques and strategies used by the United States. Iraq has also allowed Iranian tourists to come and visit the many sacred sites for Shia Muslims. Iran is beginning to have far-reaching political, security, and cultural influence in Iraq. This new influence, coupled with its increasingly positive relationship with Saudi Arabia could lead to an entirely different Middle East. It is essential for policymakers to not dismiss these actions as performative, but rather to take the changing dynamic into account when dealing with these countries. These alliances are likely to increase the power of the members and allow for greater autonomy in their actions and significantly alter America’s ability to negotiate in the region.

Failed Ceasefire

Despite a lull in fighting on Wednesday, the truce is seen as a failure. (Photo from Reuters)

Sudan’s Warring Parties Agreed upon 7-Day Humanitarian Ceasefire Has Failed

The ceasefire in Sudan has failed according to monitors from Saudi Arabia and the United States.  Sudan’s Army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) had agreed on Saturday to a week-long humanitarian ceasefire that was supposed to begin Monday night. Reports on the ground indicate that fighting continued into the next day Tuesday. Residents reported that “from the moment of the ceasefire … they were able to hear heavy artillery. They said from the very beginning of the ceasefire, it was already violated by both sides.” The conflict has already forced 1.3 million people to flee their homes. The death toll has surpassed 600 according to the World Health Organization and more than 5,000 people have been injured because of the fighting. These are estimates and the true death toll is likely much higher. A point of alarm has been that many of the civilians coming into hospitals for treatment have been reported to have suffered from multiple gunshot wounds, indicating that they are being intentionally targeted. There have also been reports of extrajudicial killing, torture, and sexual assault.

It was hoped this truce would be different as it was brokered by the United States and Saudi Arabia, which gave it more weight and outside accountability. It was signed in Jeddah and was the first ceasefire signed by both the army and the RSF. These hopes were quickly dashed after reports of ceasefire violations came flooding in. Each side blames the other, saying they were defending themselves from the other’s attacks. Heavy fighting continued into Tuesday. There was a reported lull in violence on Wednesday however, but this lull in fighting was too short, and the security situation to unpredictable for any aid to flow into the affected regions. Logistical problems also plagued attempts to get the much-needed supplies into the war zone.

There is no end in sight for the ongoing civil war in Sudan. Neither side has shown any sign of wanting to negotiate and so far, every ceasefire has been violated. Both sides were evenly matched at the beginning of the conflict and neither has been able to claim a decisive victory. Neither side has a military advantage, which means neither side is motivated to negotiate. Before the conflict broke out, the two leaders of the opposing sides, RSF commander General Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemediti, and General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the commander of the Sudanese army, maintained a fragile peace after a military coup in 2021. Hemedti issued a belligerent message just hours before the agreement was due to become effective. He was recorded in an audio message saying his troops would not retreat “until we end this coup”. Even if one side gets the advantage, both sides are, in essence, fighting for their survival.

Despite the disappointing result of this ceasefire, the international community must continue to urge each side to work toward a peaceful resolution. It is also important to continue the attempts to send aid and also help neighboring countries support the Sudanese refugees. One particular issue that needs immediate attention is the 60,000 to 90,000 people that have fled into Chad. This sudden flood of refugees will make it nearly impossible to relocate them before the start of the rainy season in June, which may put them in even more danger. The United States announced $245 million in humanitarian aid to Sudan and its neighboring countries in an effort the assist in the refugee crisis. More funds will certainly be needed, and quickly, to avert another mass casualty event.