This report is based on the presentations and discussions during the UAE Security Forum 2019, “Reshaping the Future of the Horn of Africa,” held on December 12, 2019 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
On December 27, 2018, the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus, which had been shuttered for almost eight years during the bitter and bloody civil war that has torn Syria apart. Kuwait and Bahrain quickly announced they would follow suit. But these were only the most dramatic in a series of Gulf and other Arab moves to re-engage with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, signaling the initiation of a new phase in the seemingly endless regional “struggle for Syria.”
Now, rather than seeking to influence the outcome of the conflict, which was, in effect, determined at the national level by the regime’s victory in Aleppo in January 2017, outside players such as Gulf Arab countries will need to pursue their interests exclusively by political, diplomatic, and economic means. Since the fall of Aleppo, it’s been clear that the Gulf Arab countries would have little choice but to re-engage with the Assad regime. But, they could attempt to replicate the relative success they have had in Iraq undermining Iranian hegemony through positive inducements such as aid, trade, and political support, with an eye toward the reintegration of Iraq and Syria into the regional Arab orbit by emphasizing their Arab identity and heritage.
While a few years ago the Iranian position in most of Iraq may have appeared unassailable, today Iran is struggling to maintain its influence and keep various clients from adopting more independent stances. The formation of the new government in Iraq has been acceptable but hardly optimal from an Iranian point of view, and U.S. and Gulf interests seem to have fared relatively better than Iran’s in recent political developments in Iraq. In Syria, too, there should be much to work with, but re-engagement with the Assad regime is a bitter pill for many Arabs because of the hundreds of thousands of people killed and millions displaced, mainly by the regime, in the brutal civil war over most of the past decade.
It’s not surprising that the UAE took the lead in re-engaging with the government in Damascus. The UAE was always more skeptical than some of its Gulf Arab partners of the “Arab Spring” uprisings, even when directed against such brutal regimes as those in Syria and Libya. Qatar, in particular, partnered with Turkey to support a range of rebel forces, including some hard-line Islamist groups, although not those faithful to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or al-Qaeda. Saudi Arabia funded and armed moderate and nationalist rebel groups such as the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, but also some rebel factions that were too Islamist for the UAE as well as the United States. Instead, the UAE mainly worked with U.S.- and Jordanian-led elements in southern Syria that were primarily engaged in humanitarian and intelligence work.
Not long after the fall of Aleppo, the UAE recognized that a re-engagement with Damascus was inevitable, and the only way for Gulf countries and their allies to pursue their interests in the postwar environment. The downfall of the ISIL “caliphate” remained an overriding mission, and for that and other reasons, the United States urged the UAE not to reopen its embassy in Syria. However, with the sudden U.S. decision to pull out of Syria, which has reportedly already begun, U.S. objections effectively vanished and the UAE announced its diplomatic move at the end of December, followed by Bahrain and Kuwait.
The UAE’s decision was plainly a turning point, but a broader process of Arab re-engagement with the Assad regime was already underway. Earlier in December, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the first Arab League head of state to visit Damascus since 2011. Jordan reopened trade ties with Syria, and Tunisia resumed direct flights to the country. Several major Arab countries had never fully broken with the Syrian regime, most notably Egypt and Algeria. The UAE itself had laid the groundwork for re-engagement throughout 2018, including preparing for new investments last summer followed by significant trips by Emirati businesspeople in August and September, resuming medical collaboration, issuing visas to Syrian tourists, and studying new real estate developments. In addition to reopening the embassy, the UAE is preparing to resume direct flights to Damascus for the first time in six years, has increased aid to Syrian refugees, and says it will send a high-level delegation to Syria soon.
The Gulf and broader Arab re-engagement with the Syrian regime is driven by more than the need to ensure that Iran does not emerge as the big winner from the Syrian civil war. Arab concerns, particularly in the Gulf and especially in Riyadh, are growing about the emergence of Turkey as a new regional hegemon. After the 2015-16 joint Russian-Iranian military intervention that saved the Assad regime from collapse, Turkish goals in Syria shifted from regime change to countering Kurdish power in northern Syria and using Syria as a crucial staging ground for an enhanced, broader regional profile. Turkish officials have increasingly said their country is the “only logical leader” of global Muslims, and have strongly hinted that Turkey, rather than Arab states or Iran, should be the dominant regional power in the Middle East.
A school of thought in the region is emerging that holds that Turkey, which is more stable, powerful, and technologically sophisticated than Iran, and possibly as ambitious, is becoming a more significant regional threat to Arab countries, and even to Israel. Iran is seen as overextended, beset by sanctions, and internally fractious, while Turkey has none of these problems and a range of other advantages, not least its membership in NATO and traditionally close ties to Washington. Therefore, the Gulf re-engagement with Syria is intended to constrain both Iran and Turkey. With the broader national Syrian civil war effectively decided, and the United States clearly pulling back from the country, the only way to do that is to establish a positive working relationship with Russia and the Assad regime. The focus would be to provide incentives to Syrian actors, especially the government, to think in terms of their own, independent, national interests, with Russia as their primary patron rather than Iran or Turkey.
This dual focus on Iran and Turkey in Syria also brings the Gulf countries closer to Israel’s regional agenda. Israel, too, has sought to limit the use of Syria by Iran and Hezbollah, especially within 40 miles of its southern and western borders with Jordan, Lebanon, and the occupied Golan Heights. Israel has backed that up with numerous airstrikes and other military actions to enforce these emerging red lines. The Israeli role in Syria is critical for Gulf Arab interests as the most direct and powerful brake on Iran’s use of Syria and a final barrier to the creation of a military corridor from Iran to Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea should the United States fully withdraw from eastern Syria.
Both Israel and Gulf countries will also continue to separately cultivate Russian influence in Syria as a counter to Iranian and Turkish dominance of key areas and to limit their future role in Syria. Meanwhile, increased Gulf Arab support for armed Kurdish groups in northern and eastern Syria, especially in crucial battlegrounds such as Afrin and Manbij, with or without direct U.S. engagement, and reconstruction aid to these areas have become crucial aspects of the quest to contain Turkish and Iranian hegemony in Syria, Iraq, and beyond.
Moreover, the intention behind regional support for the uprising and the expulsion of the Assad regime from the Arab League seven years ago was not the permanent excommunication of Syria from the Arab fold. It was rather based on the expectation that the regime was likely to eventually collapse and was a symbolic and diplomatic expression of revulsion at the brutal tactics it was using to forestall that possibility. Few anticipated the decisive intervention by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah that began in the fall of 2015, and which reversed the battlefield momentum in favor of the regime and led, ultimately, to the decisive victory in Aleppo.
Even Saudi Arabia has indicated that it would not necessarily oppose the early reintegration of Syria, despite the persistence of the Assad regime, into the Arab League. Moreover, Bahrain is unlikely to have moved to reopen its embassy in Damascus without a green light from Riyadh. The Gulf countries had already largely concluded during the presidency of Barack Obama that the United States did not intend to be a decisive force in Syria and that, for that and many other reasons, strengthening ties with Moscow was essential. This broad calculation has not shifted under President Donald J. Trump, and, indeed, has been reinforced by his insistence on the removal of all U.S. forces from Syria. But, like many influential Americans, Gulf officials will urge that this be done in a careful and gradual manner that does not play into Iranian or Turkish strategic designs. Senior U.S. officials, including the secretary of state and national security advisor, appear to agree with this, and so managing the U.S. disengagement will be an important part of the new Gulf approach to Syria.
Yet the Gulf countries have been expecting that they would sooner or later have to emphasize an arrangement with Russia, and therefore also the Assad regime, to prevent Iran and Turkey from being the primary beneficiaries of the war and hegemonic outside powers in postwar Syria. The groundwork for such a strategic transition has already been laid both with Russia and with the Assad regime. Now it is being put into practice in earnest and in the open. As with Gulf strategy in Iraq, on the surface it appears that Iran is in a dominant and an unassailable position that Gulf countries will be ill-equipped to challenge, especially by nonmilitary means. But in Iraq, the encouragement of independent national interests and identities and the resurrection of Iraq’s Arab character and need to be part of the Arab world have proved effective in undermining Iranian dominance.
There is much to work with in Syria as well. There is no reason to believe that the Assad regime wishes to remain beholden to Iranian and Hezbollah forces, or that Moscow has any interest in seeing Iran and Turkey emerge as dominant outside players in postwar Syria either. Moreover, reconstruction will be extensive and expensive and the still relatively deep pockets in the Gulf states can be put to good use in Syria, as they have been in Iraq, to offset Iranian dominion. Moreover, there are still likely very large numbers of Syrians who are alienated from their government, angered at its depredations, and totally opposed to their country being under the undue influence of Iran and Hezbollah. Better relations with the broader Arab world may be essential for the regime to reconcile with this huge segment of the Syrian population.
Gulf countries could be effective in Syria through a new strategy based on diplomatic, political, and economic re-engagement with the country and the regime. Besides, there are few if any other options. With U.S. fetters now removed, this re-engagement may proceed more quickly than many would have suspected. Indeed, it would not be surprising to see the Syrian foreign minister visiting Gulf and other Arab capitals in the near future, and possibly even attending the upcoming 30th Arab League summit in Tunis in March, though such a full rehabilitation may take longer. The Gulf Arab governments have already indicated they find a rapprochement with the Syrian regime distasteful but necessary and indeed unavoidable.
Sultan Haitham will need to balance powerful interests while engaging all parties, especially as he tackles economic policy.
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