Raising Alarms: Why Normalized Relations with Syria Risk Further Conflict

By Mahmood Alhosain - 04 June 2024
Raising Alarms: Why Normalized Relations with Syria Risk Further Conflict

Over thirteen years, Bashar al-Assad's regime has committed numerous crimes against humanity in Syria, including the killing of civilians, and the displacement of inhabitants. Despite this, some Arab countries have normalized and resumed their political relations with Assad's regime, disregarding the potential consequences for the Syrian people, the Syrian state, the region, and the normalized countries themselves.

The Motives behind the Normalization

For some Arab countries, the devastating earthquake that struck both Syria and Turkey in February 2023, provided an opportune moment to break the deadlock in relations with the Assad regime. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia invited the president of the Syrian regime to officially participate in the Arab League Council summit in the Saudi Arabia in May 2023. Then, for the second time, Bashar al-Assad attended the Arab League summit in Bahrain in May 2024. According to some reports, the declared goals of normalization with the Syrian regime are threefold: first, to combat drug smuggling, especially Captagon pills, from Syria to the Gulf states; second, to limit Iranian encroachment in Syria; and third, to seek a political solution to the ongoing conflict in Syria. Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al-Safadi, in justifying the Arab rapprochement with the Assad regime, cited the lack of “an effective strategy to resolve the Syrian conflict”.

Failed Promises and Continued Misconduct

Since the announcement of the resumption of Arab relations with the Syrian regime, the Syrian regime has failed to fulfill its obligations to the Arab countries. Bashar al-Assad has failed to provide detailed lists of drug producers and exporters, as well as smuggling routes pertaining to the Captagon pill trade. Moreover, Bashar al-Assad has shifted blame onto Arab countries, stating, “Those who brought terrorism to Syria are the ones who brought drugs” It is evident that the regime has not, and likely will not, cease the Captagon pill trade. Firstly, it utilizes this trade as leverage for blackmail and political pressure against the countries of the region, particularly the Arab Gulf countries. Secondly, it has transformed the Captagon pill trade into a parallel economy that yields substantial profits for the Syrian regime, rendering abandonment unattainable. According to certain statistics, the Syrian regime’s revenue from the Captagon trade in 2023 reached $2.4 billion.

Iranian Influence and Regional Dynamics

Regarding Iranian influence, the indicators are that the Syrian regime is unable to curtail Iranian influence due to its reliance on Iranian support, primarily because Iran consistently emphasizes the necessity of Bashar al-Assad’s regime remaining in power, aligning with Iran’s strategic interests. These interests notably include controlling the land route connecting Iran and Lebanon through Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, Iranian infiltration within Syrian state institutions, the military, and the security apparatuses.

Since the normalization of Arab relations with the Syrian regime, the presence of high-ranking Iranian leaders, particularly within the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps IRGC, has remained unabated on Syrian territory.

This persistence was evident in Israel's ongoing targeting of these leaders, with the most recent incident being Israel's strike on the Iranian consulate building in Damascus in April 2024. This operation resulted in the deaths of prominent Iranian leaders from IRGC, notably General Mohammad Reza Zahedi and his deputy, Mohammad Rahimi, along with five other accompanying officers.

The Regime's Apathetic Approach to Political Initiatives: Stalling Progress

The final motive behind normalization is to advance the political process. Since 2011 the Syrian regime has not actively participated in substantive negotiations. Instead, it has sought to prolong proceedings and overwhelm other parties with minutiae. The regime did not adhere to many regional and international initiatives such as: the Arab League initiative in 2012; Kofi Annan initiative, the One Geneva Statement of 2012; Geneva negotiations; and Astana talks. To this day, the regime obstructs the Constitutional Committee negotiations, primarily due to its objection, supported and instigated by Russia, to the choice of Geneva as the negotiation venue.

Here, it is imperative to outline the primary indicators leading to a conclusion that the normalizing countries must acknowledge: the survival of the regime and its acceptance as an inevitable reality pose a direct danger and threat to the integrity of Syrian state, the Syrian people, and to the wider region.

The Refugee Exodus

Syrians have become the most prominent asylum seekers in European Union countries, reaching a peak in 2023. According to UNHCR data, Syrians constitute approximately one-fifth of refugees globally. The Syrian forced-displaced population stands at 13.5 million, surpassing half of Syria's total population, with 6.8 million internally displaced persons.

The European Union Asylum Agency (EUAA) provided a chart indicating a steady increase in Syrian refugee numbers reaching 181,000 by the end of 2023, marking a 38% rise from 2022.


Syrians predominantly seek refuge in Europe, fleeing from various areas of control within Syria. In regions under regime control, the youth contend with the looming threats of arbitrary arrests, forced conscription, and economic instability, coupled with a dearth of job opportunities. Across the Al-Jazeera and Euphrates regions in eastern Syria, civilians residing on both riverbanks endure exceedingly harsh conditions. The primary demographic in these regions, Sunni Arabs, find themselves vulnerable to forced displacement and demographic manipulation, orchestrated by both the SDF and Iranian militias. These factions exert control over the two sides of Deir ez-Zor Governorate, separated by the Euphrates River. As a consequence, the original inhabitants of the governorate face involuntary displacement.

The survival of Bashar al-Assad and his security apparatuses in power results in the survival of other de facto powers, ultimately leading to instability in Syria, division of Syria, a lack of a safe environment, and consequently, more refugees fleeing from Syria.

Conclusion and Caution

Amidst the dire circumstances facing the Syrian people, UN special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen in his briefing in April 2024, delivered a sobering message to the international community. He argued that:

“… any temptation to ignore or merely contain the Syrian conflict itself would be a mistake. This is not a frozen conflict. Nor are its effects felt only in Syria. There are in fact no signs of calm in any of Syria’s theatres - only unresolved conflicts, bubbling violence, and sharp flares of hostilities, any of which could be the kindling for a new conflagration.”

The most resounding message for countries contemplating normalizing relations with the Syrian regime is to refrain from triggering another war in Syria. Instead of pursuing normalization with the regime, the focus should be solely on intensifying political and diplomatic efforts to attain a just political solution and sustainable peace that safeguards all legitimate rights and aspirations of the Syrian people. This entails living in freedom, peace, security, and justice without the perpetrators of crimes against humanity. Such a solution represents the true guarantor of ending the protracted tragedy endured by the Syrian people for over thirteen years.

Achieving this solution demands exerting greater pressure on the Syrian regime, rather than rewarding or normalizing relations with it. It also necessitates pressuring the regime's allies, Russia and Iran, to endorse a political resolution in line with UN resolutions, particularly Resolution 2254.

Normalization with the Syrian regime may offer temporary calm in certain regions, a form of a “negative peace” However, this type of peace is illusory and conceals underlying dangers. While there may be a temporary lull in military activities, different dynamics are likely to emerge, potentially fueling a more violent and intense second wave of conflict. The repercussions of this renewed cycle of violence would be severe and devastating not only for Syria and its people but also for neighboring Arab countries, the international community, and the world at large. The events in Gaza in October 2023 serve as a poignant example and a lesson to be learned.



Mahmood Alhosain: is a PhD candidate in Conflict and Peace Studies at Radboud University. Mahmood received his master's degree in Conflict Management and Humanitarian Action from Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. Prior to his Master, he worked as an Assessment Specialist and as a Researcher with different think-tanks and international non-government organizations. He has published many academic articles and policy papers.

Photo by Ahmed akacha

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