The Arabs March Again to Befriend Assad

Syria is as soon as once more coming in from the chilly, not less than on the regional stage. Plainly Syria’s centrality on the regional stage, given its location and historical past, is sort of a given below something approaching regular circumstances. In fact, it has been something however regular over the previous seven years of civil struggle in Syria. However now that almost all agree that the Syrian authorities of Assad has, for all intents and functions, gained the civil struggle, it seems that its regional place transcends their relations with Russia and Iran. Assad is perched to remain in energy for the foreseeable future, so Arab states, even those who had been on the facet of the anti-Assad rebels, are starting to cozy as much as Damascus in a manner that once more might enable Syria to emerge from the chilly.

Because the headlines over the previous few weeks have been dominated by the homicide of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the viability of the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Assad has been quietly, however strategically, regaining misplaced floor with key Arab states. Written off by most world leaders seven years in the past within the throes of a burgeoning civil struggle, Assad has been repositioning himself as a key participant within the area. This can be a place with which Syria is acquainted since gaining independence in 1946 from the French. Over 50 years in the past, Patrick Seale famously wrote in his landmark ebook, The Battle for Syria, about how Syria was the lynchpin within the Arab Chilly Struggle within the 1950s and 1960s. In Seale’s telling, whoever “gained” Syria within the inter-Arab battle, primarily between Egypt and Iraq, would win the Arab chilly struggle. Within the 1970s, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, when referring to the Arab-Israeli battle, commented that, from the attitude of the Arab facet, there may very well be no struggle with Israel with out Egypt, however there is also no peace with out Syria. A technology later, through the Gulf disaster and struggle, Syria was broadly thought to be an important Arab participant within the U.S.-led coalition that assembled to evict Iraq from Kuwait, a set of circumstances that led to the Madrid peace course of, by which Damascus performed a number one position. This can be a place Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been in beforehand, notably following the worldwide isolation after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, which was initially blamed on Damascus. But, inside just a few years, Syria was making good with Saudi Arabia, Assad was visiting Paris, and Syrian officers had been invited to the US for Arab-Israeli peace talks. Since 2011, the Syrian authorities has been largely marginalized whereas preventing to outlive and win the civil struggle. The Syrian authorities is closing in on victory and Assad will doubtless stay in energy for the foreseeable future. And now, Damascus is poised to regain its centrality within the Center East as soon as extra.

There was a lot media debate and hype surrounding the heat trade between the international ministers of Syria and Bahrain on the U.N. Common Meeting in September. The public embrace (together with precise hugs) was adopted by the Bahraini international minister calling his counterpart a brother and saying that the Arab international locations had been able to work with Syria. This got here as a shock to some, however this shift in Gulf positioning has been not less than months within the making. Just a few months earlier than the hug that shocked so many, one other Gulf international minister, Anwar Gargash of the United Arab Emirates, stated it was a mistake to throw Syria out of the Arab League shortly after the outbreak of the struggle and that the Arab world should work with Damascus sooner somewhat than later. Earlier this month, Assad gave his first interview to a Gulf newspaper for the reason that battle started. He advised this Kuwaiti newspaper that Syria had reached a brand new stage of understanding with the Gulf and different Arab international locations that had beforehand opposed it. Assad’s interview adopted a sympathetic op-ed by a number one Kuwaiti author on the necessity to help the Syrian authorities’s drive to carry refugees again dwelling. Oman, which maintained shut ties with Syria all through the struggle, lately signed vital financial offers with Syria. A veteran Indian diplomat who has served in virtually all the foremost Arab international locations and has good relations with Saudi Arabia claims that even Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has made overtures to Assad through an array of interviews that publicly acknowledged his kingdom’s acceptance of Assad’s victory and that instructed a willingness to assist Damascus if it contributed to lowering Iran’s affect in Syria.

Saudi and Emirati overtures have two targets: first, to cut back the Iranian footprint in Syria and, second, to ensure Qatar and Turkey don’t get forward of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates within the pecking order of reestablishing ties with Damascus. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia abhor the truth that Turkey and Iran are seen by many right this moment because the regional leaders within the Center East.

