Despite the positive nature of the progress in the normalisation of relations between Syria and the Arab world, the content and speed of this process remain unclear. Along with incentives — the desire of the states of the Middle East to strengthen sovereignty, the Iranian-Saudi “détente” and good prospects for economic cooperation, there are obstacles. The main ones are American sanctions that impede the formation of a regional platform for the reconstruction of Syria, Igor Matveev writes.
Many observers regarded decision No. 8914 of the Arab League Council at the Foreign Ministers level on May 7 at the Jeddah summit on the resumption of Syria’s participation in the Arab League, as well as the participation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the first time since 2010, as a victory for Syrian diplomacy. With reference to Assad’s speech in Jeddah, the idea was broadcast that it was not Syria that was accepted back into the “Arab family”, but that the “Arab family” had returned to Syria. In practice, this may mean attempts by Syria, where, according to Bashar al-Assad, “the heart of Arabism beats”, to revive its significant role in the Middle East. This would entail developing dialogues on security and economics with neighbours (Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon) and offering mediation in the dialogue between the Arabian monarchies and Iran, in line with the continuity of the nation’s foreign policy since the presidency of Hafez al-Assad.
The normalisation of Syria’s relations with the Arab world was the result of the gradual formation of an inter-Arab consensus on recognising the victory of the Syrian authorities in the fight against the opposition. The latter was unable to consolidate its ranks and achieve military success, degrading and losing external support. The mass flows of Syrian refugees (according to the UN data for 2023, there were 5.4 million people from Syria in neighbouring countries) have become a burden on the economies of Jordan and Lebanon. This factor, along with the increase in smuggling of the narcotic psycho-stimulant Captagon to Jordan from southern Syria, and onward to the Arab monarchies, was a catalyst for normalisation in Arab League resolution 8914 and the Final Declaration of the Arab Summit in Jeddah.
No less significant are the current de-escalation shifts in the system of international relations in the Middle East, namely, the normalisation of relations between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, the traditional rivals for influence in the region, which began with the mediation of China. The Syrian-Turkish rapprochement with the assistance of Russia may soon be another move towards peace. The chances for the implementation of the corresponding road map, which was announced after the meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran, Syria and Turkey on May 10 in Moscow, are increasing in light of statements made by Turkish President Erdogan about the possibility of his meeting with Bashar al-Assad. Another argument in favour of reconciliation between Ankara and Damascus may be their rejection of Kurdish separatism.
Is Damascus’ success real, and how quickly will practical steps follow? After all, the priority of Syrian diplomacy lies precisely in the translation of the decisions of the Arab League into a “real track”, including the “reopening” of Syria in line with the “open doors” economic policy (infitah in Arabic), which is the priority of Syrian diplomacy, and local experts talk about a lot. It is also important whether there are chances for the restoration of the Syrian economy. Will the Syrian authorities succeed, and if so, how soon will they achieve the complete lifting of the sanctions that were imposed by the Arab League on November 27, 2011? Here, Syrian observers draw attention to the principle “Everyone wins together” promoted by the country’s leadership, linking it to the establishment of mutual understanding between the Arab countries and Iran.
Since 2020, the Arab political and business circles (and not only them) have discussed the imperative of forming a regional platform for the reconstruction of Syria (RPRS) in line with the infitah. So far, however, it is not clear whether it is supposed to involve only participants from the Arab League, led by the member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), following the paradigm of “Arabisation”, which provides for the independent solution of Arab problems by the Arabs themselves. Alternately, it could also involve non-Arab powers of the Middle East (Iran, Turkey) as well as world centres of power, represented by Russia, China and India.
