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Realistic assessment of Syria’s propensity to change

May 14,2023 - Last updated at May 14,2023

Last week, news agencies reported an air strike over southern Syria that killed a well-known drug dealer. The strike came immediately after the Arab initiative of reinstating Syria to the Arab League ahead of the upcoming summit in Saudi Arabia. It also coincided with the US Congress approving a draft resolution that lays down a US strategy to stop drug production and trafficking by dismantling networks linked to the Syrian regime, suggesting the US will soon engage in the confrontation of narco-trafficking potentially putting more pressure on Syria as it seeks to fully integrate its relations with Arab states.

The illicit drug industry is one of the most crucial issues that Arab countries are insisting on with Syria, so it is a key step in the trust building phase between Syria and Arab countries, particularly Jordan and the Gulf. So there is an expectation of some concrete steps in this area facilitated by the Syrians themselves who want to give the impression of positive collaboration to put an end to the illegal trade. However, countering narcotrafficking is not easy and cannot be measured by short term outcomes, as it will take a long time and will require consistent and ongoing efforts to target the various protagonists of the drug trafficking business that has flourished across the region.

Narcotrafficking has become the main source of income for many groups, including parallel economies in the region, and it has a network of beneficiaries with its billions of dollars in revenue. This makes it even more difficult to erase the trade entirely, at least not soon or easily. As a key part of the economy, there are questions whether the Syrian regime can eliminate these cartels without compensation both economically and politically. Yet for countries like Jordan and the Gulf who are threatened by the enhanced capacities of these networks, draining the sources of this industry is vital and will take a step-by step strategy based on continuous evaluation of achievements in dealing with the Syrian regime.]

The presence of pro-Iranian militias in Syria is another issue that Arab countries are insisting on in this process of reintegration with Syria. The same day as the reporting of the strike on the drug dealer, news appeared that Iranian-backed militia forces in Syria have started removing their flags from their bases, as a response to a request from the Syrian government. This is another symbolic gesture that requires time to verify how true it is. The Iranian strategy in confrontation with Israel makes it difficult for Iran to compromise and let go of the strategic benefits they have achieved in Syria. It may not be by chance that the strike and the removal of flags from Iranian-backed militias were reported at the same time as a visit from the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi's visit to Damascus last week, and the signing of a long-term strategic comprehensive cooperation deal in addition to 14 other agreements.

The trust building process with Syria has started, and Syria will do its best to demonstrate positive engagement with Arab countries, but it is a lot to expect Syria to make serious policy changes. In fact, Assad sent a clear message in his last visit to Moscow about the importance of increasing the Russian the military presence in his country and now with Iran and its role in rebuilding Syria. So Arab countries should not have high expectations for fast wholesale change as Syria is not just an Arab issue, it is an essential part of the regional confrontation between Iran and Israel from one angle, and a key avenue for Russian influence from another angle. Despite this, the step-by-step strategy might be the only realistic approach in the absence of any other solution.

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