February 15, 2019 Special Dispatch No. 7892

Syrian Opposition: Arab Rapprochement With Assad Legitimizes His Crimes, Strengthens Iran

February 15, 2019
Syria | Special Dispatch No. 7892

Recently, several Arab states have shown an inclination to renew their recognition of Bashar Al-Assad's regime as the legitimate ruler of Syria and to normalize their relations with it. For example, on December 16, 2018, Sudanese President 'Omar Al-Bashir became the first Arab head of state to visit Damascus  since the beginning of the war there some eight years ago, [1] and on December 27, 2018 the UAE reopened its embassy in the Syrian capital, which had been closed since 2011.[2] It has also been reported that, ahead of the March 2019 Arab Summit in Tunisia, some Arab states, in particular Lebanon, have been working to renew Syria's membership in the Arab League, which was suspended on November 12, 2012.[3]

These developments enraged the Syrian opposition and its affiliated media, which claimed that legitimizing Assad and his regime is tantamount to sanctioning all their crimes against the Syrian people. Some even said that the Arab states' support of the Syrian revolution had never been sincere. Responding to the claim of some Arab states that rapprochement with the Syrian regime may help to distance it from Iran, Syrian oppositionists stated that the regime's ties with Iran are strong and the Arabs should not assume they will be able to break them.

This report reviews responses by the Syrian opposition to the Arab rapprochement with the Syrian regime.

"The Arab normalization with Bashar" (Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, London, December 30, 2018)

Syrian Opposition: Assad Must Not Be Welcomed Back Into The Arab Fold When His Hands Are Dripping With Syrian Blood

Many of the Syrian oppositionists urged the Arab states to stick to the anti-Assad positions they had expressed at the beginning of the revolution, while stressing that rapprochement with this regime could not erase its crimes against its people. Naser Al-Hariri, chairman of the High Negotiations Committee, which is recognized as the representative of the Syrian opposition in the political talks, said in a January 6, 2019 press conference in Riyadh: "We are at a historical crossroads, where we [can] either turn towards the Assad regime, or not… The Syrian regime is a perpetrator of war crimes in every sense of the word. Bashar Al-Assad will remain a war criminal even if 1,000 leaders shake his hand… We do not think it would be wise of Arab society today to restore the legitimacy of this regime and welcome it back to a respectable forum such as the Arab League, when its hands are dripping with Syrian blood… [Such a move] will benefit neither the political process nor the Syrian people."[4]

In a statement addressing the Arab leaders, the Istanbul-based Syrian Islamic Council, which was established as a religious authority for the Sunnis in Syria, listed reasons for avoiding rapprochement with the Assad regime: "First, [remember that] you boycotted this criminal regime for its crimes against your Syrian brothers and kin. You supported and endorsed their demand for justice and freedom. So do not renege on these important positions, and do not become a means for rehabilitating this criminal regime. Second, this regime has delivered Syria, militarily, culturally and politically, into the hands of Iran. Reinstating Syria in the Arab League will strengthen the occupying Iran and will threaten the league from within. Third, your brothers and kin in Syria remind you of the hundreds of thousands of victims that this criminal regime has murdered, the tens of thousands of detained men and women who are still suffering terrible torture in the prisons of the [greatest] dictator of this era, and the millions of emigrants that this regime expelled [from their homes] with its bombings and crimes. They are begging you not to abandon them and hand them over to the arch-butcher of Syria."[5]

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood movement also slammed the Arabs for their rapprochement with Assad: "We condemn this political step of supporting Assad and his regime, and clarify that the continued [existence] of this regime and the ongoing support of it constitute support for Iran's expansionist plan and for extremism and terror in the region. [They also constitute] consent to all the crimes against humanity that this regime has perpetrated and a renouncement of all the sacrifices made by the heroic Syrian people. The reasons for this revolution and the idea behind it are still present and valid, and [the revolution] will continue as long as this regime endures."[6]