Another intrigue of the RPRS is whether collective cooperation mechanisms should be launched or whether a division of roles emerges between Arab actors and others. The first option is stimulated by trends in global and regional politics: the search by states for ways to strengthen sovereignty, including through multilateral diplomacy. The tangle of interests within the framework of the Middle East testifies in favour of the second one. The same Saudis are interested in the drift of Syria from Iran towards the “Arab family”, while the Iranians, on the contrary, are alarmed by the forced normalisation of relations between Damascus and Riyadh. The UAE and Egypt fear the strengthening of Turkey’s position in the event of its reconciliation with Damascus. At the same time, the Arab monarchies are still showing restraint in matters of interaction with Russia in Syria, as the author of this article was personally convinced in conversations with representatives of the political and expert circles of the UAE in October 2022.
At first glance, a number of circumstances point to an optimistic scenario. Thus, the embassy of Oman, which remained in Damascus throughout the crisis, and the diplomatic missions of the UAE and Bahrain, which resumed work in December 2018, will soon be supplemented by the embassy of Saudi Arabia. The isolation of Syria in the Arab world has never been complete.
The adoption of the May 7 resolution by the Council of the Arab League hardly took place without compromises between Syria and its Arab partners, to which the world media drew attention with reference to Egyptian diplomats. It is logical that the Arab League decisions had a quid pro quo basis. The idea all Arabs support the restoration of the country’s territorial integrity, which is extremely important for Damascus, was combined with calls to solve the refugees problem and launch an intra-Syrian dialogue (addressing, among other things, the unresolved Kurdish issue), something which is less “convenient” for the Syrian authorities.
Ultimately, all the above circumstances predetermine the multi-level and multi-speed nature of the process of normalisation in relations between Syria and the Arab world. Cooperation with Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Oman will most likely be quick. Contacts will develop at an average speed with Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, and more slowly with Jordan, which puts the solution of the refugee problem and curbing drug trafficking at the forefront. Qatar and Morocco still insist on political reforms in Syria.
Despite the restrained attitude in the GCC countries towards cooperation with Russia in Syria and the distrust between the Arab monarchies and Iran, which will take time to overcome, there are prerequisites for connecting non-Arab actors to the RPRS. The presence of Russian and Iranian military units (plus affiliated militias from Iran) in Syria at the invitation of the local authorities, whereas there are no troops from the Arab League states, is a reality that cannot be ignored. This concerns, in particular, the creation of conditions for the implementation of economic projects in the central and eastern regions of the country and on the Mediterranean coast, not to mention the still restless south.
The most powerful factor restraining the speed and scale of the process of launching the RPRS remains the unilateral restrictive measures imposed by the United States against Syria. Here it is worth mentioning the Congressional bill submitted for consideration on May 11 of this year. The “Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act of 2023” aims to expand the application of the “Caesar Act”, which threatens secondary sanctions for cooperation with the Syrian authorities. Thus, the Americans tried to put pressure on the Arabs before the Arab League summit in Jeddah, fearing that in conversations behind closed doors, the heads of state would agree on the implementation of large-scale projects in Syria with the involvement of Russia, China, Iran and Turkey (it cannot be ruled out that a number of agreements were reached).
Having come up with an anti-Syrian initiative at the legislative level, Washington outlined its “red lines” in relation to the normalisation of relations with Damascus. One gets the impression that the Americans are ready to “close their eyes” to the development of business ties with the SAR at the middle level in the “business to business” format (especially if the Arabs at least minimally take into account US concerns in the context of the Ukrainian crisis), but they object to large projects based on RPPS. In this regard, Arab observers are talking about completing the construction of the section of the Arab Gas Pipeline from Homs in central Syria to the Turkish border. In other words, the American side is not satisfied with the prospect of an early translation of the Arab League decisions from symbolic ones to a real plane.
Summing up, it should be recognised that, despite the positive nature of the progress in the normalisation of relations between Syria and the Arab world, the content and speed of this process remain unclear. Along with incentives — the desire of the states of the Middle East to strengthen sovereignty, the Iranian-Saudi “détente” and good prospects for economic cooperation, there are obstacles. The main ones are American sanctions that impede the formation of a regional platform for the reconstruction of Syria.