In 2011, as the Syrian government was violently addressing demonstrations and thus paving the way for the notoriously violent Syrian Civil War, the Arab world decided to sever its ties with the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad. In support of the opposition, the members of the Arab League decided to suspend Syrian membership in this organization and impose economic sanctions on the regime in Damascus. In 2012, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation also suspended Syria’s membership. That same year, Saudi Arabia severed its diplomatic relations with Assad’s Syria, and many other Arab countries followed suit. However, as the Assad regime is emerging as the victor of the violent civil war, these Arab countries are starting to embrace Assad’s Syria as a way of opposing non-Arab regional powers that operate in Syria –namely, Iran and Turkey.
This process is in stark contrast to the days of the Syrian civil war, when Arab countries openly supported anti-Assad opposition and anti-Assad insurgents. Throughout the war, the Saudis financed rebel groups opposed to Assad, like the Army of Islam (Jaish al-Islam). Saudi Arabia’s primary target in this effort was not the Assad regime but rather its main backer: Iran, which also happens to be Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival. Namely, Assad’s Syria was an integral part of what was called “Shia Crescent,” a string of territories inhabited and controlled by Shia Muslims allied with Iran. This area stretches from Western Afghanistan all the way to the Mediterranean, starting with the Iran-Afghan border in the East and going through Iran, Iraq, Syria and ending in Lebanon. For Saudi Arabia and its allies in the GCC, supporting the rebels and facilitating an overthrow of Assad was a way of cutting that string at its key point.
However, now that Assad is emerging victorious, Arab countries are rushing to renew diplomatic relations with the government in Damascus. In September 2018, on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly, an extremely cordial meeting was recorded between the foreign ministers of Syria and Bahrain. In December 2018, the Bahraini government issued a statement saying that its embassy in Damascus had been operating “without interruption,” with the same applying to the Syrian embassy in Manama. More importantly, a day earlier, the UAE also reopened its embassy in Damascus, showing that the Arab world was getting more and more ready to re-embrace Syria. Indeed, this move was preceded by a media statement by UAE’s Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash regarding how the Arab League made in mistake of suspending Syria’s membership.
That same month, Kuwait, which throughout the war refused to keep its embassy in Syria open or to provide overt support to the rebels, publicly expressed its expectations that other members of the Arab League would reopen their embassies in Syria. Initially, Saudi Arabia denied reports that they would be reopening their embassy in Damascus, as there were reports earlier of overtures that Saudi Arabia had made towards Assad in order to prevent him from drifting towards Iran. Assad himself stated in one of his interviews for a minor Kuwaiti newspaper that Syria “reached a major understanding” with Arab states. Even Israel, which has joined the tacit alliance with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states against Iran, is considering the option of establishing diplomatic relations with Assad’s Syria.
However, this process is not without major contradictions. Namely, in the meantime, Saudi Arabia has also shifted its initial rhetoric, as it is backing down from establishing diplomatic ties with Assad’s Syria alongside Egypt and Qatar. These Arab nations have been doing so under the influence and lobbying of Washington, which is trying to keep Damascus as isolated as possible. These Arab countries might continue to follow the US lead on this matter or they may decide to follow the UAE, as Washington’s regional allies frequently have their own agendas. It is apparent that Arab countries have different views on this matters, and so does Washington. This proves that the regime in Damascus is gaining the ability drive wedges between Arab countries and its US backer and leverage each of them directly or indirectly.
This new trend of opening up to the regime in Damascus is the response of the Arab world to the growing power of Iran and Turkey in Syria. Namely, these two countries have asserted themselves as major players in Syria, as they participate with Russia in a trilateral negotiating format that excludes the Arab countries. As such, establishing a line of communication with Assad is a way for Arab capitals to curb Iranian influence in the country. Assad is a close Iranian ally but he does not want to be subservient to his interests. As WikiLeaks showed in 2009, Assad turned down Iranian requests to assist them in a possible war with Israel, showing that his alliance with Tehran has limits. For Assad, having an Arab option open is a way to hedge and leverage his Iranian allies. Moreover, Russia has emerged as the main backer of the Assad regime, imposing certain limits on the Iranian sway over Damascus, which leaves more space for the Arab capitals. Furthermore, Assad’s Syria will be in need of money for post-conflict reconstruction, giving Arab states the possibility to step in and buy influence in Damascus.
Turkey has also been a major irritant for the Arab states, as they perceived its attempt under President Recep Tayip Erdogan to assert itself as a major power in former Ottoman provinces to be frustrating. Additionally, Arab countries that perceive the Muslim Brotherhood as a major threat to their regimes and qualify it as a terrorist threat are further irked by Turkey, which, alongside Qatar, is their main backer. Moreover, Saudi Arabia and its allies are equally bothered by the military and diplomatic support that Turkey provided to Qatar during the blockade that Saudi Arabia and its allies imposed on the latter, mainly over its support of the Muslim Brotherhood. After US President Donald Trump pulled US troops out of Syria, the Kurdish forces in the country that are fearful of Turkish attack are joining forces with the Assad regime. This provides Assad leverage over Turkey, as he can reign in or unleash Kurdish forces in their desire to threaten Turkey on the Syria-Turkish border. This, in turn, provides a chance for Arab countries to curb Turkish influence as well.
The implications of these new trends are tremendous. The region is already adapting to a reality in which the Assad regime will survive. The fact that the Arab capitals have opposing views on how to engage it is proving new political reality in which the alliances and counter-alliances in the Middle East region will constantly shift on a case to case basis. Even in peacetime, Syria will be the point of contestation that draws in Israel, Arab nations, Turkey and Iran. This will provide Assad’s regime the ability to pit them of one against another in an attempt to see from whom it will be able to extract better political or economic concessions. Nowhere will it be more evident than in the case of reconstruction of Syria, where Assad will try to extract funding from the wealthy Arab countries like the UAE who might jump on that opportunity hoping to buy political leverage with Damascus and suppress some of Turkish and Iranian influence in the country. Assad has also helped secure his faith as what used to be his biggest adversarial club of Arab nations and the US are divided over how to engage him, eliminating any possibility of his ouster.
One thing is for certain: Bashar al-Assad is the man calling the shots in Damascus. Now that Assad has emerged victorious from the civil war, he is relying on his country’s geography and history to use the same strategy that his later father Hafez used, which pits regional powers against each other. Assad is here to stay and regional players, including, until recently, the hostile Arab capitals, are courting him.