Arab countries are re-normalizing their relations with the Assad regime, seeking to balance the strong Iranian and Turkish influences in Syria and to achieve some degree of influence in a new Syrian political-strategic structure. This further cements a Russian-oriented strategic architecture in the region. In the long term, this could lead to tensions between conservative Arab states and Israel, if Israel targets the Syrian military and government in the campaign against Iran, or if Israel continues to promote diplomatic recognition of its Golan annexation.
As the Syrian civil war winds down, Arab countries are re-normalizing their suspended relations with the Assad regime. This stems from their desire to balance the strong Iranian and Turkish influences in Syria, as well as erase the last vestige of the Arab Uprising. Though the conservative Arab leaderships don’t believe that they can shift Assad out of the Iranian camp entirely, they are trying to achieve some degree of influence and leverage before new Syrian political-strategic structure “sets” entirely. This will help cement the new Russian-oriented strategic architecture in the Arab East.
This process should be able to progress, for now, in tandem with the conservative Arab states’ improving relations with Israel. In the longer term, if these states’ rapprochement with Damascus deepens, it could cause tension between them and Israel, if Israel targets Syrian military and regime targets in its campaign against Iran in Syria, or if Israel continues to promote diplomatic moves to recognize its annexation of the Golan Heights.
The Broader Context
In the weeks immediately preceding and following President Trump’s announcement on the withdrawal of American troops from Syria, the regional dynamics surrounding Syria have become clearer. The civil war in Syria – which preceded the international campaign against ISIS and unfolded parallel to, and often separate from it – is over, crushed by the regime and predominantly by Shi’i “volunteers” from Hezbollah, Iraq and Afghanistan, Iranian C3I, and Russian airpower. The preeminent powers influencing developments inside Syria and on its borders, and thus shaping the policy of the Assad regime, today, are Russia, Iran, Turkey and, to an extent, Israel.
Most of the Arab states started out in 2011 as supporting the fall of the Assad regime, but split over the years regarding policy towards Damascus, as the Iranian influence in Syria grew and the chances of regime change shriveled and died. These states are today circling back to the door of Syria’s dictator. This process has been given wings by the doubts of the U.S.’s Arab allies regarding American willingness to remain significantly engaged in the region, and their concomitant need to try and influence the emerging new regional balance of power.
Arab Rapprochement with Syria
Syria’s isolation in the Arab arena was symbolized by the suspension of its membership in the Arab League in November 2011, and the breaking of diplomatic ties on the part of numerous Arab states (Algeria, Iraq, Mauritania, the Palestinian Authority and Oman never broke ties). However, the normalization of relations between the Arab countries and Assad’s Syria is proceeding apace since late 2018:
- An early indication of the normalization of Assad’s Syria among the Arab leaderships was the warm and publicized meeting between the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, and his Bahraini counterpart, Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, at the United Nations General Assembly (September 30, 2018).
- Jordan reopened its Jaber-Nassib border crossing with Syria in October after three years’ closure, and appointed (January 22, 2019) an acting chargé d’affairs at its embassy in Damascus. The embassy had been formally open since 2011, though the ambassador was withdrawn; there has not been a chargé since 2014. Jordan’s position may well be affected by its desire (like that of Lebanon and Turkey) to see return of refugees, which impose a heavy social and economic cost to the Kingdom, to Syria.
- Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir (designated by the International Criminal Court as a war criminal) visited Syria on December 17, 2018, the first Arab League head of state to do so since the outbreak of the civil war
- Syrian National Security chief, Major General Ali Mamlouk, a close Assad advisor, visited Egypt (December 23, 2018) and met with the Head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, Abbas Kamel. Mamlouk visited Egypt publicly in 2016 as well: Egypt’s relations with Syria have been improving markedly since the coup which brought President a-Sisi to power in 2013.
- The United Arab Emirates (UAE) reopened its embassy in Damascus on December 27, 2018.
- Bahrain re-opened its embassy in December 2018 and Kuwait indicated in December that it will probably do so shortly.
- Most of the dominant political blocs in Tunisia have indicated a willingness to re-open formal relations with Syria, severed in 2011. Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui has called on the Arab League to restore Syria’s membership. This is especially significant since the next Arab League summit will take place in Tunis in March (see below). In addition, the first direct flight of a Syrian airliner from Damascus to Tunisia in seven years, took place on December 27, 2018.
- A group of Iraqi oﬃcials, which included national security adviser Faleh al-Fayad, who also heads Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units, met (December 29, 2018) with Assad. Iraq is improving its connections with the Syrian regime, and even discussing expanding military and security cooperation as compensation for the removal of American troops.
