Al-Bashir’s visit to Syria is no game-changer

The meeting between al-Bashir and Assad should not necessarily be construed as indicative of a change in the Arab mood nor should it be understood as announcing a staggering rise of the Syrian question within the Arab agenda.
Wednesday 19/12/2018
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (L) receiving Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir at Damascus Airport. (Syrian Arab News Agency)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (L) receiving Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir at Damascus Airport. (Syrian Arab News Agency)

The media services of the Syrian regime went agog reporting on Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s arrival in Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Al-Bashir’s visit was quite an event and might suggest a shift in the position of the Arab political system on Syria, knowing that the Arab League had frozen Syria’s membership in November 2011.

However, the December 16 meeting between al-Bashir and Assad should not be construed as indicative of a change in the Arab mood nor should it be understood as announcing a staggering rise of the Syrian question within the Arab agenda. If the visit has a logical explanation, it is very likely to be found in the plans of those countries that directly affect Syria’s course and future.

It should be noted that the Arab countries are outside any action in Syria. A visit to Damascus by al-Bashir or some other Arab figure in these times can only be a detail with no change in the balance of power governing the game of the real players in Syria.

So going through endless meetings and negotiations in Astana and Geneva, through Washington, Moscow, Ankara and Tehran and ending in the capitals of the European Union and Israel, Khartoum does not seem to have a place or role that could directly affect Damascus’s decision or the Arab decision with respect to Damascus.

Sudan has not been a party to the Syrian conflict. Covert and overt communication between Khartoum and Damascus remained open but we did not notice that Khartoum had deviated from the official and collective position of the Arab political system regarding the crisis in Syria and its regime. Therefore, no significant qualitative Arab shift towards the Assad regime can have a Sudanese label. Damascus knows who the influential Arab states are for a change in the Arab position and is aware that al-Bashir’s visit sends other messages that are not necessarily of Arab origin.

It is Russia that holds the keys to the complex game in Syria. On the sidelines of Russian action in Syria, Iran, Turkey and Israel are practising a hit-and-run game. Those parties have the tools to decide to improve their regional and international positions by inflating the size of their promised shares within the new Syria.

Only the United States comes in a vital way (assisted by a clear European position and a malicious Chinese complicity) not only to compete with the Russian role but also to threaten the foundations that Moscow has built for its presence in Syria since its military intervention in September 2015.

Al-Bashir arrived in Damascus on a surprise visit and outside the context of any announced diplomatic process. UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura had announced, as Moscow had hinted, nearing an agreement between the different parties of the conflict on the composition of the projected constitutional committee.

There is no information leaked about the secret behind this agreement but Damascus, and Tehran behind it, rejected the list of representatives of the Syrian civil society proposed by de Mistura. The only ingredient that broke the deadlock was Washington’s threat, via its special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, to end the Astana and Sochi processes if the Syrian constitutional commission is not formed by mid-December.

Al-Bashir then travels to Syria for the benefit of the Russian agenda in Syria and not as part of an Arab agenda. He arrived in Damascus aboard a Russian plane. Through him, Moscow was trying to intimate to the Americans and the Europeans that the Arab regimes are getting ready to normalise relations with the Assad regime, hoping perhaps to undermine the West’s stubbornness on the issues of reconstruction and repatriation of Syrian refugees.

Moscow is trying to tell Washington that its plans for a settlement in Syria are working. Not only have the Russians tamed the Turks and the Iranians but they are preparing for the first steps in the process of restoring relations between the Syrian regime and the Arab regimes.

Although they do not see eye-to-eye on many issues, the Americans and the Europeans do share the same view on how to approach the Syrian issue. The West insists on a real political settlement that prepares for a genuine transitional stage in Syria as a prerequisite for their participation in reconstructing the ravages of seven years of war.

Russia seems to have been taken hostage by the West’s position. On the one hand, Russia moved in on Syria because the West had allowed it to do so and, on the other, it is stumbling on a Western position that Russian President Vladimir Putin has not been able to infiltrate and break from within.

Al-Bashir’s flash visit to Damascus sits quite well with the Russian arrangements for Syria and fits well with new signals coming from the Astana members themselves.

Al-Bashir landed in Damascus for a few hours as a guest of the leader of the Syrian regime on the same day Turkish Foreign Minister Mouloud Jawish Oglu announced that Turkey would consider dealing with Assad. Oglu made his announcement in Doha in a way that suggests that he had travelled there just for the purpose of making that announcement. There is a new melody being played by Tehran, Doha, Ankara and Moscow and for which the Sudanese president travelled to Damascus to provide the drum section.

Still, in some aspects, al-Bashir’s visit suggests the presence of a regional and international split regarding the regime in Damascus and its president and does not represent a unified positive development for the Russian recipe in Syria.

Suppose we read al-Bashir’s visit as one aspect of the alliance in Syria between Iran, Qatar and Turkey, then it would have to be taken as a harbinger of an additional regional rift alienating the Arabs from Damascus. However, if it is read as a Russian message telling the United States that the Arabs have reversed their position on Syria, then we should expect a toughening of the West’s position, supported by a broad Arab trend demanding the completion of the political process before accepting any normalisation, even of the flashy type like al-Bashir’s hop to Syria.

Al-Bashir’s visit to Damascus will not have any effect on international attitudes and positions on Syria. It is not true that this visit represents an incentive to the Syrian regime to be more flexible on the issue of the constitutional committee in exchange for an Arab return to Syria, for the simple reason that Damascus has no power of decision. The real decisions are made in Moscow and Tehran.

Moscow is reiterating its call on the Arab countries to return Syria to their league and al-Bashir’s visit falls within this Russian agenda and timing.