Arab Nations Put Benefits above Values in embrace of Syria

The Arab League, a Middle Eastern regional organization, has lifted its suspension of Syria’s membership after 12 years. A strong feeling that something is amiss with this “rehabilitation” of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has violently repressed his people, is inescapable.

Assad was invited to attend the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia. The sight of Assad being embraced by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gave off the strong impression that Syria has returned to the diplomatic arena.

The crown prince stated at the conference that Saudi Arabia would “not allow our region to turn into a field of conflicts,” but it is the Assad regime that has created the quagmire of a conflict.

The Arab Spring, a movement for democracy in the Middle East, spilled over into Syria in 2011 and demonstrations calling for the Assad regime to step down spread throughout the country. The regime suppressed these demonstrations by force, leading to a civil war with the rebels.

The use of chemical weapons and massacres by the Assad regime’s forces have been denounced by the international community, and the Arab League effectively expelled Syria as well. So far, out of a population of about 21 million in Syria, more than 350,000 people have died in the civil war, and about 12 million have been forced to flee inside and outside the country.

The civil war has effectively been won by the regime side, which now controls most of the country. Saudi Arabia and other countries have been supporting the Syrian opposition, but as long as Assad is certain to remain in power, they may have judged it advisable to accept the status quo and maintain a certain level of relationship with the regime.

Is it truly appropriate, however, to normalize relations with the Assad regime when his stance of suppressing opposition forces has not changed? This seems to symbolize the growing trend in the Middle East toward prioritizing benefits rather than universal values such as freedom and human rights.

Behind this is probably the significant decline in U.S. influence in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has long attached importance to security cooperation with the United States. But in recent years, becoming increasingly distrustful of the U.S. tilt toward the Indo-Pacific region and criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights situation, Riyadh has begun distancing itself from Washington.

At the same time, Russia is expanding its influence in the Middle East through its military assistance to the Assad regime. China also has made its presence felt by mediating the normalization of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March this year.

There is no doubt that the power game involving China and Russia will further complicate the regional situation. There are concerns about a situation in which strong-arm politics will spread and the overall state of the Middle East will become more fluid.

The Middle East is an important region for Japan, which depends on it for 90% of crude oil imports. Should the region become destabilized, that would affect the lives of the Japanese people. The Japanese government needs to deepen dialogue with Saudi Arabia and other nations in the Middle East and encourage them to promote the easing of tensions in the region, while keeping a close eye on the situation there.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 24, 2023)