What is Behind the Arab Moves?
The position of the Arab states stems from several imperatives. The first is the perceived need to counter, to the extent possible, Iranian influence in post-civil war Syria, and attempt to at least partially wean Assad off his dependence on Teheran. The Arab isolation of Syria has been proven to be unsuccessful, and in fact, strengthened Iran’s position in Syria and thus, the Iranian-led bloc as a whole. Syria was to a large extent pushed even further into Iran’s embrace in 2011, by the strong anti-Assad positions of the major Arab states. Its sole regional allies for the past eight years have been Iran and Hezbollah (though, as noted, Egypt’s position under a-Sisi has been balanced, probably due to an externalization of the Egyptian regime’s stress on stability and on regime legitimacy). The Observer reported that in 2016, the UAE proposed normalizing ties with Damascus as part of a plan to peel Assad away from Iran, but that plan was snubbed by the Trump administration.
The conservative Arab states also fear that in the absence of political and economic support from them to the Syrian regime, their other arch-foe, Turkey – which has a significant military and civilian presence in Syria’s North – may increase its influence in Syrian affairs. While Turkey could theoretically serve as a counterweight to Iran in Syria, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, as well as Egypt, see Turkey as a disruptive and dangerous force in the region, on a par with the Islamic Republic. The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Aﬀairs tweeted (December 27, 2018) that “the Arab role in Syria has become more necessary in order to face the regional expansion of Iran and Turkey”. The Bahraini Foreign Ministry explained their decision to restore relations in an almost identical manner: to “strengthen the Arab role and activate it in order to preserve the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and prevent the risk of regional interference in its affairs”.
In addition, from the point of view of the other Arab states, the normalization of Syria would remove one of the last vestiges of the popular 2011-2012 Arab Uprisings. This would be an attractive development in the eyes of the conservative, counter-revolutionary leaderships in the Arab world. While it remains to be seen if the anti-Iranian agenda of the UAE-Saudi camp is actually served by the rapprochement, the pro-status quo ante agenda – directed against Islamist political forces, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, democratic/popular forces, and Qatar and Turkey – will be well promoted.
Saudi Arabia has not yet officially taken a position on rapprochement with Assad, but its silence in the face of renewal of ties by its close GCC allies – as well as by Sudan, with which it has developed close ties in recent years, especially regarding the war in Yemen (where much of the ground war is prosecuted by Sudanese troops) – indicates its approbation. Qatar, in this as in other issues, is an outlier, having been the most fervent opponent of the Assad regime since the beginning of the civil war, and at present, rejecting the idea of Arab rapprochement. Doha would be comfortable in any case with a much higher level of Turkish and Iranian influence in a post-conflict Syria than Riyadh or Abu Dhabi could consider acceptable, and therefore has less to lose by standing on principle.
From the Syrian side, Assad is interested both in the legitimacy that renewed ties with the Arab countries will provide, and in their assistance in providing funds needed for economic and infrastructure reconstruction, variously estimated at 300-400 billion dollars. Neither Iran – while eager that its firms take part in the reconstruction effort, and make good on its investment in Assad’s regime – nor Russia, can provide this level of funding. Since it is unlikely that the Assad regime will receive much Western aid, money from the wealthy Arab nations is a necessity. One challenge for the Gulf states will be how to contribute to Syrian reconstruction without running afoul of U.S. and multilateral sanctions on key Syrian players and entities.
Return to the Arab League? A Symbolic Hurdle
The moves to re-engage with Syria, but also the debates regarding the issue, are expressed in moves to “thaw” Syria’s “frozen” membership in the Arab League. This is of little practical, but major symbolic, significance, since the very same Syrian regime which was cast out by its Arab peers, would be readmitted without reforming. The Secretary General of the Arab League, Egypt’s Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said in April 2018 that the decision to suspend Syria had been “hasty”. Expectations rose that Syria would participate in the Arab Economic Summit in Beirut (held January 19-20), though in the end it was not invited. The next benchmark will be the Arab League summit scheduled for March 31, 2019 in Tunis, where Syria’s membership, while not currently on the agenda, is widely expected to be a main subject of discussion. However, the Arab League takes decisions by consensus, and there still is opposition among the other 21-member states, notably, as mentioned, from Qatar. Aboul Gheit noted (February 11, 2019) that “I do not yet observe conclusions that lead to the consensus that we are talking about… the matter is not time, the matter is will”.
