Official Arab move towards Damascus revives closed political channels
Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud
The devastating earthquake that struck the Turkish state of Kahramanmaraş and four Syrian provinces, with 48,000 fatalities, opened the door wide for the Syrian regime’s intense political movements and activities following the catastrophe.
These movements were signaled since the first days of the earthquake, which were punctuated by telegrams of condolence from leaders and officials of Arab countries to the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad.
The subsequent visits constituted a quantum leap in the dealings of some countries with the regime, especially since they came after a continuous estrangement since the beginning of the revolution in Syria.
Al-Assad’s visit on February 20 to the Sultanate of Oman is a milestone in these moves, as it is the second visit of the head of the Syrian regime to an Arab country since 2011, after the UAE in 2022.
The visit, which began with an official reception from the Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, included in its short schedule, which lasted only hours, a session of political discussions that produced an Omani affirmation of Syria’s support in overcoming the effects of the earthquake, and the repercussions of the “war and siege imposed on the Syrian people.”
It also included a session of closed talks between al-Assad and his host, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said.
Al-Assad’s visit to Oman was accompanied by Arab political messages that came from more than one country, suggesting a softer attitude towards al-Assad as the Syrian revolution approaches its 12th year.
It was preceded one day by the statements of the Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan, during the “Munich Security Conference 2023”, during which he affirmed that there is an Arab consensus that the situation in Syria should not continue.
The Saudi minister also touched on the need to address the situation of Syrian refugees abroad and the humanitarian aspect at home.
During his speech at the World Summit of Governments on February 13, the Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, presented a “message of solidarity” with Syria, in which he asked the Emirati president not to forget Syria.
And in line with the official Egyptian position on El-Sisi’s lips, an Egyptian ship arrived last week at the port of Latakia, loaded with about 500 tons of medical, food, and living aid, according to what was reported by the Syrian state TV, according to the Chargé d’Affaires of the Egyptian Embassy in Damascus.
Egypt’s foreign minister Monday met with al-Assad in Damascus and promised to deliver more aid to the quake-hit country.
Sameh Shoukry is Egypt’s most senior official to visit Syria since 2011, a day after Cairo’s parliament speaker, Hanafy el-Gebaly, and a delegation of top Arab lawmakers visited al-Assad in a push to end Syria’s political isolation, the AP reported.
Along with al-Assad’s visit to Oman, there was talk of an upcoming visit by the Saudi foreign minister to Damascus, which was dismissed, but then returned to the fore through the Intelligence Online website, which considered that “Saudi Arabia and Syria’s secret normalization process has been brought into the open by recent Saudi deliveries of humanitarian aid to areas of Syria controlled by al-Assad, an initiative that paves the way for more direct diplomatic contact.”
On February 23, Al-Modon website published what it said were ten conditions that Riyadh seeks from al-Assad to move to political negotiation.
It included the release of dozens of detainees, including politicians, and serious negotiation with the opposition to reach a political agreement in accordance with Security Council Resolution 2254 and moving towards a broad constitutional amendment that guarantees the formation of a transitional body.
The Saudi conditions also included not signing more strategic agreements with Iran on the level of economy and real estate and removing Iranian forces from the Syrian border with Jordan.
Among the conditions are also the disclosure of drug manufacturing factories and the mechanism for exporting them from Syria, negotiating the entry of Arab forces to control the borders, and securing safe areas under Arab and international supervision to return the refugees to their cities.
Regarding the timing of al-Assad’s visit to Muscat, which came at a time when the earthquake-affected areas had not yet healed their wounds, Ayman al-Dassouky, a researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, says al-Assad’s visit is accompanied by a state of disagreement between the United States and Iran, and a US-Russian dispute in Ukraine.
“This gave the regime “margins” for foreign movement through the Gulf gate in order to avoid the consequences of the international division on the Syrian file and to achieve political and economic gains,” al-Dassouky added.
At the same time, the researcher pointed to the state of political balance in the Sultanate of Oman in dealing with the Syrian regime on the one hand and the Gulf countries that reject it on the other, which gives it the ability to convey potential messages to countries that are still closing their doors to al-Assad, in addition to the possibility of working on softening the position of these countries.
