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Assad’s comeback and the Erdogan suspense

Having been rehabilitated by the Arab League, the Syrian president is poised to wield influence in post-election Turkey, regardless of who wins.
Syria Assad

The Arab League's decision to readmit Syria on Sunday is a game changer in the Middle East, a clear success for Saudi diplomacy and an apparent win for Russia. 

The unanimous decision issued by foreign ministers of the 22-member league is another sign of the strengthening illiberal bloc which challenges the West's democracy agenda. It draws the curtain for good on what remained of the dreams of the Arab Spring a decade ago, after Tunisia under President Kais Saied has also embraced authoritarianism of late. The Arab League had suspended Damascus in late 2011 over the government's bloody crackdown on protests.

In Lebanon, Suleiman Frangieh, a close ally of Damascus, is one of the contenders for the next presidential election, and in northwestern Syria, the territories controlled by Islamist rebels could be at risk if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan loses the coming elections this weekend. As for the autonomous statelet in Syrian Kurdistan, its leaders have already made overtures to Damascus to negotiate whatever autonomy they might preserve in the future — should Western special forces withdraw from their bases in the northeast.  

Assad, whose downfall was routinely predicted as imminent by many Western pundits a decade ago, has now come back on the front stage with a vengeance. Just like his father Hafiz al-Assad, he used the centrality of his country in the fragmented and sectarian Levant as the key to his resilience, playing friends and foes alike against each other. 

The Syrian president hosted his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, in Damascus on May 2-3, the first visit of an Iranian president since 2011. Even after the China-mediated rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran, the Arabs remain keen to distance Syria from the Persian-led "Shia crescent" — but Assad made it clear he was upping the ante. Also, though the country’s economy is in shambles, one successful export is the illegal amphetamine Captagon, which has become a major health liability for Arabian Peninsula youth — and the only solution is to come to terms with the Syrian narco-state.

On the Turkish front, though Russian diplomacy had organized cabinet-level encounters and was pressuring Erdogan to meet with Assad, the latter has flatly turned it down of late, “until the last Turkish soldier has left Syrian territory,” adding, “We want peace, he wants election.” 

The Syria file has become one of Erdogan's chief liabilities in his bid for reelection on May 14, together with the February earthquakes and domestic inflation. The 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, once welcome in the name of pan-Islamic Sunni solidarity, are now perceived by Turkish voters as competitors for jobs. The military occupation of Syria, once glorified as post-Ottoman glory and anti-Kurdish terrorism deterrence, is becoming increasingly costly and unpopular. 

Assad plays an even greater spoiler role in the Turkish election since the main contender, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, belongs to the Alevi minority, a liberal branch of Shiism which has always remained a staunch voting base for CHP, the social-democrat and secularist party founded by Kemal Ataturk, and offers some similarity to the Alawi minority in Syria, to which the Assad family belongs. 

Neither CHP nor the Alevis at large have expressed support for the Syrian authoritarian regime. But if the opposition wins at the polls, it would certainly not extend the present pro-Islamist and Sunni-driven Turkish occupation policy. All the more so as the second-largest party in the opposition coalition, Meral Aksener’s nationalist Iyi Parti, is also expressly secularist. Hence, Assad has time on his side and a number of cards he can play, whoever wins in Ankara.  

Russia, though it supported Syria from the onset of the civil war and developed close ties with Erdogan’s Turkey, finds itself in a situation which is not as bright as it seems. Assad, an erstwhile mere vassal of Russian President Vladimir Putin, now needs him less, thanks to his revamped Arab legitimacy. And as the Russian military is bogged down in Ukraine, it has fewer funds and soldiers for the Syrian front, which is less of a stake in its confrontation with the West. 

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