Other Syrian oppositionists praised the Arab states that refuse to renew their relations with the Assad regime, chiefly Saudi Arabia. 'Abd Al-Rahman Mustafa, head of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, tweeted on January 15: "Saudi Arabia's, Qatar's and Morocco's refusal to normalize relations with the Assad regime and reinstate it in the Arab League tightens the noose around the neck of this regime and its supporters and conveys a forceful message: that there is no military solution [to the crisis] in Syria, and that the only solution is implementing the international resolutions."[7] The director of the Coalition's media and public relations office, Ahmad Ramadan, tweeted on January 14: "Saudi Arabia's position vis-à-vis the Assad regime is unchanging and opposes maintaining any ties with it. The attempts of some to misrepresent Saudi Arabia's position and spread rumors serve [only] Iran and the chaos it spreads. The kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] is the most important bastion in the conflict with Khomeini's barbaric terrorism, and protecting it is an Arab duty."[8] 

Syrian Writers: Rapprochement With The Criminal Syrian Regime Is A Mark Of Shame  

Articles condemning the Arab rapprochement with the Syrian regime also appeared in the media affiliated with the Syrian opposition. Prominent among them was an article by oppositionist Burhan Ghalioun, who was the first head of the Syrian National Council, the precursor of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. Ghalioun warned the Arab countries that reconciling with the Syrian regime would not benefit them and may even harm them. He wrote: "In my assessment, the Arabs' reversal [of their positions] has nothing to do with the political reality, for, as I have frequently noted, it is unrealistic of countries – including [even] non-democratic countries that do not believe in human rights – to agree to restore the legitimacy of a president who did not hesitate to murder hundreds of thousands of his people, expel millions of them from the country or displace them within it, and pass dozens of rules allowing [others] to seize their property in order to keep them from returning… The Arabs coming back [to Assad] are like people blowing air into a punctured balloon or trying to resuscitate a corpse, and this resuscitation attempt will bring them nothing but disasters and dangers. For the basis upon which Assad's regime was founded – namely, the fear cultivated by his apparatuses and the blood-soaked policy of revenge he [pursued] for dozens of years – has utterly collapsed… [Assad] did not hesitate to threaten to burn [his people]. Then he proceeded to burn them in practice, destroy their culture, and let their property and sources of livelihood to be stolen and handed over as gifts to his foreign supporters, protectors and helpers… [all] in order to remain in power. But the curse upon Assad's head, which followed Sudanese President 'Omar Al-Bashir when he returned from Damascus to Khartoum and is sure to topple the pillars of his regime and bring about his ouster, will [also] pursue anyone who follows his example and agrees to sanction the [Syrian regime's] crimes, the trampling of the victims' memory, and the exoneration of the treasonous and the depraved.

"I know that countries' interests sometimes compel them to overlook human rights, and that the military developments of the last year have enabled Russia and Iran to put Assad back in his tattered saddle. But it would be very rash of the Arab states to believe that the Assad regime will emerge triumphant… A regime cannot defeat and overpower its own people, because [if it does] it is no longer a regime but a gang of murderers. [Such a gang] has no alternative but to join the forces that allowed it to perpetrate its crimes and start serving them and working for them. The [Syrian] regime lost itself, just as it lost its people, and has become an agent serving the forces that ensured its survival and covered for its crimes. Hence, the Arab governments would also be wrong to believe that re-embracing [Assad] will help him escape his captors, [namely] their rival Iran, and will help them [in their battle] against it. This is because [he regime's] presence no longer has any meaning or significance, except as a tool in [Iran's] hands and a sword to be used against the Arabs, after it was directed against the Syrian people [itself] for the sake of [Iran's] interests. Prolonging [Assad's] rule strengthens the Iranian occupation…

"Sadly, I must say to my brethren in the Gulf that I know them and appreciate their fears as well as their ambitions – [but] following illusions and desires is the worst course of action. In opening the door to re-legitimizing the criminal and his regime in Damascus, they resemble a person aiming a dagger at his own chest."[9]

