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Jan 04 2019

Icy relations between Syria and Arab countries thaw

The thaw in relations between Arab states and Syria has already begun. First, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir visited Damascus. Then, last week, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) reopened its embassy after seven years. In a tweet last week, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash called for Arab states to take a stronger role in the region to counterbalance Turkey and Iran. 

One day after the UAE reopened its embassy, Bahrain announced work was underway to open its own embassy in Damascus. Now there is news that Syria’s suspension from the Arab League might be lifted. It seems likely other Arab states will normalise relations with Syria one way or another. 

There is a saying that goes, “there can be no war in the Middle East without Egypt, and no peace without Syria”. It alludes to the fact that Syria sometimes can play the role of a spoilsport. Syria has not hesitated to play this negative role, but it does not seem to have affected its reputation among other Arab states. 

Almost none of the problems between Syria and the other Arab states are likely to damage their vital national interests. Syria’s relations with the other Arab countries during the Arab spring uprisings of 2011 did not deteriorate because of their bilateral problems, but because of the extra-regional countries’ stakes in Syria. Naturally, each Arab country is evaluating the ongoing developments in Syria according to its own interests. 

The root cause of the Syrian crisis is the revolt of the Sunnis, who make up the bulk of the population, against the Alawites and other minorities who have held power under the Assad dynasty. For that reason, it is normal for Sunni Arab countries to have supported the Sunni opposition. But since the backbone of this opposition was made up of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Gulf Arab countries tempered their support for the opposition in such a way as to encourage those elements within the opposition who did not support the Muslim Brotherhood, in order to counter the group’s influence. There is another factor which makes this dilemma even more complex: against the wishes of the governments of Gulf countries, some of their wealthy citizens took it upon themselves to individually offer financial support to Muslim Brotherhood groups in Syria. 

With the 2013 overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, there are no major foreign policy issues outstanding between the Egyptian and Syrian leaderships. Therefore, there is no major barrier to the normalisation of relations between the two countries. 

There are also no major issues of note between the Syrian leadership and more distant countries of the Maghreb. Therefore, there is no foreseeable barrier to normalisation with them either. 

If Arab countries do undergo a rapprochement with Syria, this could make the European Union’s Syrian policy easier. The EU once declared Syrian President Bashar Assad should not be allowed to continue as leader and has been searching for a way to take a step back. The decision-making mechanisms of the EU are unwieldy and there are some countries in the EU that have resolved that Assad must not play any role in Syria, while there are other more pragmatic member countries who believe that any alternative to the president would create more chaos. Despite these details, it seems likely that they will all agree that it is not for any other nation but the people of Syria to decide whether Assad should stay or go. 

The first sign of how the thaw in relations between Syria and Arab states will affect Turkey was given in Gargash’s tweet. If Syria rejoins the Arab League, then it could join Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, except Qatar, in calls at the Arab League for Turkey to pull out of Syrian territory. Pressure would increase in other forums as well. 

In addition, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) armed by the United States has become a significant and powerful force. At the moment, Russia is making every effort not to antagonise Turkey, but it may still try to convince the government in Damascus to grant a level of autonomy to the Syrian Kurds. This means planting of seed of a Kurdish entity in northeastern Syria. Under the right conditions, this seed may lead to a referendum for independence similar to that which was carried out in Iraq in September. In the long term, if those who will design Turkish foreign policy must take this into account.

With regards to the Kurdish issue, Turkey and Syria have many overlapping interests so need to set aside the emotional and sectarian factors that weigh heavily on their relations and focus on this important development.

Meanwhile, it appears that Turkey is the most hesitant to normalise relations with Syria. At the moment, Syria does not see any need to be stubborn, but when the time comes it is likely that Syria will be more demanding of Turkey.