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What ‘Normalization’ With Syria Really Means

Caroline Rose

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The Assad regime’s maximalist position is largely unchanged.

A growing list of Middle Eastern governments has announced a reset of relations with Syria following more than 12 years of civil war in the country and fruitless regional efforts to isolate President Bashar Assad’s regime. Almost overnight, neighboring countries that initially supported the Syrian opposition, cut ties with Damascus, denounced the regime’s mass atrocities and human rights abuses, and imposed punitive economic measures last month started rolling out the red carpet for Assad, his family and high-level Syrian officials. Since then, Damascus and regional governments have held a string of high-profile meetings and forged several preliminary agreements. The Arab League formally readmitted Syria, and Assad’s regime launched bilateral working groups with neighbors like Iraq and Jordan to collaborate on issues such as counternarcotics and border security.

Regional officials have presented these initiatives as an effort to achieve normalization with the Syrian regime. However, it is unclear what a political, diplomatic and economic reset with Damascus would really look like. And when the Assad regime seeks to preserve the status quo, whose version of “normal” will win out?

A Reset?

In recent years, several Middle Eastern countries have toyed with the idea of normalization with Syria to bring the country’s civil war (and the accompanying regional disruptions) to a close. The United Arab Emirates supercharged this approach starting in 2015, becoming one of the first regional neighbors to bring high-level Syrian officials – including Assad himself – to the table for discussions on an agenda to bring Syria back into the regional fold. Egyptian officials tossed around the idea of allowing Syria to rejoin the Arab League. Countries like Jordan were more cautious but were still keen to keep communication channels open and test the regime’s responses. For example, Jordan reopened the Jaber-Nassim border crossing and invited Syrian diplomats to Amman for discussions.

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