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Despite civil war, Arab states seek to build ties with Syria

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The earthquakes that devastated Syria and Turkey in February have sped up a political shift with potentially major consequences around the region. Arab states that provided emergency aid are also reengaging with the Syrian government they once isolated or even tried to topple. Today, a group of Arab foreign ministers are discussing just that, and NPR's Aya Batrawy joins us to talk about it from Dubai.

Good morning.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So what exactly are these countries hoping to achieve in this meeting?

BATRAWY: So there are eight foreign ministers meeting in Saudi Arabia. And they're meeting to basically talk about what they want from Syria before ending the country's isolation and bringing it back into the Arab League - a bloc that represents all 22 countries of the region. This group suspended Syria in 2011 because of its lethal response against Arab Spring protesters who had taken to the streets demanding change, and that violence quickly spiraled into a civil war. So some Arab states were concerned also about Iran's support for Syria. Iran sent weapons and militias to back the government there, and Iran continues to have influence on the ground.

So what we're seeing today is a meeting of the biggest and most influential nations in the Arab League, like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and others, meeting. And years ago, countries like Saudi Arabia - they were not only arming the Syrian rebel opposition; they were even allowing their own citizens to go there and fight. So now many Arab countries say, we want to rebuild ties with Syria, and there are some like Qatar that are still holding out. But when the Arab League meets next month, the question on the table is, will Syria be allowed back in?

FADEL: OK. So if Syria is allowed back in, what would that mean for ordinary Syrians?

BATRAWY: For Syrians, it would be a first step towards ending a deeply painful isolation that was sparked by the regime's bombing and its torture of civilians and rebels and besieging of cities during the civil war, and with the end of an isolation could come rebuilding the country. When I was in Syria after the earthquakes, I met Hanaa Milhem and her 23-year-old daughter, Marianna el-Heffe, in Lattakia, and their home was destroyed by the earthquakes. They were exhausted and out of hope.

HANAA MILHEM: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Yeah. Hanaa Milhem was basically saying, we're living day by day and can't see a future. Her daughter is questioning, why should she keep paying for her studies when they're living on the streets and running after any kind of aid?

So the diplomatic outreach to Syria could help people like Hanaa and her daughter return to something closer to normal again. But there are other Syrians, of course, that risked everything to bring down President Bashar al-Assad's government. And they want him punished - not shaking hands and welcomed back on the world stage.

FADEL: I mean, I guess that's the big question, is, you know, a lot of these countries try to isolate and overthrow him, as you point out, over these issues - a painful and violent repression of the opposition, this civil war. What's changed, though, in his leadership to bring him back? Why are these countries open to welcoming Syria back now?

BATRAWY: Well, the war has had major spillovers. I mean, we're talking about millions of refugees - Syrian refugees - in Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and other countries. And these countries are already suffering their own economic pressures and turmoil. And then you also have Syria's neighbors. They want Syria to help fighting terrorism, and they also want Syria to end its drug smuggling into Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia and others. But ending Syria's pariah status and rebuilding the country faces a hurdle, and that's the United States has hundreds of troops in Syria backing Kurdish rebels there. And the U.S. and the EU maintain heavy sanctions on Syria that are supposed to isolate it. But as Arab states rebuild ties with Syria, it puts pressure on the U.S. to reconsider its policies.

FADEL: That's NPR's Aya Batrawy in Dubai. Thank you so much, Aya.

BATRAWY: Thanks, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.