by Iyad Dakka
from WorldPoliticsReview Website
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,
Aleppo, Syria, Dec. 24, 2018
(Photo by Mikhail Voskresenskiy for Sputnik via AP).
Syria's neighbors and powers outside the region are now attempting to determine the appropriate level of engagement, if any, to have with President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
While Assad's main foreign patrons will no doubt continue to deepen their military, political and economic ties, it is countries that stood against him over the past seven years that now have the most difficult decisions to make.
If recent trends are any indication, it seems many of them are increasingly leaning toward at least some sort of engagement.
The question is how to do
this in a face-saving manner that doesn't weaken their diplomatic
and political standing, particularly after President
Donald Trump's abrupt decision
to withdraw the 2,000 American troops
After throwing its full support behind Syrian rebels, calling Assad a "coward" and vowing to "pray at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus" following his overthrow, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be moving instead toward a gradual détente with his neighbor.
Turkey and Syria have been sending signals back-and-forth in a form of tacit negotiations for several months now.
Speaking at a conference in December, Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, declared that Ankara would work with Assad if he were to win a "democratic election" in Syria.
For their part, Syrian
raised the prospect of
re-activating the 1998 Adana Agreement - a dormant security pact
between Damascus and Ankara to counter Kurdish separatists in Syria
- if Ankara withdrew its forces from northern Syria and allowed the
Syrian army to regain control of Idlib province, the last remaining
Turkey does have some options on the table, including working with the U.S. to establish a "safe zone" in northern Syria that would provide Ankara with the buffer it needs to keep the main Kurdish militia, the YPG, at bay, although Washington and Ankara continue to disagree over the fine print of the Turkish role in the area.
But taking the longer view, it's hard to see how Ankara can deal with Syria's Kurdish militants without coordinating with Damascus.
As a case in point, Erdogan recently admitted that Turkish security agencies continue to have direct back channels to their Syrian counterparts.
The Turkish government downplays the importance of these contacts, but they may offer the stepping stone toward eventual political rapprochement. And if Turkey chooses to dig in its heels in northern Syria without eventually coordinating with Assad, then the Kurds will surely further gravitate back to Assad's orbit.
Either way, it's a
win-win scenario for the Syrian regime that would boost and solidify
its postwar standing.
While there may not be a
consensus in time for the upcoming Arab League summit in Tunisia
next month, Damascus is most likely to be back in the fold in 2020.
rush to engage with Syria
is already creating friction
with the United
States and Europe.
The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have both reopened their embassies in Damascus, while Jordan has appointed a chargé d'affaires. Given those countries' close relations with Saudi Arabia, it's unlikely they would have acted without a wink and nod from Riyadh.
For Assad's former Arab foes, there is a counterintuitive geopolitical logic at play here:
The goal wouldn't be to
break the Syrian-Iranian strategic alliance - all but impossible at
this point - but to prevent Syria from becoming a full-fledged
Iranian proxy state.
After eight years of conflict, Arab states want to reopen dormant trade arteries and cash in on the many possible lucrative opportunities available as Syria is re-integrated into the regional economy and reconstruction of some form begins.
After trade between Syria and Jordan resumed through the Naseeb border crossing last October, several Jordanian delegations, including contractors and engineers, have visited Syria to scope out opportunities involving public and private sector projects.
Arab Gulf investors and
equally eager to get a slice of
the rebuilding pie. Direct commercial flights are also
set to resume between Syria and the
UAE, Bahrain and Oman in the next few months.
Washington wants to extract maximum economic pain on Assad and his backers by withholding any reconstruction assistance and investments.
James Jeffrey, Trump's Syria envoy, vowed that the U.S. will do all it can to prevent regional and allied states from getting involved in postwar rebuilding in Syria,
The threat of U.S. sanctions against states that do business with the Syrian government, or any company associated with it, is making many Arab investors and companies nervous.
European countries are
also still wary of dealings with a regime they consider to be
illegitimate. Although less hawkish then Washington, the
European Union recently
expanded sanctions against
prominent Syrian entities and business figures.
While the U.S. and powerful European countries have shared the objective of removing Assad from power, European countries, because of their geographic proximity to the Middle East and the influx of Syrian refugees, are concerned about a weak Syrian state and economy that would fuel further regional instability.
Javier Solana, the former EU high representative for foreign and security policy and former NATO secretary general, recently argued that the West must admit that its approach to Syria has failed and,
Of course, these diverging interests make life easier for Assad moving forward.
Playing regional and
global powers against each other to secure Syria's strategic
interests has been a hallmark of its foreign policy for the past
four decades, perfected by Assad's father, Hafez, over his