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Resurgence of Syria: Reclaiming it’s Role on the Arabian Abacus – IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

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Resurgence of Syria: Reclaiming it’s Role on the Arabian Abacus - IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

Anil Trigunayat

The Invitation from the Saudi King Salman to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to attend the upcoming Arab League Summit , delivered by the Saudi Ambassador to Jordan, is a continuation of the efforts to reduce regional fault lines and present and potential conflicts .

Riyadh and its PM Crown Prince Mohammed (MBS) has undertaken significant course correction in recent times. Apart from ending the nearly four year old blockade of Qatar in 2021 at Al Ula Summit to reestablishing diplomatic ties with Iran brokered by China and also opening up to Turkey along with other GCC countries have been highly significant and could even be consequential if the serious rapprochement and principles enshrined thereunder are adhered to by all the actors. 

Riyadh is also trying to mediate between the warring factions in Sudan while successfully evacuating Saudis and foreigners from the war zone. Latest in the chain is a decade old readmission of Syria back into the Arab fold. The Saudi -Iran rapprochement seems to have had a salutary impact on the regional hotspots.

The Arab Spring since 2010-11 has claimed many dictators from Tunis to Egypt to Libya to Yemen to Algeria to Sudan. However, the project regime change fell short when it reached on the shores of Damascus even though the wrath of the people like elsewhere , against inadequate delivery by the Assad regime, was legitimate. Moreover , the external support to scrambled Free Syrian Army by regional and western powers and the high handed response of the Assad regime could have  dislodged the regime but for the Russian intervention in 2015 and the emergence of ISIL ( Islamic State in Levant).

After the Libyan debacle, the Russians had learnt their lessons . Besides in Syria they have their only warm water strategic port whose protection became a major objective and which they did and even added more to the list while regaining their heft in the region.

It has been quite evident during the Russia-Ukraine war when most regional powers declined to support the sanctions against Moscow.  Since then the Free Syrian Army ,virtually abdicated by their foreign benefactors, was completely outmaneuvered by the Assad forces. President Assad stayed on in power with the help of Russians and Iranians especially Hezbollah in Lebanon despite sweeping western sanctions. The Astana format, with Russia, Iran and Turkey on Syria  remained the fulcrum for continued engagement with the Syrian regime.

Syria, especially Assad, was shunned by the Arabs and Turks who wanted him to go .

The Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar , weaponizing their foreign policy , went with the West in Libya in the removal of Gaddafi. However, later supported their own preferred militias – mainly two warring sides there.

While Turkey and Qatar supported the Tripoli regime, others went along with General Haftar in the East. Yet again they all mounted efforts against Assad . Over time however a realization of the futility of Yemen and Syrian wars dawned upon them . The USA had placed a severe set of sanctions  against the Syrian regime in the form of Caesar’s Act. However , UAE and Oman became the first Gulf countries to normalize ties with the Assad regime and even started looking at Syrian reconstruction. The Syrian President visited the UAE in March , this year for an official visit to Abu Dhabi along with his wife.

The Iranian President also visited Damascus. Earlier in February Assad  visited Oman for the first visit in a decade  after the devastating quakes. The Saudi Foreign Minister also met President Assad and his counterpart in Damascus recently to pave the way for normalization and opening of diplomatic missions.  Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries to send relief flights to Syria in the wake of the earthquake. Qatar still had some reservations but eventually seems to have come on board to welcome Assad into the Arab league and into the mainstream.

Turkiye is yet another major player in the region whose problem with Syria emanates from the Kurdish population which spanned from Iraq to Syria to Turkey and are looking for their own homeland. In particular it targets banned YPG Kurdish militia groups inside Syria which are also said to be part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) whom the US led global coalition supported perhaps half-heartedly. 

Turkiye  along with Russians have tried to create safety corridors on the borders to prevent any attacks while it kept on attacking the YPG militias, especially preventing control in Idlib and Northern part of Syria. However, there also one sees a change for quite some time as talks of a meeting between Assad and Erdogan have been on the anvil to defuse the situation and move forward from an intractable situation . Hence the meeting of the Syrian and Turkish Foreign Ministers in Moscow is a good sign and removes another roadblock .

But one of the worst consequences of this Syrian decade old conflict has been the plight of the ordinary Syrians. The humanitarian crisis is simply catastrophic . Some 6 mn Syrian became refugees living in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey while some were taken to relocate in Canada, US and elsewhere. I have seen their plight in Jordan despite the Kingdom ‘s best efforts and resource constraints to keep them comforted .

Over 7 mn became internally displaced and the US estimated in the beginning of 2023 that 15 mn of the 22mn Syrians were in dire need of some form of humanitarian assistance. Situation got further deteriorated with the recent earthquakes where over 5000 Syrians are said to have been killed.

The western countries, especially the US and UK, have criticized the rehabilitation of Assad by the Arab League. US Lawmakers are even planning to pass an ‘ Assad -Anti Normalization Act’ sticking to the point that  Assad should be made accountable for the crimes against the Syrian people. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul reiterated that “Assad, and his Russian and Iranian backers, continue to commit horrific acts against the Syrian people and undermine regional security,”.  This could lead to continued estrangement and difficulties for Assad from the West .

However, pragmatism prevails in the region as the Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan had remarked at the Munich Security Conference that “The status quo is not working and… we need to find some other approach,” After difficult decades , most regional countries are trying for regional solutions, rather than external choices ,which might lead and add to the stability and security in the region .

Millions of the hapless Syrian refugees might find some solace in these developments and hopefully return to their homes .

The article was first published on Financial Express as Syria back on the Arabian abacus on May 15, 2023.

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