Conditional Arab “initiative” or individual endeavors: “door ajar” in front of al-Assad

Sultan of Oman Haitham bin Tariq Al Said receives the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, in Muscat - February 20, 2023 (SANA)

Conditional Arab “initiative” or individual endeavors: “door ajar” in front of al-Assad

Sultan of Oman Haitham bin Tariq Al Said receives the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, in Muscat - February 20, 2023 (SANA)

Sultan of Oman Haitham bin Tariq Al Said receives the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, in Muscat - February 20, 2023 (SANA)

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Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

With the increase in the number of those on the agenda of rapprochement with the Syrian regime, starting with the UAE and ending with Saudi Arabia, passing through Egypt, observers are anxiously awaiting what public and behind-the-scenes efforts will lead to regarding the so-called “Jordan initiative” or the “Arab initiative” and its conditions.

At the beginning of this year, other Arab countries joined the ranks of normalizers, including Saudi Arabia, whose ambassador to the United Nations had previously raised the slogan “Do not believe them,” referring to the Syrian regime.

Leaks and news from mostly undisclosed sources indicate what is similar to the “ajar door” policy, as it is not possible to say for sure about the circumstances of reconciliation or rapprochement between Arab countries and the Syrian regime, especially Syria’s return to the Arab League and its participation in the summit to be held on May 19, without an official announcement from Saudi Arabia, the host country of the summit, which makes Riyadh’s moves an indication of what is going on behind the scenes.

In this weekly file, Enab Baladi discusses with researchers and experts the latest wave of Arab rapprochement with the Syrian regime and its potential impact on stopping the conflict that has been going on for more than 12 years, with the support of the same parties seeking rapprochement today.

The initiative background

The term “Jordanian initiative” was mentioned in the latest statement issued by the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs on its position on the Syrian file, on March 23, in reference to an Arab role that engages with the Syrian regime in a political dialogue with the aim of reaching a solution to the “Syrian crisis.”

The launch of this term dates back to 2016 when Jordan tried to propose solutions to settle the Syrian file, and the Hashemite Kingdom succeeded in obtaining an American exemption from preventing trade exchange with Syria, to reopen, in October 2018, the Naseeb border crossing between the two countries, but the initiative stopped at this point, and was not reflected in the reality of the region.

The Jordanian expert in strategic security, Omar al-Raddad, told Enab Baladi that the “Jordanian initiative,” as described by the Jordanian foreign minister, was not new.

The initiative was proposed by the Jordanian King Abdullah II with the American president two years ago due to the increase in drug smuggling and the security threats that Jordan faced on the one hand and coincided with Jordan’s desire for economic openness and the project to pass gas and electricity to Lebanon through Jordan on the other hand.

The “Jordanian initiative” did not see the light at that time, and it failed for various reasons, according to al-Raddad.

With the Saudi rapprochement and the official Egyptian visit to Syria last February, it became necessary to answer whether the initiative was the same as that launched in 2016, or if what is being talked about is a new initiative.

The researcher at the Syrian Dialogue Center, Muhammad Salem, told Enab Baladi that according to information and reports he had seen, there is no unified and crystallized Arab initiative, but rather “vague, broad lines centering on rapprochement with the regime.”

Salem mentioned that the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement is linked to action at the Arab level and that the Arabs’ lack of confidence in the regime prompted them to deal with it in a “step by step” manner, which was felt by Western diplomats who met with Arab officials recently in Amman, according to Salem.

It cannot be said that what is being described today as the “Jordanian initiative” or the “Arab initiative” is a spur of the moment. Rather, it was linked to previous initiatives that did not fall on deaf ears in Damascus, given the frequent statements and leaks about a Syrian-Saudi rapprochement and the frequent visits of Arab officials; among them are the Emirati and Egyptian foreign ministers to Damascus and Jordan’s desire to create negotiating paths, the researcher concludes.

Arab leaders participating in the Algiers summit - November 1, 2022 (Arab summit website)

Arab leaders participating in the Algiers summit – November 1, 2022 (Arab summit website)

Incomplete approach

Maan Talaa, a researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, believes that the “Jordanian initiative” or the “Arab initiative” is an indication of a political approach in the region, especially the Arab countries, but this path has not yet been actually completed.

The initial features of this approach appear to be that it aims to find a settlement for the Syrian file without a central role for the United States, and at the same time, requires Washington not to oppose it, in addition to ensuring Russia’s approval, says Talaa.

One of the most important requirements for advancing this approach is putting the refugee issue on the table, as well as the set of measures required by the Syrian regime, in addition to finding a broader definition of the concept of “reconciliation” with regard to the military forces deployed in the Syrian geography and supported by other countries, according to the researcher.

Talaa believes that this approach may put the regime in front of challenges to encourage stability factors and adapt to the results of the current reality.

The researcher at the Century International Foundation for Research and International Policy, who specializes in Syrian affairs, Sam Heller, believes that it is not correct or necessary to have an Arab initiative, and it is likely that the new directions were formed as a result of a group of uncoordinated and unilateral initiatives.

Given that Jordan settled its relations with the Syrian regime according to a “step by step” approach, the matter was different for the Emirates, which unconditionally settled its relations with the regime, according to what Heller told Enab Baladi.

He added that the “big question” now is to what extent Saudi Arabia chooses to go in its settlement with the regime, especially since Riyadh is actually able to mobilize other Arab countries behind it in a systematic and collective manner, which differs from previous initiatives and what Jordan cannot do.

The latest entrant

On March 24, the Saudi newspaper Okaz published the stages of normalization of Riyadh’s relations with Damascus, quoting an unnamed official in the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The stages of rapprochement begin with the exchange of consular representation between the two capitals and the restoration of relations between the two countries in exchange for Damascus’ pledge to reform the internal situation and the relationship with the opposition, and three other steps related to the regime’s control of drug smuggling operations from the Syrian territories to Jordan.

A few days before that, The Wall Street Journal leaked that Arab countries were seeking to remove Syria from its isolation in return for complying with a set of requests.

Arab demands centered on limiting Iranian influence and cordoning off drug smuggling (Captagon) to Jordan, as well as allowing Arab protection for Syrian refugees upon their return to the country, according to the newspaper.

The Wall Street quoted an advisor to the Syrian regime and unnamed European and Arab officials as saying that al-Assad did not show any interest in offering any political reform or allowing the entry of Arab forces to protect refugees.

Saudi Arabia has been absent from the Syrian arena for years, as it no longer supports a specific military faction or party, and its participation in the Syrian file was limited to political statements and some diplomatic moves.

The recent return of Saudi Arabia after the Beijing Summit in China showed signs of resolving its outstanding differences with Iran, bringing it closer to the limits of normalization with the Syrian regime. This was manifested in what Reuters reported on unnamed officials that Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan, will head to Damascus in the coming weeks to hand al-Assad an official invitation to attend the Arab summit scheduled to be held on May 19 in Riyadh.

Nader Khalil, a fellow researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, told Enab Baladi that Saudi Arabia has several possible goals in trying to enter the Syrian file line, one of which may be to sense the mediation of the Syrian regime between Tehran and Riyadh in some way, regarding the Houthi file in Yemen, whose prolongation has become troubling Saudi Arabia. 

Saudi Arabia and other countries, such as the UAE, are seeking to explore opportunities or possibilities to enter the arena of investing influence in Syria, mostly in exchange for economical financing, according to the researcher.

What Iran proposed to Saudi Arabia can be described as proceeding within the principle of “support my ally in Damascus, in exchange for trimming the nails of my ally in Yemen,” given that there is no rupture between Iran and Saudi Arabia after today, in reference to concessions made by Saudi Arabia in the Syrian file in exchange for concessions made by Iran in the Yemeni file, according to Khalil.

The Saudi researcher and political analyst Mubarak al-Aati told Enab Baladi that Saudi Arabia’s latest step in settling its relations with Syria aims to achieve a breakthrough in the “stalemate” in Saudi-Syrian relations and Arab-Arab relations.

He added that many benefits can be achieved as a result of this rapprochement, the most important of which is stopping the dispute between Riyadh and Damascus, finding ways out of a number of outstanding issues, and breaking the ice between the two capitals.

Al-Aati believes that one of the most prominent benefits that Riyadh may turn to today is finding solutions to the security issue related to drug smuggling into the Kingdom and issues of cross-border terrorism, as Saudi Arabia will take it upon itself to find solutions to it during the upcoming talks.

The Saudi researcher firmly believes that the recent rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia was an important and pivotal agreement in the history of the region’s relations as a whole, given the influence of the two countries on a number of events and files in the region, starting with the Syrian file.

He added that the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement had a “positive impact” on a number of files, including Syria.

And according to what the Saudi newspaper Okaz reported, on March 26, about Hossam Zaki, the Assistant Secretary-General and supervisor for the affairs of the Arab League Council, that the 32nd Arab summit is expected to be held in Saudi Arabia on May 19.

Prior to this, in early March, was the speech of the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, about the lack of Arab consensus on the return of Syria to the League.

He pointed out that there is no road map or clear vision of how to deal with the Syrian file within the framework of the Arab League.

On April 12, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad landed in the Saudi city of Jeddah in the first visit by a senior Syrian diplomat to the kingdom in more than a decade, a major sign that Syria’s regional isolation is nearing an end, Reuters reported.

In a joint statement at the end of the visit, both sides agreed on the need for the Syrian state to assert its control over all its territories “and end the presence of armed militias.”

The two ministers also discussed the steps needed for a political settlement to the Syrian crisis that contributes to “Syria’s return to its Arab environment” and said they would enhance cooperation on combating drug trafficking, according to Reuters. 

Mekdad’s trip to Jeddah came two days before Saudi Arabia hosts another meeting of regional foreign ministers that will discuss Syria’s return to the Arab League.

Saudi Arabia plans to invite al-Assad to the Arab League summit Riyadh is scheduled to host on May 19, a move that would formally end his regional isolation, sources have told Reuters, though it is unclear if there is Arab consensus on the matter.

What about Qatar?

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are among the most prominent countries that have called for the overthrow of the Syrian regime over the past 12 years, but since the second half of 2022, there has been a change in the Turkish position, leading to a meeting that brought together the two deputy foreign ministers of Turkey and the Syrian regime in Moscow, on April 4, within the quartet meetings, which Russia supported and paved the way for.

The Turkish turn was followed by a Saudi one, with the announcement of the start of rapprochement with the Syrian regime at the end of last February.

The Qatari position maintained its steadfastness on its own alongside Arab countries that have less influence in the file, such as Morocco and Kuwait, as Doha set parameters and conditions for bringing about any change in its policy in the Syrian file.

On March 23, the Advisor to the Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs and official spokesperson for the ministry, Dr. Majed al-Ansari, stressed that the State of Qatar’s stance on the Syrian crisis is crystal clear, yet it is driven by two factors; first, the Syrian regime does what satisfies the aspirations of the Syrian people, and the second is the Arab consensus regarding those moves, according to the Qatar news agency.

Egypt, quiet steps

On April 1, the regime’s foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, met with the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, in the first official visit to Egypt since the start of the revolution in 2011.

Regarding the reasons for the visit, an Egyptian security source told Reuters that it “aims to set steps for Syria’s return to the Arab League through Egyptian and Saudi mediation.”

The visit came, according to the official Syrian media, at the invitation of the Egyptian foreign minister to hold discussions related to strengthening bilateral relations between the two countries and to discuss the latest developments in the region and the world without mentioning other details.

A few days preceded Shoukry’s first visit in ten years to Syria to meet with Mekdad to “deliver a message of solidarity” following the earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey, as this visit was a starting point for signs of Arab relations with the regime, under the umbrella of the humanitarian situation left by the earthquake.

The political and strategic researcher at al-Ahram Center for Studies, Karam Saeed, told Enab Baladi that the inclination of the Arab countries towards returning Syria to its Arab surroundings is linked to the Arab endeavor to neutralize what he called “Western pressures” on it.

Saeed added that many pressures are being exerted by the United States and Western countries on the Arab powers with regard to internal human rights files and others related to settling “thorny files” related to the Arab region.

The researcher believes that Egypt is trying today to play a role in the Syrian settlement to restore its political role in the Arab world, and this can be seen by monitoring Egyptian moves to enhance its role in the Libyan file or the rest of the other Arab conflicts.

Saeed indicated that the first visit that Sameh Shoukry made to Syria, early last February, was an affirmation that Egypt could play an important role in the Syrian file, starting with the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and even in the file of the Syrian-Turkish rapprochement.

The Egyptian-Syrian mutual visits were interpreted by Saeed as a desire on both sides to restore relations and raise the chances of rapprochement between them in the coming period.

Saeed believes that Egypt has a vision in the context of a political solution in Syria based on the participation of all local parties in any future solutions and the country’s territorial integrity, which he considered targeted by a group of regional countries.

Senior Arab parliamentarians participating in the 34th Conference of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union in Baghdad - February 25, 2023 (WAM)

Senior Arab parliamentarians participating in the 34th Conference of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union in Baghdad – February 25, 2023 (WAM)

Why now?

For more than a decade since the Syrian revolution, most countries interested in Syrian affairs have always believed that the regime, with its military and security arms, committed “war crimes” against the Syrian people.

The Arab positions, with the exception of Iraq, Lebanon, and Algeria, focused on supporting the Syrian people and the demands that they had called for since 2011. However, the change of positions was prompted by a number of political changes, most notably the passage of 12 years without a tangible change in the Syrian file.

Sam Heller, a researcher specializing in Syrian affairs, believes that the most important fact that changed the formula for dealing with the Syrian file today is the passage of 12 years since the file turned into a crisis in the region.

The Beirut-based analyst added to Enab Baladi that the February earthquake was a “turning point” and the moment when countries that were already inclined to restore relations with Damascus decided to say that this was enough and that the right time to move forward with normalization has arrived.

In order for the new change in the Syrian file not to be read as a change in the international community’s position on the regime, we need to be clear about the identity of the international community here, as it seems that some regional countries, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have decided to review their policies in Syria, but a number of key countries, including the United States, Britain, France, and Germany, continued to reject normalization with the regime.

Sam Heller, analyst and fellow at Century International

Syrian file obstructs region’s affairs

It is not possible to talk about the Syrian file today without touching on a group of countries, political tracks, and even other files that share influence with the situation in Syria, such as the economic file in Lebanon, the security file in Jordan, the military file in Yemen, and the sharing of influence in Iraq.

The overlap of influence in these countries is because the countries influencing them often have political and military influence that makes their convergence or divergence reversed in these files.

Maan Talaa, a researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, told Enab Baladi that the Syrian file is now seen as “obstructing several development files and projects in the region,” and this influence extends to development requirements in Jordan, for example.

Among the most prominent of these files is what is related to the extension of the gas pipeline to Lebanon through Syria, in addition to the initial plan for reconstruction, which prompted Jordan to launch an initiative in this regard, according to Talaa.

The researcher believes that the international and regional alignments formed by the Ukrainian war made it impossible to find a solution to the Syrian file through the Geneva Talks, and therefore the possible scenario is “geographical entrenchment” (maintaining the status quo) in the region.

In addition, drug smuggling to Jordan on the security level, and arms smuggling to Lebanon in the context of Iranian activity in Syria, is matched by Saudi influence in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Houthi group.

Iran and Saudi Arabia also compete in Lebanon through their support for several parties, as is the case in Iraq.

Faltered American position

One day after news of the Saudi rapprochement with the regime came out to the public, the US State Department commented that the US position on normalization with the regime had not changed.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, quoted by al-Hurra TV, said in a statement, “We will not normalize relations with the Assad regime, and we will not encourage others to normalize in the absence of real and lasting progress towards a political solution in line with Security Council Resolution No. 2254.”

It was preceded by a European response to inquiries sent by Enab Baladi in an email by the European Union spokesperson, Luis Miguel Bueno, saying that the Union will not accept the marginalization of the political track and its position will not be reduced to the inability of normalization before the Syrian regime engages in a political transition process and the full implementation of the Security Council’s decision No. 2254.

The Syrian dissident and former head of the opposition’s National Coalition, Nasr al-Hariri, told Enab Baladi that the absence of American influence in the Syrian file during the past years made threats of rapprochement with the Syrian regime a “message to America.”

He added that some Arab countries today view the Syrian file as a problem in the region, with the absence of any effective American attempt to find a solution to the file in order to come up with paths to restore relations with the regime.

Al-Hariri believes that the state of dissatisfaction with the American neglect of the Syrian issue is no longer confined to the Syrian people only, but its shadows have seeped into the kitchens of Arab politics.

Researcher Talaa also believes that what he described as “American slackness in managing the region’s files” is considered the most important factor in bringing about changes in international positions towards the Syrian regime.

He added that the developments related to the Iranian nuclear file and the Israeli security files have created a margin that China and Russia can exploit.

The Saudi-Syrian rapprochement is one of the results of the recent improvement in diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which took place with Chinese mediation in the capital, Beijing.

Iranian politicians have previously met with other Saudis, in the presence of the Syrian ambassador in Baghdad, at the end of last March.

The head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, meets the delegation of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union in Damascus - February 26, 2023 (SANA)

The head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, meets the delegation of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union in Damascus – February 26, 2023 (SANA)

The absence of a serious American position on the region prompted many countries, including Saudi Arabia, to propose a path of rapprochement with the Syrian regime as a message to Washington, through which they protest against the deadlock in the file.

Nasr al-Hariri, Former President of the opposition Syrian National Coalition

How about “2254”

With regard to Security Council Resolution 2254, which is still mentioned in statements from European and American platforms, researcher Nader al-Khalil said that the international resolution stipulates a political transition and elections under UN auspices, and its implementation remains a possibility if there is a prior understanding that al-Assad and his regime remain within the structure of government according to what could be called the Syrian “Taif” agreement (referring to the agreement that ended the Lebanese civil war in 1989), but not political sectarianism like the Lebanese case.

Khalil added that the major problem remains in America, which is dealing with the Syrian file according to the principle of “managing and perpetuating the crisis,” and it does not seem that it wants to find a solution to it so far.

