With an uneasy smile, the British diplomat in Beirut said his next posting could well be Damascus. “Give it a year or so and you can bet we’ll be reopening our embassy,” the senior source said in an off-the-cuff remark.
The comment revealed just how far the political winds have shifted on Syria. Last week, the UAE and Bahrain became the first to announce they were reopening their long-shuttered embassies, the first step towards rehabilitating one of the most murderous regimes in modern history.
Diplomatic sources now suggest Saudi Arabia, the most powerful country in the region opposed to the Assad regime, may be next to follow into a war-ravaged Damascus early this year.
It would mark the beginning of a new era of legitimacy for Assad. After he led a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters in 2011, Syria was cast out as an international pariah. It lost its seat at the Arab League, was hit by crippling sanctions and was the subject of more UN Security Council meetings than almost all other countries combined.
But the eight-year civil war is drawing to a close with the help of Russian support for the regime as Donald Trump attempts to pull US troops from the country – giving the green light to a reordering of the Middle East.
“Syria’s ties with Arab countries has been through a quick phase of shuttle diplomacy, which has culminated in the reopening of embassies and a change of tone towards Damascus,” said Danny Makki, an analyst with contacts in the government.
“It was all planned, starting with [Sudanese president] Omar al-Bashir’s visit to Syria in mid-December, continuing with the rush to open embassies,” he said. Sources confirmed leaders are discussing whether to allow Syrian delegates to attend the Arab Economic Summit in Beirut later this month, which could act as a test run for the Arab League summit in Tunis in March.
One diplomat said: “I anticipate that the opening of our embassy – if and when it happens – will be difficult to sell to the public. People have been bombarded with images of atrocities for years, and at some point we might have to tell them the monster responsible has won.”
Critics fear a normalisation of ties allows the regime’s most senior leaders to escape accountability for their alleged war crimes, including sarin gas attacks and the torture of opponents.
Since 2011, the Syrian government has imprisoned tens of thousands and executed them on an “industrial scale”, according to Amnesty International. The eight-year conflict has claimed an estimated 600,000 lives. Most war monitors agree pro-government forces are responsible for the majority.
Assad (53) won a presidential term in 2014 that is due to end in 2021. The UN has urged Syria to work on a new constitution and agree to a UN-supervised election, but was recently forced to admit this was unlikely to happen.
Syria, with the Mediterranean on one side and some of the world’s most oil-rich countries on the other, is one of the most important geopolitical and economic centres of the globe.
Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State, once said: “You can’t make war in the Middle East without Egypt and you can’t make peace without Syria.”
Russia sees in Syria a means of supplanting the US as the main power-broker in the region and bolstering its global standing. Iran sees a partner in the growing Shia-Sunni conflict.
Some see Assad’s victory as a pyrrhic one. Huge swathes of the country were levelled in the fighting, including its industrial heart Aleppo. His biggest challenge will be getting it back on its feet.
Kamal Alam, visiting fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute think tank, believes Syria can get by without the €360bn Western experts say it needs to rebuild.
The EU stipulated that it would not spend a euro on reconstruction unless the government could offer assurances a democratic election would be held.
But European leaders under political pressure to reduce migrant numbers might be persuaded to do business – through a Syrian proxy in Moscow.
“The EU could potentially work with the Russians on reconstruction – Greek and Italian companies are already in Syria and some Germans have shown support too,” said Mr Alam.
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