by Neville Teller
When Israel’s prime minister, Naftali Bennett, met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on October 22, Syria and its future featured high on the agenda. Putin said that Russia had been “making efforts” to restore the country’s statehood and strengthen it. It is not clear if that was a form of shorthand for consolidating Bashar al-Assad in power as Syria’s president for the next seven years, in line with the dubious election in which Assad recently won a fourth term with 95.1% of the votes.
If Putin is thinking along those lines, his policy would accord with that of some Arab states which are seeking ways to bring Syria back into the so-called ‘Arab fold’. Despite the West’s abhorrence of the crimes against his own people attributed to Assad, now presiding over 70 percent of what was once sovereign Syria, the realpolitik of the Middle East may yet see him rehabilitated.
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Can Israel sit back and permit this to come about without intervening? Syria controlled by an Assad reconfirmed in office and readmitted to the Arab league, would represent an enhanced danger to Israel. The reality would be a strengthened “Shia Crescent” – the Iranian empire sweeping round from Yemen to Bahrain, then to Iran itself, then Iraq, Syria and Lebanon where it holds sway by way of its Hezbollah proxy. Israel’s efforts to deter the transfer of armaments, and perhaps eventually nuclear weapons, from Iran to Hezbollah by way of Syria, would need to be redoubled.
This Arab policy shift seems to be led by Jordan and it requires a focused diplomatic counter-offensive by Israel.
In September Jordan fully reopened its trade border with Syria, while in the last few weeks Jordan has been the driving force behind a deal to use Syrian facilities to pipe Egyptian natural gas into Lebanon, which is facing an energy crisis. Syria’s defense minister, Ali Abdullah Ayyoub, visited Jordan in September and met with Jordanian military officials. Shortly afterwards Jordan’s King Abdullah spoke to Assad by phone for the first time since 2011.
Syria was suspended from the Arab League back in 2011 because of its failure to end its violent crackdown on protesters demanding Assad’s resignation. In 2018 the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus, closed since 2011, and recently the idea of reinstating Syria to the League has been mooted. Perhaps as a step in that direction, the UAE economy minister, Abdulla bin Touq Al Marri, recently announced that the Gulf state and Syria had agreed on plans to enhance economic cooperation. The value of non-oil trade between the two countries in the first half of 2021 was some $272m.
A few weeks ago the UAE invited Syria to participate in Dubai’s Expo 2020, the first world’s fair to be held in the Middle East. So named because it was originally planned for last year, Expo 2020 was postponed because of the COVID pandemic. It runs from October 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022. Al-Marri met his Syrian counterpart on the sidelines where, it is reported, they looked at ways to expand the UAE-Syrian relationship.
Political as well as economic considerations loom large in current Arab thinking. The loss of US prestige following its withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as its moves to reactivate the Iran nuclear talks, has prompted a reassessment of policy priorities. The ties that Arab states enjoy with Russia, Assad’s most powerful backer, become a consideration. If Russia, which has been pressing for Syria’s return to the League, moves towards consolidating Assad in power, some Arab states will go along.
Unlike the pragmatic Arab world, western opinion remains opposed to Assad, widely regarded as a tyrant whose hands are covered with the blood of his own people. There is something of a consensus that he must be removed from power before Syria can be brought back into a normal relationship with the rest of the world. Bennett may have taken this line in Sochi.
In 2011 with the Arab Spring at its height, Syria, like a handful of other regional dictatorships, was plunged into civil conflict. Popular dissent soon developed into an armed revolt, which finally sought to overthrow the despotic Assad régime and substitute a democratic form of government. In August 2013 it became clear that Assad had used chemical weapons against his opponents without regard to the horrific civilian casualties that resulted.
US President Barack Obama – although he had sworn to punish Assad if he deployed chemical weapons – failed to act. Putin seized the political initiative. He quickly extracted an undertaking from Assad to surrender the chemical arsenal that he had originally denied possessing. Obama embraced the pledge, but it was a total sham. In June 2021 Fernando Arias, the head of the international chemical weapons watchdog, told the UN Security Council that chemical weapons had so far been used in Syria a probable 17 times.
On October 13 US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated US opposition to any normalization of relations with Assad. A US law, known as the Caesar Act, that came into force last year punishes any companies that work with Assad.
“What we have not done, and what we do not intend to do, is to express any support for efforts to normalize relations or rehabilitate Mr Assad,” Blinken told a joint news conference, pointedly refraining from according the Syrian leader the title “President”. Blinken set out the US requirement with regard to Syria as “irreversible progress toward a political solution”. This can possibly be interpreted as free and fair elections in which Assad will be debarred from standing, leading to a new constitution for the country.
Whether this will become anything more than a US aspiration, though, is doubtful. The words are strong; the commitment less so. Syria is scarcely seen in Washington as a vital US interest. Indeed the Middle East as a whole is not among Biden’s top priorities. Given the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and shortly from Iraq, the Arab world would not be too surprised if the administration announced it was leaving Syria.
A decisive lead from the US can prevent Assad’s rehabilitation. But is Biden, like Obama before him, too concerned with the nuclear deal and Iranian sensitivities?