Arab leaders weigh normalising relations with Syria’s president

After being treated as a pariah for waging total war on his own people for the past decade, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is being brought slowly back into regional diplomatic society. Though Syria remains expelled from the Arab League, Arab leaders are re-engaging with a tyrant hitherto deemed toxic by all except Iran, Russia and China.

Last month, King Abdullah of Jordan, who a decade ago called on Assad to step down, telephoned him. This month, Prince Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates and brother of its leaders, visited him in Damascus.

While Joe Biden’s US administration is tut-tutting and Europeans are holding their noses over the idea of the “normalisation” of relations with Assad, it should be remembered that Jordan and the UAE are close to the US but also to Israel. Israeli governments have long preferred the Assads in power across their common border, where, until Syria’s civil war began in 2011, barely a shot had been fired since the armistice after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. That choice stands even while Israel’s air force and cyber-warriors wage a shadow war inside Syria and Iraq, against Iran and its paramilitary proxies such as Lebanon’s Hizbollah.

The Arab motivation for cosying up to Assad is a response to the “Shia crescent” King Abdullah warned of as long ago as 2004. Iran was said to be building a network across the Middle East after the US-led invasion of Iraq had virtually gifted it Shia majority rule and Iranian control in Baghdad.

The UAE is using its power of attraction as an advanced expanding market in the Gulf with the resources to help reconstruct Syria and the construction firms to do it. Saudi Arabia, which along with Qatar heavily supported the Sunni rebellion against the Assad regime, is holding off for now. After ditching diplomacy with Iraq, the Saudis have opened lines to Iraqi leaders such as Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric turned kingmaker who came first in Iraq’s last two general elections, thrashing Iran’s proxies. The Gulf states are also turning the screws on Lebanon in response to Hizbollah’s ever more naked control.

When Gulf Arab leaders look at Tehran’s construction of a corridor across the Levant to the Mediterranean and down towards Yemen they see Persian neo-imperialism, with a menacing Shia supremacist tone, that American histrionics and European strictures have done almost nothing to curb. From the invasion of Iraq under President George W Bush to the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran under Donald Trump, Tehran has emerged as the main beneficiary in regional geopolitics.

The US long ago lost credibility, specifically in Syria, but across the whole region. Trump’s failure to respond to Iran’s devastatingly accurate drone and missile attack in September 2019 on Saudi Aramco’s oil installations was seminal. After much bombast he decided it was Saudis not Americans who had been attacked. Meanwhile Turkey, a Nato ally, has established three enclaves across northern Syria since 2016, pushing abandoned US-allied Kurdish forces that control one-quarter of the country towards Assad.

The EU presses for a political solution in Syria via an inclusive new constitution. Russia, which along with Iran salvaged the Assad regime, also favours this, leading to misplaced hopes that Moscow can squeeze both Assad and the Iranian presence in Syria.

There is feverish speculation that Assad may be distancing himself from Iran after reportedly “expelling” General Javad Ghaffari, the expeditionary commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force in Syria since 2015. This looks unlikely. It may be a loveless alliance, but Syria under Assad’s father stood by Iran during its 1980-88 war with Iraq (and co-founded Hizbollah). Iran in turn stood by Bashar as his regime wobbled in 2012 and 2015, providing ground troops for his depleted and exhausted army. That alliance will not change.

But Gulf Arab leaders see that as no reason to sit on their hands. After all, Syria was in danger of US and allied attack in 2005 and 2006 — for funnelling jihadis into Iraq to combat the Anglo-American occupation and supporting Hizbollah’s 2006 war with Israel and entrenchment in Lebanon. Yet, by 2008, Assad was being feted in Paris by then French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia are hedging their bets through parallel de-escalation talks with Iran. Yet they know Syria, part of the Arab heartland, is a spinning compass in geo-policy terms. They are now taking their bearings.

david.gardner@ft.com

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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