As the Syrian civil war grinds to an end, the government in Damascus, propped up by Iran and Russia, is regaining its footing, with important implications for the balance of power in the Middle East. Syria’s neighbors and powers outside the region are now attempting to determine the appropriate level of engagement, if any, to have with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. While Assad’s main foreign patrons will no doubt continue to deepen their military, political and economic ties, it is countries that stood against him over the past seven years that now have the most difficult decisions to make. If recent trends are any indication, it seems many of them are increasingly leaning toward at least some sort of engagement. The question is how to do this in a face-saving manner that doesn’t weaken their diplomatic and political standing, particularly after President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw the 2,000 American troops in Syria.
Nowhere is this calculus more evident than in Turkey. After throwing its full support behind Syrian rebels, calling Assad a “coward” and vowing to “pray at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus” following his overthrow, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be moving instead toward a gradual détente with his neighbor. Turkey and Syria have been sending signals back-and-forth in a form of tacit negotiations for several months now. Speaking at a conference in December, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, declared that Ankara would work with Assad if he were to win a “democratic election” in Syria. For their part, Syrian authorities raised the prospect of re-activating the 1998 Adana Agreement—a dormant security pact between Damascus and Ankara to counter Kurdish separatists in Syria—if Ankara withdrew its forces from northern Syria and allowed the Syrian army to regain control of Idlib province, the last remaining opposition enclave.
None of this means Ankara has to make a deal with Assad in the short term. Turkey does have some options on the table, including working with the U.S. to establish a “safe zone” in northern Syria that would provide Ankara with the buffer it needs to keep the main Kurdish militia, the YPG, at bay, although Washington and Ankara continue to disagree over the fine print of the Turkish role in the area. But taking the longer view, it’s hard to see how Ankara can deal with Syria’s Kurdish militants without coordinating with Damascus. As a case in point, Erdogan recently admitted that Turkish security agencies continue to have direct back channels to their Syrian counterparts. The Turkish government downplays the importance of these contacts, but they may offer the stepping stone toward eventual political rapprochement. And if Turkey chooses to dig in its heels in northern Syria without eventually coordinating with Assad, then the Kurds will surely further gravitate back to Assad’s orbit. Either way, it’s a win-win scenario for the Syrian regime that would boost and solidify its postwar standing.
Assad is also making significant inroads back into the Arab world. After being exiled from the Arab League seven years ago, the majority of Arab states want Damascus to be readmitted. According to some Arab diplomatic sources, only a handful of member states out of the Arab League’s 22 now actively oppose Syria’s readmission. While there may not be a consensus in time for the upcoming Arab League summit in Tunisia next month, Damascus is most likely to be back in the fold in 2020.
Arab states’ rush to engage with Syria is already creating friction with the United States and Europe.Bilateral relations are being restored as well. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have both reopened their embassies in Damascus, while Jordan has appointed a chargé d’affaires. Given those countries’ close relations with Saudi Arabia, it’s unlikely they would have acted without a wink and nod from Riyadh. For Assad’s former Arab foes, there is a counterintuitive geopolitical logic at play here: Having failed to sever Damascus’s link to Tehran through military pressure by arming Syrian rebels, they are now aiming to prevent Assad from being completely dependent on Iran by building economic linkages of their own. The goal wouldn’t be to break the Syrian-Iranian strategic alliance—all but impossible at this point—but to prevent Syria from becoming a full-fledged Iranian proxy state.
There is also pure economic self-interest to consider. After eight years of conflict, Arab states want to reopen dormant trade arteries and cash in on the many possible lucrative opportunities available as Syria is re-integrated into the regional economy and reconstruction of some form begins. After trade between Syria and Jordan resumed through the Naseeb border crossing last October, several Jordanian delegations, including contractors and engineers, have visited Syria to scope out opportunities involving public and private sector projects. Arab Gulf investors and companies are equally eager to get a slice of the rebuilding pie. Direct commercial flights are also set to resume between Syria and the UAE, Bahrain and Oman in the next few months.
But this rush to engage is already creating friction with the United States and Europe. Washington wants to extract maximum economic pain on Assad and his backers by withholding any reconstruction assistance and investments. James Jeffrey, Trump’s Syria envoy, vowed that the U.S. will do all it can to prevent regional and allied states from getting involved in postwar rebuilding in Syria “until the political process makes progress,” and that looks as unlikely as ever, to say the least. The threat of U.S. sanctions against states that do business with the Syrian government, or any company associated with it, is making many Arab investors and companies nervous. European countries are also still wary of dealings with a regime they consider to be illegitimate. Although less hawkish then Washington, the European Union recently expanded sanctions against prominent Syrian entities and business figures.
But even here, the long-term interests of Washington and Brussels may not necessarily align. While the U.S. and powerful European countries have shared the objective of removing Assad from power, European countries, because of their geographic proximity to the Middle East and the influx of Syrian refugees, are concerned about a weak Syrian state and economy that would fuel further regional instability. Javier Solana, the former EU high representative for foreign and security policy and former NATO secretary general, recently argued that the West must admit that its approach to Syria has failed and “negotiate more seriously, and at all levels.”
Of course, these diverging interests make life easier for Assad moving forward. Playing regional and global powers against each other to secure Syria’s strategic interests has been a hallmark of its foreign policy for the past four decades, perfected by Assad’s father, Hafez, over his 30-year rule.
By Progress PalmSprings who is a senior researcher and fellow with the PalmSprings Institute of International Affairs, based in Johannesburg. He is also concurrently a TV Producer for a plethora of Current Affairs shows with a reach of 790 million viewers on LoveWorldSAT.