In an article in the London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 'Abd Al-Rahman Mustafa, the head of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, wrote that re-embracing a regime like Assad's, which has butchered its own people, is a mark of shame on those who agree to do so: "Anyone who takes any step towards renewing relations with the Assad regime… is making a serious strategic mistake and heading towards a dead end. This is a mistake that can seriously harm the capacity of those who affiliate themselves with this regime. It is more likely to bring them into its poisoned territory than to rehabilitate [this regime] and restore its capacity. Anyone who thinks to side with the victor in order to secure a share of the loot and a foothold [in Syria] – even at the expense of the blood of millions of martyrs and the tears of their mothers – is seriously deluded, and is placing himself in a dubious position and opening the door… to speculations about his relations with this regime with its record of war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Nothing can restore the legitimacy of a criminal regime that is responsible for creating millions of martyrs, prisoners and immigrants, a regime that has perpetrated massacres with chemical weapons and barrel bombs, and preferred to sell Syria rather than give it back to the Syrians. The Syrian people has long passed the point of no return. [The Syrians'] steadfast defiance, for eight years, of this regime with its barrel bombs, chemical weapons, butchery, prisons and scaffolds must clearly indicate to everyone that [even] thinking of exonerating this regime will bring an unprecedented disaster upon the region and the world… Any attempt to [re-]launch this regime means congratulating murderers and criminals and supporting their plan to consolidate tyranny, slavery, corruption, terror and oppression while eliminating the will of the Syrians, denying their rights and making an alliance against their plan to [establish] a democratic regime that believes in pluralism, justice and equality…"[10]

Several articles claimed that the support expressed by some Arab states for the Syrian revolution over the years had been insincere. 'Adnan 'Abd Al-Razzaq, who writes on the opposition website, wrote on December 30:  "There is nothing new under the sun. After Assad Senior perpetrated massacres in Hama, Palmyra, Aleppo and Idlib in the early 1980s, and suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood with planes and cannon, the Arab leaders came back and congratulated Hafez Al-Assad on his victories, supported him financially and marketed him to the world. They even flocked to [visit] the 'steadfast' Damascus. The same is happening today. Following the global conspiracy against the Syrian people's revolution, when signs began to appear of its [imminent] military and political defeat, the sons of those same leaders came back and congratulated Hafez Assad's son on his victories...

"There is nothing truly surprising about these surprises that did not leave the Syrian people the slightest glimmer of hope, even temporarily, of attaining a democratic country in which they would be citizens rather than subjects. Because whoever took a look – rational rather than emotional – at the Arabs' conduct and goals as they declared their support for the revolution must surely realize that they helped kill [this revolution] instead of helping it win. They did so because they were aware, more than anyone else, of the negative repercussions the revolution would have, [namely that] it would not leave a single one of these villains on his father's throne."[11]

The First To Benefit From Arab Rapprochement With Assad Is Iran; The Notion That He Will Distance Himself From It Is An Illusion

As stated, Syrian oppositionists also rejected the assumption that an Arab reconciliation with Assad might cause him to distance himself from Iran. In a December 31 statement, the High Negotiations Committee said that "the process of normalizing relations [with the regime] constitutes explicit recognition of the Iranian presence [in Syria] that harms Syria's demography, and also constitutes political support for this regime that threw itself into the arms of Iran from the earliest hours of the Syrian revolution and perhaps even earlier."[12] Ahmad Ramadan, head of the media department of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, tweeted that "whoever invites Assad to [rejoin] the Arab League needs to realize that Iran is the first to benefit from this. Its mullahs will [then] control the [Arab League] representatives of three Arab countries [Syria, Lebanon and Iraq] and will be able to veto the League's decisions. Does anyone realize this?" In another tweet, he wrote: "Assad is the one who opposed any Arab playing a role in resolving the [Syria] crisis in 2011, and he is the one who brought Iran and its militias to kill the non-violent protesters in Syria. Do not bring the serpent into your own homes. The Arab League has been infiltrated."[13]