Some states appear to differentiate between improvement in bilateral relations, based on interest and on strategic considerations, and the symbolic step of formally returning an unrepentant Syria to the Arab fold. Recent reports in the Arab press see a hardening in the Egyptian position on the issue, which are credited to efforts by the U.S. and France. They quote Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri as saying that Egypt will not support a proposal at the March summit to reintegrate Syria into the Arab League. He also stated recently that Syria could not return to active membership of the League without taking measures which accord with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. This calls inter alia for a UN-facilitated process which would include “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance” within six months, setting a schedule and process for the drafting of a new constitution, and “free and fair elections”, pursuant to the new constitution, to be held within 18 months and administered under United Nations supervision, with all Syrians — including members of the diaspora — eligible to participate. Saudi Arabia is also reported to hinge Syria’s reinstatement on implementation of the resolution.
It does not seem likely that Syria will agree to these conditions, which are not firmly promoted by their key interlocutors: Russia, Iran and Turkey. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said his country will eventually return to the Arab League, but stressed that the Damascus government will never surrender to blackmail or accept conditions for the restoration of its membership.
Russia is strongly encouraging the re-integration of Syria into the Arab fold, especially regarding its re-admission to the Arab League. Such a development would cement Moscow’s victory in Syria; it also may reflect its wish to dilute Iranian influence in Damascus. It is worth noting that Russia has in recent years developed significant relations with some of the major, ostensibly pro-American, Arab players, a factor which may also explain evolving positions of these states regarding Damascus. In any case, the Russian lobbying operation is in full gear. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria in late January and urged his hosts to reintegrate Syria into the “Arab family” before the March summit. Mikhail Bogdanov, President Putin’s special envoy for the Middle East and North Africa, visited Cairo to meet with Foreign Minister Shoukry and Arab League Secretary General Aboul Gheit. Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev visited Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
It is reported that the United States, for its part, is striving – including during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to the Middle East last month – to restrain the Arab rapprochement with Damascus, and to create linkage between it and significant changes in Syrian behavior, especially regarding its ties with Tehran.
It is unlikely that the renewal of Assad’s ties with the Arab states will substantially impact on his security ties with Iran in the near term. First, because the strategic ties predate the civil war, and have proved themselves. Second, because Iran (as well as Hezbollah and the Shi’i militias) are so enmeshed with the Syrian security system, that it is hard to see them being easily extracted from it.
While it is doubtful that the conservative Arab leaderships assess that they can shift Assad out of the Iranian camp entirely (he has been allied with Iran since the Revolution forty years ago), it seems that they do not want to passively accept the Iranian primacy, and wish to try to achieve some degree of influence and leverage before the post-civil war Syrian political-strategic structure “sets” entirely.
Increased engagement with the wider Arab world, and substantial Arab economic involvement in Syrian recovery projects, may well over time have a moderating influence on Syrian behavior, and may bring Assad to reduce his dependence on the Iranians in the longer run. It also may “stiffen Syria’s back” vis-à-vis Turkish territorial incursions and ambitions, and forestall sizeable Turkish involvement, and thus influence, in economic reconstruction.
In any case, the improvement of relations by the conservative Arab states with an unreconstructed Assad regime, will help cement the new Russian-oriented strategic architecture in the Arab East.
One interesting question will be what effect rapprochement by the conservative Arab states with Syria, might have on these same states’ improving relations with Israel. For the time being, the two processes should be able to progress in tandem. While formal relations with Syria may be restored, its relations with many of the Arab states will still be far from warm, and probably would not outweigh, in the short to medium term, the various strategic benefits they enjoy from their non-formal ties with Israel.
In the longer term, if the conservative Arab states’ rapprochement with Damascus deepens, it could cause tension between them and Israel, if Israel targets Syrian military and regime targets in its campaign against Iran in Syria, or if israel continues to promote diplomatic moves to recognize its annexation of the Golan Heights.
 Iraq has tensions with the U.S. Administration, as indicated by President Trump’s statement last week that U.S. troops in Iraq could be used to monitor Iran, which met with Iraqi denials and denunciations. It is worth noting that Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Ali al-Hakim recently visited Moscow (January 29-30, 2019); during his press conference with his Russian counterpart, Hakim called the relations between the nations a “strategic partnership.”
 Giorgio Cafiero, “Qatar Says No to Rapprochement with Syrian Regime”. Gulf International Forum, January 16, 2019. https://gulfif.org/qatar-says-no-to-rapprochement-with-syrian-regime/
 It is worth noting that both Egypt (since 2005) and Jordan retained diplomatic relations with both Israel and Syria in the period before the Arab Uprising.
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photo: Danalm000 [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons