They look like unlikely allies, but on Wednesday the besuited, secular Syrian President Bashar al-Assad warmly welcomed the bearded, turban-wearing Islamist cleric-cum-President of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, to Damascus.
It was the first such visit by an Iranian leader since 2010, before the Arab Spring uprisings.
Since then, Tehran has proved the staunchest of allies, helping – along with Moscow – to save the Assad regime during a particularly bloody civil war.
The trip comes amid dramatic shifts in the region. These have also seen the Syrian president and his entourage – long shunned as pariahs in the Arab world – recently being embraced, quite literally on occasion, by their neighbours.
Despite opposition from the US and Europe, it is becoming the norm for Arab states to take steps to normalise ties with Syria. Syria still hopes to be granted observer status at the Arab League summit in Riyadh on 19 May, ahead of its eventual reinstatement.
“The international community outside of the region – Russia aside – has largely washed its hands of responsibility for Syria,” comments Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (Caabu).
“There is a vacuum and this is where the regional powers have come in. [They see that] if nothing is going to change, if there is not going to be a real political process, then we as a region cannot afford to ignore Syria. It’s too big and significant a country.”
The turnaround is remarkable. Back in late 2011, many Arab states were clearly planning for a post-Assad era when Syria was censured and suspended by the 22-member Arab League.
I watched hundreds of Syrians waving flags and chanting their support of that move, close to the League’s headquarters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
At that time there had been a brutal crackdown on Syrian pro-democracy protesters and I had reported on waves of refugees fleeing the fighting. But many of the regime’s worst atrocities – the indiscriminate barrel bombing and poison gas attacks – were still to come.
Now, over a decade on, the figures are jaw-dropping: about half of the Syrian population has been displaced or made refugees, and the UN conservatively estimates that more than 300,000 civilians have been killed and more than 100,000 detained or disappeared.
It was Russia’s military involvement in Syria in 2015 that changed the course of the bloody civil war and forced its neighbours to begin thinking of a future that left Mr Assad in place
“That was a game-changer for Jordan,” says Osama al-Sharif, a prominent journalist in Amman, stressing how his country was facing a national security threat and turned to Moscow to apply pressure.
“At the time the war against Daesh [the Islamic State militant group] was also going on… We had [the Lebanese militant group] Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian groups positioned very close to the border.”
President Assad went on to consolidate control over much of Syria, but Arab moves to restore ties accelerated after this February’s massive earthquake in Turkey and Syria – with the rush to bring in aid.
Then came the China-brokered re-establishment of relations between regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia and its rival, Iran, which have supported opposing sides in the Syrian civil war.
In the past few weeks, a beaming Mr Assad has been greeted in Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In Abu Dhabi, his wife, Asma, joined him for her first known official trip abroad in a decade, and was hugged on the tarmac by the wife of the UAE president.
Meanwhile, Syria’s foreign minister has been off to Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Jordan. The Saudis stressed that they were discussing “the return of Syria to its Arab fold”.
‘The wrong message’
However, there are deep divisions between the Arab states on how and when to rehabilitate Syria. Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt and Jordan have apparently pushed back against plans by Saudi Arabia and the UAE for its rapid reinstallation at the Arab League.
“There seems to be a rush to restore relations with Syria but when asked, no-one could say what guarantees were being sought in return for normalisation,” says an official from the region with knowledge of recent talks, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“It’s a pity. It sends the wrong message. It says there are no consequences,” the official continues, adding that the Syrians are acting “in a very arrogant way, like everyone else is lucky to have them”.
The US is clear that it does not support restoring ties nor lifting tough economic sanctions on an unapologetic, unreformed Damascus. In March, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf said: “This regime deserves to be treated as the rogue that it is.”
However, she also urged Arab allies opting to end Mr Assad’s isolation to “make sure that you get something”. She suggested trying to end the trade in Captagon, an illegal drug which is produced in Syria and smuggled out.
As I have seen at a hospital treating young addicts from Jordan and the Arab Gulf, this amphetamine – known as “poor man’s cocaine” – is fast turning Syria into a narco-state and sowing seeds of misery across the Arab world.
Other demands could be a reduction in Iran’s military presence in Syria and setting conditions that would allow more refugees to return home or safeguard people living in parts of Syria still under opposition control.
After years with little progress in talks with the fragmented Syrian opposition, many Arab states would also like to see at least a token effort by Damascus to re-engage.
The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, is pushing for this. “This renewed attention to Syria is very important if it can act as a circuit breaker and unlock long-stalled efforts to move the political process forward,” he told the UN Security Council on 27 April.
Fear and dismay
Many Syrians will feel let down by the new Arab overtures. Millions living in the remaining opposition-held pockets once viewed Saudi Arabia and other Arab states as allies in their struggle against Mr Assad’s rule. They now find themselves more isolated.
Refugees, particularly in Lebanon and Turkey – where acceptance has dwindled in the light of economic crises – are increasingly worried about the risk of forced returns.
Turkey – which has been a main backer of Syrian armed opposition groups – has also been talking to Damascus. Almost all parties campaigning for its 14 May elections say they want to send Syrians home.
“We’re extremely afraid about the election results. They clearly state that they want to deport us,” says a Syrian refugee, Muhammad, in his Istanbul coffee shop.
Human rights activists express huge disappointment that there is little reference to past atrocities in conversations about Syria’s rehabilitation.
“It’s shocking,” says Diana Semaan, Syria researcher for Amnesty International. “What we’re seeing now is a complete disregard to the human rights records of the Syrian government and a message being sent that it doesn’t matter what’s happened.”
Amnesty urges Arab countries to use their influence with the regime to try to prevent further attacks on civilians and arbitrary detentions and torture. There are calls for co-operation as the UN tries to set up an international body to help families of those missing to find out the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones.
Meanwhile, in Geneva, a team of lawyers continues busily working to support the prosecutions of those accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria.
The UN’s International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) for Syria has already helped in 267 cases, including 28 so far this year. Its head, Catherine Marchi-Uhel says: “The fight against impunity is ongoing and will continue to be pursued.”
Some Syrians hope that normalisation in the region could mark the start of a return to normal life.
Residents of government-held Syria are grappling with rocketing inflation and crippling power shortages. According to the UN, even before February’s devastating earthquake hit Syria, 15.3 million people – 70% of the population – were in need of humanitarian assistance.
However, Heiko Wimmen, who oversees International Crisis Group’s work on Syria, stresses that, at this stage, Arab Gulf states are unlikely to contribute much to the billions of dollars needed to rebuild Syria’s ruined cities.
“American sanctions are only one part of that problem. It’s a very forbidding environment economically. You need some trappings of a functioning state and functioning governance, some basic level of accountability,” he says.
In order to survive, over the years the cash-strapped Syrian regime has raided and seized dozens of businesses. It stands accused of diverting tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid meant for impoverished Syrians, as well as alleged drug trafficking.
It is an irony that the problems caused by the Syrian government ensure that it can no longer be ignored by its neighbours – even if Syria’s war and its fallout have largely fallen off world news bulletins.