The Road to Damascus: The Arabs March Back to Befriend Assad
Syria is once again coming in from the cold, at least at the regional level. It seems that Syria’s centrality at the regional level, given its location and history, is almost a given under anything approaching normal circumstances. Of course, it has been anything but normal over the past seven years of civil war in Syria. But now that most agree that the Syrian government of Assad has, for all intents and purposes, won the civil war, it appears that its regional position transcends their relations with Russia and Iran. Assad is perched to stay in power for the foreseeable future, so Arab states, even those that were on the side of the anti-Assad rebels, are beginning to cozy up to Damascus in a way that again may allow Syria to emerge from the cold.
As the headlines over the last few weeks have been dominated by the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the viability of the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Assad has been quietly, but strategically, regaining lost ground with key Arab states. Written off by most world leaders seven years ago in the throes of a burgeoning civil war, Assad has been repositioning himself as a key player in the region. This is a position with which Syria is familiar since gaining independence in 1946 from the French. Over 50 years ago, Patrick Seale famously wrote in his landmark book, The Struggle for Syria, about how Syria was the lynchpin in the Arab Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s. In Seale’s telling, whoever “won” Syria in the inter-Arab struggle, primarily between Egypt and Iraq, would win the Arab cold war. In the 1970s, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, when referring to the Arab-Israeli conflict, commented that, from the perspective of the Arab side, there could be no war with Israel without Egypt, but there could also be no peace without Syria. A generation later, during the Gulf crisis and war, Syria was widely regarded as the most important Arab participant in the U.S.-led coalition that assembled to evict Iraq from Kuwait, a set of circumstances that led to the Madrid peace process, in which Damascus played a leading role. This is a position Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been in previously, particularly following the international isolation after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, which was initially blamed on Damascus. Yet, within a few years, Syria was making nice with Saudi Arabia, Assad was visiting Paris, and Syrian officials were invited to the United States for Arab-Israeli peace talks. Since 2011, the Syrian government has been largely marginalized while fighting to survive and win the civil war. The Syrian government is closing in on victory and Assad will likely remain in power for the foreseeable future. And now, Damascus is poised to regain its centrality in the Middle East once more.
There was much media debate and hype surrounding the warm exchange between the foreign ministers of Syria and Bahrain at the U.N. General Assembly in September. The public embrace (including actual hugs) was followed by the Bahraini foreign minister calling his counterpart a brother and saying that the Arab countries were ready to work with Syria. This came as a surprise to some, but this shift in Gulf positioning has been at least months in the making. A few months before the hug that shocked so many, another Gulf foreign minister, Anwar Gargash of the United Arab Emirates, said it was a mistake to throw Syria out of the Arab League shortly after the outbreak of the war and that the Arab world must work with Damascus sooner rather than later. Earlier this month, Assad gave his first interview to a Gulf newspaper since the conflict began. He told this Kuwaiti newspaper that Syria had reached a new level of understanding with the Gulf and other Arab countries that had previously opposed it. Assad’s interview followed a sympathetic op-ed by a leading Kuwaiti writer on the need to support the Syrian government’s drive to bring refugees back home. Oman, which maintained close ties with Syria throughout the war, recently signed significant economic deals with Syria. A veteran Indian diplomat who has served in almost all the major Arab countries and has good relations with Saudi Arabia claims that even Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has made overtures to Assad via an array of interviews that publicly acknowledged his kingdom’s acceptance of Assad’s victory and that suggested a willingness to help Damascus if it contributed to reducing Iran’s influence in Syria.
Saudi and Emirati overtures have two objectives: first, to reduce the Iranian footprint in Syria and, second, to make sure Qatar and Turkey do not get ahead of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates in the pecking order of reestablishing ties with Damascus. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia abhor the fact that Turkey and Iran are seen by many today as the regional leaders in the Middle East.
On one side, we have the Saudis and Emiratis and, on the other, the Qataris and the Turks. Ankara is seeking to capitalize on its newfound influence with Tehran and Moscow developed through the Astana process that established de-escalation zones in Syria. This intra-Sunni spat emerged out of the so-called Arab Spring due to Qatari and Turkish support for, and close history with, the Muslim Brotherhood, in opposition to the other Gulf Arab states — which used to support the Muslim Brotherhood for decades, but fell out with the movement — and Egypt. At the same time, the Saudis have made it clear they want the Turkish military out of Qatar, where the Turks have significantly enhanced their military presence over the past year. The Turkish military presence in Qatar, Iraq, and Syria are all seen as a front to what the Emiratis and Saudis see as a new Ottoman occupation. This helps Damascus and its standing with many Arab countries, barring, of course Qatar. Ankara has gone as far as to accuse Abu Dhabi of taking part in the Turkish coup attempt in the summer of 2016. The Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian axis is also hard at work against the Turkish-Qatari axis, both in Libya and in the Gaza Strip. The Emiratis, Kuwaitis, and Bahrainis have all publicly called Syrians their Arab brothers, but at the same time they call for non-Arabs, such as Turks and Iranians, to stay out.
These preexisting and emerging regional rivalries have made Damascus a potential new ally in waiting for one bloc or the other, which it can certainly leverage to its advantage, especially in what it needs most right now: reconstruction assistance. Indeed, a recent Qatari-Russian energy deal is seen as a threat from the perspective of the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as it could be a sign that Qatar is willing to accept Assad in return for Russian arms sales and energy cooperation. Syria can certainly wait and see, trading off favors in the form of economic support in the competition to see who can win Assad over.
The two largest Arab militaries are in Egypt and Algeria. Both have consistently been supportive of Assad. They recently publicly offered military and economic support to Damascus. Whether it be the geopolitical need for the Saudis and Emiraties to back Assad, or the ideological objectives of keeping Iran, Turkey, and Qatar out, all trends play into Syria’s hands. The frequency of changing geo-strategic realities in the region often leads to abrupt reshuffling of regional relations and alliances. Despite the West’s continued reluctance to engage with the Assad government, Assad winning and remaining in power has compelled various parties in what is a new Middle Eastern cold war to recalculate and revise their approach to Damascus. In some important ways, we could be witnessing the beginning of a new regional struggle for Syria, which, despite its vulnerabilities and weaknesses coming out of more than seven years of civil war, may reacquire a centrality that just a few years ago many thought impossible.
While America’s great concern has been out to push Iran out of Syria, a new question is coming to the fore: Can Russia supplant Iran or at least reduce its footprint in Syria? The answer seems yes and no. Russia has definitely reduced Iranian influence. An in-depth study to which one of us contributed on the Syrian military and intelligence community shows the Syrian security apparatus prefers Russia to Iran. In the Syrian government’s view, it is clear that it was Russia that turned the tide of the war — not Iran. Barak Barfi and Justin Goodarzi have both argued in depth that Iran has never been the absolute overlord that many claim it is, and Syria has indeed been at odds with Iran innumerable times in Iraq and Lebanon. A secular state like Syria does not have much in common with Iran — it is a marriage of convenience. This leads to the question of if Syria can make its own decisions independent of Russia, given the current talks in Astana and Sochi. That is not a question many Arab states care about. The rapprochement with Assad and Syria is about bringing Syria back into the Arab League, and slowly but surely reducing Iran’s influence there. The reopening of the U.A.E. Embassy and the first official Jordanian delegation in Damascus are significant shifts in Syria’s realignment.
Kamal Alam is a Visiting Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and David W. Lesch is the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in San Antonio.