Syria’s Assad edges back into the regional fold

While President Bashar Assad’s international supporters and opponents argued this week over whether to continue UN humanitarian aid to a last remaining opposition enclave, many of Syria’s neighbors have quietly made about-turns in their relations with the country.

Kuwait and Jordan, Greece and Cyprus – all of which have condemned the Syrian leader at one time or another – have recently announced reopenings of their embassies in Damascus, Assad’s capital.

Oman has also appointed a new ambassador to Syria, while Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief recently met with his counterpart in the Assad regime.

At the same time, even the US – which has long pushed for Assad’s overthrow through force – has recently dropped sanctions against two businesses belonging to a Syrian entrepreneur linked to the regime.

Indeed, pressure is now mounting on Washington from Arab allies such as the UAE and a recently empowered Egypt for a new approach to Syria’s long agony.

“There’s a feeling in many Arab capitals that after 10 years, the world doesn’t have any solutions to offer,” Amer Sabaileh, a Jordan-based regional expert from the Stimson Center, told Asia Times. “So people think, ‘let’s look for a new way’.”

Yet, despite this “normalization”, many questions remain over what kind of Syria might emerge from the ruins of this catastrophic conflict.

“There is also a real danger that all parts of the country could face acute food insecurity, even hunger,” Armenak Tokmajyan, Syria expert from the Carnegie Middle East Centre, told Asia Times, as the country faces a poor harvest and nationwide drought.

Armed stalemate

On the ground in Syria, opposition forces control only one beleaguered enclave, around the northwestern city of Idlib.

At the same time, Syrian Kurdish forces control much of northeastern Syria, where they have been backed by the US-led coalition against Islamic State (ISIS.)

This jihadi group is still active, although much curtailed, since it swept across eastern Syria and Iraq in 2014.

Syria’s Kurds – organized largely under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), have, however, lost much ground in recent years to Turkish troops, which now occupy a substantial section of the Syrian side of their shared frontier.

Turkey also has bases and troops in Idlib, where its ally, the National Front for Liberation (NFL), is the largest and best-equipped Syrian opposition force. It is also in an uneasy truce with the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Shams (HTS) in the enclave.

Ranged against them is Assad’s Syrian Arab Army, which controls most of the country.

This is backed up by Russian special forces and airpower, along with troops from Iran and its allies, such as Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias.

Since fighting in 2020, Idlib has been relatively calm, although not without periodic shelling, air raids and rocket attacks.

This is largely due to the Astana Agreements, a series of deals between Turkey, Russia and Iran that began in 2017.

These aim to avoid a direct conflict between these powers, while also keeping the US, Europe and the Kurds out of the Syrian equation.

Yet, a comprehensive peace deal that would enable the country to move on and rebuild after 10 years of conflict has proved elusive.

A major reason for this is that the US and other Western powers have imposed sanctions on the Assad regime, with the most powerful of these being the US Cesar Act passed last year. 

“As long as there are Western sanctions, especially the Cesar Act, which target the reconstruction sector, there will be no major, comprehensive reconstruction in Syria,” says Tokmajyan. “Hardly anyone, friend or foe, wants to defy such powerful sanctions and invest.”

In order to get these sanctions lifted, Western powers have demanded political changes in return, including a new constitution, elections and, however unlikely, the removal of Assad.

With a military solution now largely off the table in Idlib thanks to the Astana Agreements and the now-formidable defenses in the enclave, the result has been a stalemate.

This has, however, also opened the way for Syria’s neighbors and others to start looking for another approach.

Economic war

This search has been particularly important to those Arab countries bordering Syria.

“Jordan and Iraq are directly impacted by the Syrian crisis,” says Sabaileh, “while Lebanon is also very connected.”

The conflict and the sanctions have been terrible for the economies in these neighboring countries, which are traditionally key trading partners with Syria.

Iraqi instability is also directly impacted by the security crisis in Syria – as is that in Lebanon, home to Hezbollah and many Syrian refugees.

At the same time, Turkey’s involvement in the country has also alarmed those Arab capitals wary of a greater Turkish presence in the region.

“In Egypt and the UAE, the initial desire to re-engage with Syria was to counter Turkey,” Sabaileh adds.

For the US and its European allies, there are also strong reasons for seeking an exit strategy from the conflict.

Syrians have been a major component of the refugees recently heading for Europe, while the millions who have settled in Turkey have been used by Ankara to pressure Brussels on more than one occasion.

For the US, “The administration is clearly talking more about Russia and China as priorities these days,” says Sabaileh, “as well as engaging with Iran in order to restart the nuclear deal. Under these circumstances, Syria is no longer a priority and more of a tactical issue.”

One sign of a potential change in Washington was the recent lifting of sanctions on two companies belonging to Syrian businessman Samer al-Foz, who is closely linked to the Assad regime.

Yet “normalization” with Damascus by Arab states is also still officially frowned upon by Washington.

On June 23, a statement from the State Department to US radio station NPR suggested all states “consider carefully the atrocities visited by the Assad regime on the Syrian people over the last decade” before reopening relations.

“While normalization with Syria is on the table in some Arab capitals,” says Tokmajyan, “it also is not certain. There is a price – and the months ahead will show what that is and whether or not Assad wants to – or can – pay.”

Meanwhile, life for many ordinary Syrians continues to be difficult, a hard fact underscored by the UN debate this week over whether or not to continue aid shipments through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing to the rebel enclave around Idlib.

“The humanitarian situation has markedly deteriorated in the past year,” Tokmajyan says. “Bab al-Hawa has been the most important crossing in northern Syria. Its closure will be felt strongly, especially in the camps for internally displaced people near the border where the most vulnerable people live.”

A last-minute deal was reached on July 9 to keep the crossing open for a further 12 months subject to a six-month review, but the clock is still ticking on efforts to turn any new approaches into lasting solutions.