As the end game of Syria’s civil war approaches, can Damascus rekindle its position in the region’s geopolitics?
The visit of influential Iraqi Shia Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubei’s trip to Iraq. The opening of border crossings. An array of events in 2017 have sparked speculation about Iraq’s relations with the Sunni Muslim Arab world.
In August, former Saudi minister of state Saad al-Jabri spoke of the importance of Iraq returning to the “Arab Fold”. But if Saudi Arabia is indeed seeking to extend influence in Iraq, what does this mean for its war-torn neighbor Syria — given that Islamic State (IS) stretches across the two countries? After the Syrian regime’s success in breaking the IS siege of Deir el-Zor, the part of Syria still under control of President Bashar al-Assad will begin to reassert itself. The question of how Sunni Arab countries will respond remains.
Although Syria is a multi-ethnic state, Assad’s Baath party and its pan-Arab ideology ruled for decades. The Baath party is dominated by Alawites (the esoteric Shia offshoot sect to which the Assad family belongs), even though they are a minority in Syria. They have adopted a romanticized Arab identity that sought to carve out a place for the Sunni Arab political realm.
Damascus once sat at the head of the Arab world, acting as a bridge between revolutionary Iran and the traditional Arab monarchies that waxed and waned to the tune of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Before the Syrian civil war, the West’s major concern was Iran’s nuclear program — while the cause that truly rallied the Arab kingdoms was the Palestinian conflict. The negotiations between Tel Aviv and the Palestinian Authority (along with the internal crisis between Hamas and Fatah) fuelled Syria’s diplomacy with the oil-rich states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In 2010, Assad stopped in Riyadh for discussions on the peace process: a sign of normalizing relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia that had soured after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri.
Lebanon and Jordan
Two of Syria’s neighbors, Lebanon and Jordan, would most likely facilitate regional reconciliation for Damascus. Though Beirut nominally maintained a policy of “dissociation” with Damascus, it never cut ties with Assad. The successful cooperation between the Lebanese army and Syria’s ally Hezbollah against Sunni militants in the border region is the product of the power-sharing government in Beirut.
But the fate of Syrian refugees in Lebanon after the conflict ends could have a dramatic impact on relations between the two countries. A violent forced return, as opposed to one facilitated by the UN, could antagonize fellow Sunnis in Lebanon.
Jordan shares the burden of housing Syria’s refugees, and is anxious to see an end to the civil war. It is rapidly adjusting its approach to Damascus and will be instrumental in winding down the conflict. Turkish President Erdogan flew to Amman to discuss the path forward with Jordan’s King Abdullah. Voices in the Jordanian media have called for Syria to be reintegrated into the Arab League. The Syrian military has been rapidly regaining ground on the Jordanian border. The possibility that Jordan and Syria could soon reopen the Nassib border corridor would be an economic boon for both countries — and for Lebanon.
President Trump met with King Abdullah at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, speaking to him about ending the Syrian crisis and thanking him for hosting the refugees. Washington would likely turn to Jordan and Egypt as key allies in establishing communication channels with Damascus.
Egypt and the Palestinians
As an Arab state on the front line with Israel, Syria was once a vital geopolitical power in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Damascus’ link to the Palestinians and the unresolved status of the Golan Heights are critical to Syria’s place in the Arab world. Palestinian Authority President Abbas was rumored to have advised the Syrian opposition and the United States on the negotiations in Geneva, largely keeping the Palestinians neutral.
Abbas’ close relationship with Jordan, the GCC, and Russia, along with his hostility towards Hamas, could prove to be a crucial stepping stone between Syria and the GCC. Assad reportedly told a Swedish newspaper that “the Syrian people” would never trust Hamas again after Islamist movement split with Damascus in 2012. It will be up to Iran, having newly restored relations with Hamas, to nudge Syria into accepting the Sunni Islamist party back into the resistance camp. The Islamist movement’s renewed vigor to engage politically with the Palestinian Authority may lead Syria to consider reviving the Hamas connection as a way to rebuild its credibility in the Sunni Arab street.
Egypt will also be vital. President al-Sisi took a sharp turn away from his predecessor Morsi, restoring relations with Damascus. Spurred on by Russia, Sisi is not only assisting with negotiations over “de-escalation zones” but is acting as a conduit for Israel’s interests in Syria. Egypt has a long history with Syria, once forming a union called the United Arab Republic. But Cairo has walked a fine line between its lead role as the “counter-revolution” to the Arab Spring and its friendship with Saudi Arabia. Cracks in that friendship were seen last November when Saudi halted oil supplies to Egypt due to differences over Yemen, Iran, and Syria.
Iraq and Saudi Arabia
All signs pointed to an enduring partnership between Syria and Iraq, as the two countries bore the brunt of destruction in campaigns to defeat IS. A recent deal enabled by Hezbollah that allowed IS fighters and their families to relocate from the Lebanese border to IS-held territories caused indignation in Iraq. But Baghdad nevertheless views Syria as a crucial part of emerging counter-terror security apparatus, and so will likely facilitate any effort to reintegrate Damascus into the Arab world. Other security states, such as Algeria, along with personalities like Libyan Commander Khalifa Haftar, will be key for Assad.
For Iraq’s newfound friend, Saudi Arabia, the survival of Assad will be a bitter pill. The White House will ultimately shy from helping Saudi implement a geopolitical strategy that includes Yemen, Iran and Middle East peace more broadly. As Russia steps into the picture, Saudi Arabia will pay heed to Moscow’s wishes and accept that Assad has held onto power. To check Iran’s interests, Saudi Arabia may reach out to Damascus as it is attempting to do with Shia forces in Iraq. Syria has skirted attempts at regional isolation before, for example in October 2009 when Assad received King Abdullah in Damascus. Today, the focus too will fall on enticing Damascus — and away from Tehran. And a generous dose of Saudi funding for reconstruction may be on the cards, especially if Iran’s economy remains isolated.
Syria may not wish to resume this pre-war construct. It has other options, such as investing further in an internal, Levantine identity or “turning East” as Assad recently said. Syrian state propaganda regularly features the Saudis as the central villains in the conflict. Shia towns endured sieges by rebel factions, and crates supplying them — bearing Saudi’s national signage — are shown on Syrian TV often enough to ensure enduring hostility towards the GCC.
And though Iran has invested heavily in Assad’s survival, it may be Russia that becomes the primary foreign influencer with the Syrian regime. With military bases, rebuilding efforts, and cultural ties, it will become a long-term partner — with Syria its gateway to the region. Following the Israeli airstrike in early September on the Masyaf research facilities in Western Syria, Russia has also worked to prepare for a post-war conflict with Israel by encouraging Damascus to keep Iranian-backed militia away from the Israeli controlled border zone.
The restoration of relations in the region may be distant. It could be years before international sanctions and war crimes charges levelled at the Syrian regime play out. The UN recently assigned the blame for the April chemical weapons attack in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun on the Assad regime. It is unclear whether the international community will successfully send regime figures to The Hague for trial — UN chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte resigned in early August to protest the inaction. Returning refugees — many harboring feelings of revenge — may seek accountability for the destruction and Syria’s reconciliation with the Arab World may hinge on how the government handles their resettlement. A truth and reconciliation commission (however imperfect) could at least lay the groundwork for the normalization of Arab relations. But if the pre-war Mukhabarat state is to be fully re-implemented, it could be quite a while before Damascus is accepted back into the region.
Originally published on Raddington Report: https://raddingtonreport.com/will-syria-return-to-the-arab-fold/