The World Today for May 16, 2023


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The Arab League recently welcomed Syria back into the fold after suspending the country’s membership 12 years ago, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched his crackdown on rebels wanting to bring an end to his tyrannical rule. Around half a million people have died and 23 million more have been displaced in the subsequent Syrian civil war.

While rebels still control territory in the northern and eastern regions of the Middle Eastern country, Assad has reestablished his grip on power, leading many Arab officials to conclude that freezing him out of the regional organization serves little purpose, reported Al Jazeera. Instead, the country’s readmission might offer benefits.

For example, Assad might have promised to crack down on Captagon, a drug that has become popular in the region, as part of readmittance. A day after the Arab League made its announcement on May 7, for example, Jordan launched air strikes against a drug-making facility in southern Syria. The facility allegedly had links to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese group that is allied with Assad, Reuters wrote.

These changes represent a new political order in the Middle East, argued the Brookings Institution. The normalization of relations between Syria and its neighbors comes as Iran and Saudi Arabia have reached a détente in their long-running rivalry, Israel and Lebanon have reached accords on maritime questions, and other changes in hitherto “intractable regional conflicts” have taken place.

The West is now in a dilemma. The US and Europe are still enforcing sanctions against Syria. If other Arab countries can let bygones be bygones, should leaders in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin follow? “Should governments continue to isolate pariah states long after it is clear that sanctions will not induce political change?” asked the Economist.

American lawmakers, for instance, have filed a bill that would prohibit the US from recognizing Assad’s government, Reuters noted. The legislation might also make it harder for other countries to engage with Syria if they also want to retain positive ties with the US.

Meanwhile, refugees who fled Syria as well as human rights advocates were aghast at the rapprochement, reported CNN. Some, including victims of torture, worried about being forced back to Syria. That’s not overdramatic: Assad continues to rely on Iranian and Russian paramilitaries, human rights abuses, and other authoritarian tactics to retain power. The news network cited a United Nations poll that found that less than two percent of Syrians living in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq would go home in the next year. Syrian rebels said the Arab League has abandoned them.

These developments unfortunately represent both change as well as business as usual.

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