The researcher believes that resolving the Syrian crisis does not directly serve American interests, as it means a regional settlement involving Iran and the Gulf, which does not serve the interests of Washington, which is betting on the continuation of the crisis in the region, with the aim of keeping all parties under its indirect influence, while they are forced to accept its existence or remain in need to it.

Thus, it appears that America is the one who has placed a “veto” on a settlement in Syria so far, according to Khalil.

He added that politics and the interests of countries do not carry constants, as American policy is not fixed and subject to change according to the data and its interests, especially if it is entered into the understandings in a way that serves its interests.

‘Slim’ chance of success

The researcher at the Syrian Dialogue Center, Muhammad Salem, told Enab Baladi that he does not see chances for the success of any integrated initiative. Rather, some exchange of interests may occur in a limited way, such as the file of Saudi detainees held by the regime and the exchange of consulates.

Regarding the reason for discussing the initiative, Salem said that the issue is related to the American “climate of hesitation and weak commitment” to the Middle East, as countries see that “the American time is running out,” allowing the emergence of new international and regional players such as Russia, China, and Iran, who are now imposing a “reality that must be dealt with.”

The researcher based his analysis on the weakness of the Arab approach to the West when Saudi Arabia did not respond to the American request to increase oil production, which represented a position closer to Russia practically in light of the Western conflict with Russia in Ukraine.

The Jordanian expert in strategic security, Omar al-Raddad, believes that what combines the Arab initiative and other similar previous initiatives is the return of the regime to the Arab League in exchange for its removal from Iran, and according to the regime’s alliance relationship with Iran, al-Raddad believes that Damascus will not easily give up this relationship.

The foreign ministers of Syria and Egypt in the Syrian capital, Damascus - February 2023 (SANA)

The foreign ministers of Syria and Egypt in the Syrian capital, Damascus – February 2023 (SANA)

Will the Syrian regime respond?

Numerous international initiatives launched during the past years ended without effect or were thwarted by the conditions of the influential parties.

Dr. Nasr al-Hariri considered that an integrated initiative had not yet been formed, and it was likely that the recent changes would be moves without specific prerequisites in the form of an initiative.

He added that this “wave” of political moves cannot differ from its predecessors and is likely to meet the same fate, especially with the regime’s adherence to one-sided solutions.

The researcher at the Omran Center, Talaa, believes that the administration and will of the Syrian regime do not exist with regard to any entitlement outside the framework of “government challenges.”

“The regime cannot deal with any of the files of the return of refugees, judicial reforms, restructuring, or the file of detainees, outside the framework of being files managed by the regime’s government, not on the basis of a “national merit,” says Talaa.

The researcher also indicated that the regime’s behavior indicates that it is about to repeat a series of amnesty decrees for some detainees, which confirms that they are “formal” procedures related to the negotiation file and do not reflect what is actually happening on the ground.

As for the return of the refugees, Talaa believes that the regime is not ready for such a step, especially since it sees the Syrian refugees as its opponents and considered their departure from the country as “self-cleaning.”

In view of the countries involved in the new trend towards rapprochement with the regime, the file of Iranian weapons in the Syrian geography will be present, which the regime cannot actually deal with.

Although the regime has partial authority to talk about this file, the Iranian presence in Syria remains rooted in several political, economic, real estate, and security tracks within the regime system.

Given the previous data, the possibility of removing the regime from Iran after the last 12 years has become almost impossible, according to Talaa.

During his visit to Russia in mid-March, the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, told “Russia Today” channel that talks about a Syrian-Iranian relationship that must be severed “is no longer raised with Syria,” adding that there is “loyalty between Syria and Iran. It is four decades old, and this issue is no longer a problem on the Arab scene.”

The Syrian regime is currently standing before a “historic” opportunity offered by Riyadh, and it must interact positively and quickly with it so as not to lose this file.

Mubarak al-Aati, Saudi researcher and political analyst

The Saudi researcher, Mubarak al-Aati, believes that the opportunity for the regime’s rapprochement with Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, could open the possibility for it to return to its Arab surroundings through the “Great Gate,” in reference to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

At the same time, no step in this rapprochement can be taken if the regime does not take a positive step and show its “goodwill” and its seriousness towards other countries, according to the researcher.

Al-Aati also said that the Syrian regime is now facing a “historic” opportunity that Riyadh has made available to it, and it must interact positively and quickly with it so as not to lose this file.

“The Syrian regime is currently facing a “historic” opportunity offered by Riyadh, and it must interact positively and quickly with it so as not to lose this file.”

 

 

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