By the end of 2018, the Syrian–Arab relations witnessed a new beginning. The UAE announced the re-opening of its embassy in Damascus, while Bahrain said its diplomatic mission in Syria had been operating “without interruption.”
Other sources also expect other Gulf states, such as Kuwait, to soon reopen their embassies in Damascus. Egypt, for its part, received the head of the Syrian National Security Bureau, Maj. Gen. Ali al-Mamluk, and some sources quoted reports of Egyptian mediation between the Kurdish forces in the city of Manbaj and the Syrian regime.
Observers may argue about the legitimacy and possibility of full normalization with the Syrian regime. Hassan defines Arab regimes’ diplomatic moves toward the Assad regime as efforts to “restore autocratic rule throughout the greater Middle East.” Such a view may appeal to many who see Arab rulers as counter-revolutionaries. In reality, however, regarding Syria, Arab autocrats are only acknowledging the reality and fully understand that Assad has restored and will continue to cement his autocratic rule with or without them. The restoration of diplomatic ties is basically an acknowledgment of the current reality in Syria. Moreover, others, for example Tunisia’s democratic Islamist Ennahda partyhas also called for “reconciliation” in Syria.
Dr. Anwar Gargash, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, described his country’s decision as a “careful reading of the developments, and understanding that thet stage requires Arab presence and communication with the Syrian file.” He addedthat the Arab role in Syria has become more necessary for the regional transformation of Iran and Turkey.
But how will the Arabs handle the Syrian file now? Will they be able to stop the Iranian and Turkish domination of the Syrian sphere?
I have written before about how the Arab discourse on the Syrian conflict is riddled with poor judgments and errors in strategic miscalculations. I identified a few reasons, including their downplaying the ability of the Iranian axis to infiltrate and control the Syrian regime and the Arab backing of “jihad” in Syria, at least at the beginning of the Syrian civil war, which opened the door to the rise of myriad radical Islamist militias that ruined the democratic aspirations of the Syrian opposition.
Currently, Arabs face enormous challenges in Syria. They were sidelined for years by many regional and global powers, including Turkey, Iran, and Russia. Moreover, the US policy in Syria is currently in disarray, shrouded in confusion and contradictions. Needless to add, there is no united Arab policy toward Syria, even among allies like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. Such disunity has to be resolved, and Arab allies need to adopt a united multidimensional approach toward Syria.
Facing Erdogan’s ambitions
One of the glaring byproducts of the Arab absence from the Syrian scene was the rise of the Astana tripartite of Turkey, Iran, and Russia. Snookering Turkey out of this triangle has to be the Arabs’ first objective in Syria. Arabs need to abandon their nostalgia for pan-Arabism and instead work with Kurdish and non-Islamist forces in Syria to stop the Turkish aggression.
Following the Turkish threat to invade Manbaj, Kurdish forces started negotiations with the Assad regime about handing the city and other areas under their control over to the regime. There are two possible stumbling blocks facing such a smooth handover. First, the Kurds want clear guarantees for their safety and security after Assad forces enter their controlled areas. Second, they want the promise of a future political process that can lead to federalism or at least self-control for Syrian Kurds. Yet I doubt Assad is keen to offer of even discuss any concession to anyone now, not just the Kurds.
Hence, the Arabs have a role to play. Although the US downplayed the prospect of Arab forces being deployed in Syria, Arabs can use US Secretary Pompeo’s visit to the region to articulate a vision whereby the US serve s as a liaison that organizes and guides regional peacekeeping forces to stop Turkish expansion and avoid friction and confrontations between Kurds and regime forces.
Meanwhile, the Arabs’ relations with Assad have to be pragmatic—lukewarm, but not overtly friendly. Normalization with Assad must be gradual and linked to reform measures of the regime toward its people. In return for resuming economic and political relations, Arab states need to campaign to stop the Syrian regime’s policies of demographic change and the forced displacement of Syrians. Arab countries, especially those that have adopted the Syrian opposition, have a moral obligation to the Syrian civilians who believed the dream of revolution but then paid a heavy price for this dream. These countries must defend the interests of the Syrians before applauding Assad and allowing him to return to the Arab League.
As for countering the Iranian infiltration in Syria, it should be the last file to be addressed by the Arab powers. Syria is like a boxing arena, where Arabs cannot win with a decisive punch, but rather by patiently scoring points. It is naïve to assume that Assad will abandon his Iranian allies anytime soon. No amount of Arab embraces, gestures, or money can wipe out seven years of Iran and Hizballah infiltration into the Syrian arena. Indeed, Iran is exhausted economically and politically, but it still controls the backbone of the Syrian regime and will not allow it to stray. Assad may be tempted to play both sides by earning Arab money while still maintaining his Iranian bond, but Arabs should not fall into this trap.
In short, unlike other fronts, like Yemen, Arab States have a good opportunity to correct past mistakes and contribute positively in Syria. A clear Arab policy that balances the inevitable while dealing with the Assad regime, while serving the interests of the Syrian people against the Iranian and Turkish aggression, is indeed possible. It is time to reverse the past trends of haste and mediocrity.
An Arabic version of this piece was published in Al-Hurra