Syria: Dismay and fear as Bashar al-Assad returns to the Arab fold
Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, walked into the Arab League Summit in Jeddah with the clearest recognition that he had won the war for Syria.
Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Crown prince, embraced him. A decade ago the Saudis were funding anti-Assad militias. MBS wants to remake the Middle East and needs Syria’s support.
In a recent speech, President Assad emphasized that Syria will always be a part of the Arab World. But they should not interfere in what happens within its borders.
“It is important to leave internal affairs to the country’s people as they are best able to manage them,” he said.
By the people, President Assad referred to the leader and supporters. The princes and presidents who attended the summit together have imprisoned thousands of their opponents.
The events in Jeddah have caused dismay among Syrians, who blame the Assad government for destroying their nation. This includes all of the Syrian refugees that I’ve spoken to here in Lebanon.
Lebanon, a small, poor country, has been forced to accept well over one million Syrians who fled the war. This is equivalent to a quarter of the Lebanese populace – like the UK taking in over 15 million Syrian refugees.
Now many Lebanese have had enough, making Syrians a convenient scapegoat for their own country’s chronic economic and political problems.
In the last few weeks, the army has deported around 1,500 of them back over the border at gunpoint, sometimes leaving children behind in Lebanon or forcing children out without their parents.
A refugee family speaking on condition that their identities were kept secret talked about life in a town near Beirut where a curfew has been imposed on Syrians.
The children have been thrown out of school. The turmoil in their lives is clear in their teenage daughter’s anguished artwork. Their father views the authoritarian Arab leader’s embrace of Bashar al-Assad with contempt – and fear.
“The Assad regime is a dictatorship – the same as the other Arab regimes. They’re helping each other, cooperating against the people.”
In a refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Assad’s presence in Jeddah was another crushing blow. Nasser and Marwa, a couple who’ve been here since 2013, fear Assad’s return to the Arab League might be an excuse for more deportations.
Marwa said she woke up every morning thanking God she hadn’t been deported.
“Now we’re always afraid of the raids. I always imagine that they will come and take all the men and deport them.”
Nasser said he faced being drafted into the army if he went back. He escaped Syria to avoid fighting for the regime. He’s desperately worried about what would happen to his wife and their 18-month-old daughter Lillas if they are forced back.
Nasser was disgusted with the Arab League’s decision to readmit Assad’s Syria.
“After everything that he’s done, they’re hosting him. I don’t understand it, after all the killing and destruction, and the misery in Syria – it’s not acceptable.”
Syria, and the Assad regime, remain under US and European sanctions. Amnesty International, the human rights group, said that the president “turned Syria into a slaughterhouse”.
The UK government, Amnesty said, should “strenuously oppose any attempt to bolster Assad’s international standing”.
Some members of the Arab League agree. Qatar, which also funded the armed opposition in Syria, does not approve of Assad’s gradual return to Arab respectability.
But as well as the wider geopolitical plans of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who believe the Assad regime is a Middle Eastern reality and Syria a country they need to influence, there are other reasons for wanting to court Assad.
Jordan, as well as the Saudis, are fighting the spread of a narcotic drug called Captagon, which is made in Syria and smuggled into their countries. It is an amphetamine that was given to fighters to boost their endurance but is now widely used as a recreational drug.