On the second day of the earthquake, February 7, al-Assad received a phone call from the Sultan of Oman, in which he expressed the solidarity of Oman and its people with the Syrian people as a result of the earthquake disaster, offering condolences to al-Assad and the Syrians in general and the families of the victims, according to the official news agency, SANA.
Unlike the Gulf countries in particular and most Arab countries, the Sultanate of Oman did not cut off its political relationship with the Syrian regime in 2011 and appointed the first Gulf ambassador to Damascus during the revolution in 2020.
There were many ministerial visits to Syria after the earthquake occurred, with both parts, the usual ones from countries that have political relations with the regime and others that came for the first time in the chaos of the earthquake, with the lax European and American position welcoming the transfer of aid, without yet addressing the issue of normalization, although there were previous tests when the UAE deepened its relationship with the regime, which did not result in anything more than “discouragement” from the American side.
On February 21, Abdul Rahman Bin Mohammed Al Owais, the health minister in the United Arab Emirates, visited the earthquake-affected sites in the coastal city of Jableh in Latakia governorate.
This visit was preceded, on February 12, by the visit of the Emirati Foreign Minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, to Syria as well, and meeting with al-Assad.
Bin Zayed toured some areas affected by the earthquake, in addition to persuading him to pass aid to northwestern Syria through two additional crossings, as Reuters reported.
These two visits were preceded, interspersed, and followed by Emirati aid planes to regime-controlled areas on a daily basis, to reach more than 93 planes until February 23.
For the first time since 2011, the Jordanian Foreign Minister, Ayman Safadi, visited Damascus on February 15 and met with his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, and al-Assad, and discussed efforts to reach a political solution that would end the crisis and the catastrophe, according to the Jordanian “Kingdom” Tv channel.
Al-Assad also received, on February 8, a Lebanese ministerial delegation headed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdullah Bou Habib, and commissioned by the caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati.
The Lebanese step does not deviate from the normal relations of the two sides, but at the same time, it added to the record of simultaneous Arab visits to expand the scope of political activity.
Bilal Salaymeh, a Ph.D. researcher in International relations, believes that the earthquake gave the regime an opportunity to restore or re-promote the narrative of “the need to work for the reconstruction of Syria,” regardless of the political conditions set by some countries.
Salaymeh told Enab Baladi that the political repercussions of the earthquake fall into two directions. The first allowed countries willing and looking for an opportunity to reach or “demarcate” these relations if they existed (the Sultanate of Oman, for example).
However, in the second direction, it posed a dilemma for countries that rejected rapprochement in dealing with the effects of the earthquake.
There is a responsibility and a demand to work towards the human dimension, and there is also a refusal to invest in the politically positioned regime, as it is pushing to change the current narrative in order to bypass the conditions of reconstruction entrusted to the political process, says Salaymeh.
Although some Arab countries initially opposed normalization with the Syrian regime, the consequences of the earthquake and the political rush of some countries towards al-Assad, and the regime’s restoration of the political platform, prompted countries to think about dealing with al-Assad outside the current framework related to the political process.
The Saudi foreign minister’s statements at the Munich conference are in this context, according to Salaymeh.
Despite the closeness of the UAE and the Sultanate of Oman to the regime, and the Saudi statements that were interpreted as insinuations, the Gulf position remains divided towards al-Assad.
Qatar is still on the other side, and the Kuwaiti Foreign Minister, Salem Abdullah Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, affirmed at the Munich conference that Kuwait’s position on the regime is firm, and there are no plans for normalization after the earthquake.
The researcher considered that the earthquake constituted an accelerating factor for willing countries and opened the door to relations that may not appear clearly, by activating political channels that may start at a low level of intelligence or diplomacy.
The visits of UN officials to Syria and the meeting with al-Assad may have been pressure factors on the US and the EU, which refuse rapprochement with the regime, which was translated on the ground through exemptions issued for six months in the context of activating the humanitarian response.
Despite the previous and continuous efforts to achieve greater rapprochement and the state of “uncertainty” about the regime’s return to the League of Arab States at the time, Bilal Salaymeh ruled out that the current moves would contribute to the regime’s return to the League during the current year, at the very least.
The massive earthquake caused the death of 1,414 people in regime-controlled areas and 2,274 people in northwestern Syria, which the regime has dealt with as a political “gamble” since day one, by searching for privileges and political deals in the rubble of Syrian homes that were shattered, firstly by the bombing and secondly by the earthquake.
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