On one facet, we’ve the Saudis and Emiratis and, on the opposite, the Qataris and the Turks. Ankara is in search of to capitalize on its newfound affect with Tehran and Moscow developed by means of the Astana course of that established de-escalation zones in Syria. This intra-Sunni spat emerged out of the so-called Arab Spring resulting from Qatari and Turkish help for, and shut historical past with, the Muslim Brotherhood, in opposition to the opposite Gulf Arab states — which used to help the Muslim Brotherhood for many years, however fell out with the motion — and Egypt. On the identical time, the Saudis have made it clear they need the Turkish army out of Qatar, the place the Turks have considerably enhanced their army presence over the previous 12 months. The Turkish army presence in Qatar, Iraq, and Syria are all seen as a entrance to what the Emiratis and Saudis see as a brand new Ottoman occupation. This helps Damascus and its standing with many Arab international locations, barring, in fact Qatar. Ankara has gone as far as to accuse Abu Dhabi of collaborating within the Turkish coup try in the summertime of 2016. The Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian axis can also be onerous at work towards the Turkish-Qatari axis, each in Libya and within the Gaza Strip. The Emiratis, Kuwaitis, and Bahrainis have all publicly known as Syrians their Arab brothers, however on the identical time they name for non-Arabs, resembling Turks and Iranians, to remain out.

These preexisting and rising regional rivalries have made Damascus a possible new ally in ready for one bloc or the opposite, which it will possibly actually leverage to its benefit, particularly in what it wants most proper now: reconstruction help. Certainly, a latest Qatari-Russian vitality deal is seen as a menace from the attitude of the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, because it may very well be an indication that Qatar is prepared to just accept Assad in return for Russian arms gross sales and vitality cooperation. Syria can actually wait and see, buying and selling off favors within the type of financial help within the competitors to see who can win Assad over.

The 2 largest Arab militaries are in Egypt and Algeria. Each have constantly been supportive of Assad. They lately publicly provided army and financial help to Damascus. Whether or not or not it’s the geopolitical want for the Saudis and Emiraties to again Assad, or the ideological targets of maintaining Iran, Turkey, and Qatar out, all developments play into Syria’s fingers. The frequency of fixing geo-strategic realities within the area typically results in abrupt reshuffling of regional relations and alliances. Regardless of the West’s continued reluctance to have interaction with the Assad authorities, Assad successful and remaining in energy has compelled varied events in what’s a brand new Center Japanese chilly struggle to recalculate and revise their strategy to Damascus. In some vital methods, we may very well be witnessing the start of a brand new regional battle for Syria, which, regardless of its vulnerabilities and weaknesses popping out of greater than seven years of civil struggle, might reacquire a centrality that just some years in the past many thought not possible.

Whereas America’s nice concern has been out to push Iran out of Syria, a brand new query is coming to the fore: Can Russia supplant Iran or not less than cut back its footprint in Syria? The reply appears sure and no. Russia has positively decreased Iranian affect. An in-depth research to which certainly one of us contributed on the Syrian army and intelligence group reveals the Syrian safety equipment prefers Russia to Iran. Within the Syrian authorities’s view, it’s clear that it was Russia that turned the tide of the struggle — not Iran. Barak Barfi and Justin Goodarzi have each argued in depth that Iran has by no means been absolutely the overlord that many declare it’s, and Syria has certainly been at odds with Iran innumerable occasions in Iraq and Lebanon. A secular state like Syria doesn’t have a lot in frequent with Iran — it’s a marriage of comfort. This results in the query of if Syria could make its personal selections impartial of Russia, given the present talks in Astana and Sochi. That’s not a query many Arab states care about; The rapprochement with Assad and Syria is about bringing Syria again into the Arab League, and slowly however certainly lowering Iran’s affect there. The reopening of the U.A.E. Embassy and the primary official Jordanian delegation in Damascus are vital shifts in Syria’s realignment.


Kamal Alam is a Visiting Fellow on the Royal United Providers Institute (RUSI) and David W. Lesch is the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of Center East Historical past at Trinity College in San Antonio.

Picture: SANA

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