Michael Jansen: Earthquakes in Syria have reopened doors between Assad and Arab rulers

Syrian president has been isolated as wars damage his country, but there’s a sign of softening attitudes in Saudi Arabia

The earthquakes in Turkey and Syria have accelerated normalisation between Arab rulers and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who has been isolated and boycotted, while 12 years of civil and proxy wars have severely damaged his country. On Monday, he travelled to Oman on his first trip outside Syria since two earthquakes devastated northwest Syria and southeast Turkey on February 6th.

According to an announcement by the Syrian presidency, Mr Assad was received by Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, who said Oman is looking forward to Syria’s return to normal relations with all Arab states.

On Saturday, Saudi minister for foreign affairs Faisal bin Farhan told the Munich Security Conference: “You will see [that] not just among the GCC [Gulf Co-operation Council] but in the Arab world there is a growing consensus that the status quo is not workable.” He said in the absence of a political solution, a plan must be formulated to deal with Syrian refugees in neighbouring states and the suffering of Syrian civilians. This would require “dialogue with the government”, he said.

Last week, Mr Assad received United Arab Emirates minister for foreign affairs Abdullah bin Zayed (on his third trip to Damascus) and his Jordanian counterpart Ayman Safadi, who was the first foreign minister from Amman to visit since Syria’s war began.


On the day after the earthquakes, Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi spoke for the first time with Mr Assad to offer condolences and aid. Lebanon’s caretaker foreign minister Abdallah Bou Habib met him the next day to co-ordinate relief efforts.

In 2012, following the eruption of war in Syria, Oman recalled its ambassador but did not cut ties with Damascus or support armed groups seeking regime change, as did Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar. The Emirates and Bahrain reopened their embassies in 2018 and Oman returned its ambassador in 2020.

Jordan withdrew its ambassador in 2011 but did not shut its embassy, although Amman hosted a command centre for anti-government militias. Due to fighting in southern Syria, Jordan closed its main border crossing with Syria but reopened the terminal in 2018.

Since restoring relations, the Emirates has pressed for normalisation with Syria and reconstruction in the government-held 70 per cent of the country despite US and EU opposition and sanctions which block investment.

In March last year, movement towards Arab re-engagement with Mr Assad was given a boost when he travelled to the Emirates to pay his first visit to an Arab state since the outbreak of Syria’s civil war. The Oman visit was his second.

Since the earthquakes, western and Arab governments have dispatched search-and-rescue teams and aid to Turkey. Assistance to Syria has come from the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Palestine and Iraq while millions of dollars in personal donations have been collected in Arab countries.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times