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Arab countries are normalizing relations with Syria, over a decade after the uprising

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Twelve years after the start of the Syrian uprising that evolved into a horrific and bloody civil war, there's a movement in the Arab world to normalize relations.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is being welcomed back into the fold of some Arab nations.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Saudi Arabia is expected to invite Bashar al-Assad to the Arab League summit next month.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Syria and Saudi Arabia are resuming consular services and flights for the first time since the 2011 uprising and civil war.

RASCOE: This after at least 300,000 civilian deaths, thousands imprisoned and tens of thousands tortured - all documented by the U.N. and various rights groups. Yet Damascus announced that it would reopen its embassy in Tunisia last week - this amid talks to allow Syria to rejoin the Arab League. And this follows the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Saudi Arabia also being on track to restore diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime. We're joined now by Dalia Dassa Kaye. She's a senior fellow at UCLA's Burkle Center for International Relations. Welcome to the program.

DALIA DASSA KAYE: Thank you.

RASCOE: So you've written about how Syria's return to the fold seems irreversible at this point, but you also caution that it won't benefit the Syrian people. Why do you say that?

KAYE: Well, I think at this stage, you know, it's hard to know. There are potential benefits that could be in the works if Arab states actually get some returns for this normalization. So the hope is that it would bring more humanitarian relief and eventually reconstruction to a country devastated by the civil war where over 90% of the population live under the poverty line. Probably, you know, less realistically, there is hope that there could be some prisoner releases and the possibility of refugees returning and maybe a crackdown on the drug smuggling. But I think the reason I'm a bit pessimistic is that, you know, Assad doesn't exactly have a great track record when it comes to humanitarian gestures. He's been one of the most brutal authoritarian leaders in the region. You know, Assad is frankly making a lot of money from drug smuggling. So all of these potential benefits are countered by the continuing trend lines that would work against any benefits from this normalization.

RASCOE: Human rights activists are pushing for Arab states and others, like Turkey, that are reengaging with Syria to push for reforms. But is that a reasonable ask given that some of these Arab states themselves have issues with human rights?

KAYE: I think the biggest fear is that this normalization and rehabilitation of this brutal dictator will ensue with no accountability and no returns for this effort. And, you know, let's face it - the countries leading the normalization effort, starting with the UAE, followed by others, Tunisia this week, you know, are authoritarian states. The rehabilitation of Assad would be the really tragic bookend to the Arab uprisings from over a decade ago. So I think there's a lot of feeling that some of the drivers of this normalization - you know, this is less about helping the Syrian people and more about the authoritarian consolidation in this region making sure that Syria doesn't fall into a failed state situation again that could disrupt the neighborhood. And most definitely, there is not an interest in a democratic future for Syria among these neighboring states.

RASCOE: Well, with these countries, like, each focusing on their own concerns when they're, you know, deciding to resume relations, does that make asking for reforms or, as you said, accountability - does that make that impossible? Because, as you said, they just - they're just trying to get a stable state and not have the issues in Syria, you know, go over to their borders.

KAYE: I think accountability is not really the priority for the Arab states and other countries like Turkey. They are really being driven more by economic and security interests and, in some cases, ideological interests. And, you know, they're also dealing with priorities at home.

RASCOE: But are you optimistic that the West can do, or at least seek, some accountability where, you know, these Arab countries are not doing that?

KAYE: Well, you know, if we think of the United States, for example, the official stance is that they are not supportive of these normalization efforts. The official position is that normalization with the Assad regime should not take place before there's political progress and a political solution to the conflict in Syria and that there should be some accountability for these war crimes. But, you know, there is also a recognition that there's not a whole lot that the United States or the West can do. The region has decided to move on. Unfortunately, from their perspective, this is not a Middle East where the U.S. does call the shots all the time anymore. You have very active Chinese and Russian involvement. The most that the United States can do and which it is likely to do is continue its own sanctions against the regime. Sanctions have also hurt the Syrian people. So I think there'll be a lot of focus on how to help the Syrian people while trying to keep whatever pressure is still possible on the regime itself.

RASCOE: That's Dalia Dassa Kaye. She's a senior fellow at UCLA's Burkle Center for International Relations. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

KAYE: Thank you, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.

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