The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Arab countries are offering a deal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that would restore ties between Damascus and most countries in the region.
The report, which cited unnamed Arab and European officials, said in talks initially led by Jordan, the Arab nations have proposed billions worth in aid to help the country rebuild after 12 years of war and to lobby the US and European governments to lift sanctions.
In exchange, the Arab nations want Assad to engage with Syria’s political opposition, allow troops from other Arab states inside Syria to protect returning refugees, crack down on drug trafficking, and prevent Iran from expanding its presence in Syria.
The report said the talks are still in their early stages, and it’s not clear if Assad is willing to accept the initial offer. The US has also shown no interest in lifting sanctions on Syria as the House recently voted to maintain them following the devastating earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey on February 6.
The US sanctions on Syria are specifically designed to prevent Syria’s reconstruction, and the Biden administration has said it opposes regional countries upgrading or normalizing ties with Damascus, even if it’s related to helping the country with earthquake relief.
The Journal report said what’s significant about the effort is that Saudi Arabia is on board, as Riyadh was previously strongly against steps to normalize with Assad. Saudi Arabia hasn’t had formal diplomatic relations with Syria since 2012, but Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud recently called for dialogue with Damascus.
“In the Arab world there is a consensus growing that the status quo is not workable. We all have policies but we don’t have any strategy to implement that policy,” he said last month.
Syria’s reintegration and supporting its reconstruction are expected to be on the agenda at the Arab League summit later this year. Damascus was expelled from the Arab League in 2011 when war broke out, and many of its members supported the failed regime change effort against Assad.
The report of a potential deal between Syria and its neighbors comes after Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to normalize ties in a deal brokered by China.