Similar statements were made in the media affiliated with the Syrian opposition. Ghazi Dahman, a columnist for the Al-Arabi Al-Jadid daily, wrote that any Arab involvement in the rebuilding of Syria would serve Iran: "Reality compels us to understand the limits of the Arabs' ability to remove Iran's influence from Syria or even to compete with it. All the Arabs can do is reopen their embassies [in Syria], but [these embassies] can reach no further than the office of [Syrian] Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem, who does not [even] tip the servant who brings him coffee. The Assad regime and its intelligence apparatuses will not allow any embassy to carry out significant cultural activity, maintain contacts with the opposition, or influence Syrian public opinion. Moreover, Iran has a 'Shi'ization' plan, as part of which it tempts Syrians [to convert] using money or other incentives… Where is the Arab plan that can compete with the Iranian one? It is impossible to contend with a plan without having a [counter-]plan. Moreover, the Iranian plan is supported by the Assad regime, which has itself become part of Iran's plan in the region… The Arab leaders must understand that their involvement in Assad's rebuilding projects is pure business, and there is no need to dress it up in slogans, for the benefits and profits derived from these projects will make their way into the pockets of Assad's associates. Worse, this [involvement] will support and strengthen the Iranian influence in Syria. After dozens of international reports [have been published], the Arabs must surely be aware that Iran has prepared well for rehabilitating [Syria]. It has established dozens of straw companies in Syria, which, along with Putin's companies, will make millions of dollars in profit. This will cause the Syrians unbearable pain. On the one hand, they will feel that the Arabs never noticed their wounds, and on the other hand, the [rehabilitation] process will be presented as a reward for every militiaman or mercenary who killed a Syrian child or raped a Syrian woman…

"It would be wonderful if the Arabs refused to let Putin's Syria fool them. They must not allow it to sell them the illusion of an Iranian withdrawal from Syria; that is a lie that does not merit discussion and which has no equal except its counterpart, the American [lie] about leaving the [U.S.] forces [in Syria] until Iran withdraws and a genuine political process is launched..."[14]

Syrian oppositionist Michel Kilo wrote in a January 5 article that, even if Assad wanted to sever his ties with Iran, the latter would not allow this: "I do not believe that the President of Sudan, 'Omar Al-Bashir, and his fellow Arab [leaders] have [really] come to pull Syria out of Iran's grip, while the President with the most powerful army in history [i.e., Trump] has announced a withdrawal from Syria… I will not mention other large countries that deluded themselves that they could extract Syria from [the grip of] the Iranian mullahs, such as former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose efforts in 2008 turned out to be a complete failure because he ignored what the Arabs are ignoring today: the unique character of Assad's relations with Iran, which are anchored in religion and ideology rather than politics, as is usually the case between countries… They boil down to relations of containment and merging in which one side swallows up the other: the bigger or stronger party swallows up the smaller or weaker one, or else influences [the weaker side] to the extent of limiting its freedom, breaking its will or completely eliminating it – especially considering that [the strong side, Iran] has saved [the weaker side, the Syrian regime], kept it in power since 2012 and waged battles on its soil along with forces from other countries… Assad cannot conceive of [breaking his ties with Iran], since Iran's mullahs are capable of 'breaking his neck' if he [so much as] thinks of this or thinks of responding positively to [the signals coming out] of the Gulf states… Apparently, [the people of the Gulf states] have not read the personal curses that were directed at them in [Assad's] media, which did not spare their fathers and forefathers. [According to this media,] they have crawled back, defeated and humiliated, to [reconcile with] Damascus, and they should kiss Assad's boots for allowing them to return. [Moreover,] they should know that he 'will hold them to account for their support of terrorism,' and that pleading for mercy and apologizing will not help them. Are there really people in our Arab homeland who are still betting on the Arab [identity] of a leader who did not settle for killing a million Syrians, but also said in a televised interview: 'The Arabs and Palestine can go to hell. We are not Arabs.' Do they not understand that the Assad regime will resort to its old habit of stealing their money for the sake of Iran, which is also besieged and exhausted and is sorely in need of their money?"[15]             


[1], December 16, 2018.

[2], December 12, 2018.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 8, 2019.

[4] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 7, 2019.

[5], January 8, 2019.

[6], December 29, 2018.

[7], January 15, 2019.

[8], January 14, 2019.

[9] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), January 9, 2019.

[10] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 16, 2019.

[11], December 30, 2018.

[12], December 31, 2018.

[13], January 6, 2019.

[14] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), January 8, 2019.

[15] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), January 5, 2019.

Share this Report: