After Years Of Conflict
The rapprochement between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Arab World has started taking shape a decade after Syria was removed from the Arab League and Assad declared Persona non-grata in most of West Asia.
The May Presidential Election in Syria (far from being considered transparent, especially in the absence of international observers) has strengthened the position of the Syrian leader, who won 95% of the votes, making the Gulf nations perceive him as the only viable solution for the reconstruction of the war-ravaged country, in which Saudi Arabia and the UAE would want to participate. Assad’s slogan ‘Hope through work’ seemed to present a new image of Syria, and that of a State on a course of stability, from war to reconstruction, stability being all the other Arab nations needed from their neighbour.
The ‘detente’ between Damascus and the Arab World has long been under construction. As early as 2018, sources from the small circles of the Syrian Regime claimed that the Gulf nations would play an important role in financing the future reconstruction of Syria, as well as the existence of secret intelligence-sharing agreements between Damascus and Riyadh. The UAE and Egypt recently normalised relations with Assad’s Syria, and in 2020, the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus, after Abu Dhabi offered refuge during the Civil War to numerous businessmen close to Assad, and even members of his family!
Qatar, perhaps Assad’s biggest critic of all Gulf nations and the only Arab nation still reluctant to approach the old regime, now seems resigned to accepting Syria’s current political situation, although observers expect Doha not to change its position regarding Assad or his return to the Arab League too quickly and radically.
The question arises here: What lies behind this new perception of the Gulf nations towards a regime so hated and criticised in the Arab World for almost a decade? The normalisation of relations between the Gulf nations and Damascus offers President al-Assad a Political Victory over the Rebel Forces. Beyond the exhaustion of all foreign policy instruments required to put pressure on the Assad Regime to accept a political transition in Syria, several Arab nations seem now to be analysing Syria from a more Geostrategic perspective, from a pariah to a Geopolitical Asset against non-Arab actors in West Asia, like Iran and Turkey. Moreover, the Gulf Monarchies (and Egypt) might want to learn how to reproduce the methods of surveillance and internal security used by Assad in Syria in order to fight Islamist forces on their own territories, especially those represented by the Muslim Brotherhood.
As for Iran and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey (an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood), Saudi Arabia and the UAE are building a common ground against their increasing presence in the Gulf and beyond, and Syria might now become an important member of that Front. In order to succeed in that matter, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have to do whatever it takes to separate the Assad Regime from its financial and military donor, Iran.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has resorted to Arab Nationalism to come up with an ethno-centric solution to sever ties between Tehran (and also Ankara) and the Arab communities. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are willing to contribute financially to the reconstruction of Syria in an attempt to weaken the leverage that Iran already has rooted in many Arab communities on the Syrian territory.
What the Gulf might now want the US to lift sanctions on Damascus under the ‘Caesar Act’, President Joe Biden, even if he does not punish the Arab States that approach Assad, will certainly not be willing to lift them anytime soon.
As the US Administration has signaled a pivot from West Asia to the Indo-Pacific Region, President Biden might consider to replicate in Syria the ‘Iraqi Model’, where Washington DC directly supports the Kurdish community that, in turn, would represent the American interests in the Federal Government in Baghdad.
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