Arab overtures towards Damascus as Syria situation shifts

In private circles, there is talk of a Saudi-led “Arab initiative” for Syria, aimed at diluting Iranian influence and overshadowing the Astana process.
Sunday 06/01/2019
Officials and journalists gather outside the embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Damascus, December 27. (SANA)
New dynamics. Officials and journalists gather outside the embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Damascus, December 27. (SANA)

BEIRUT - 2018 in Syria ended on a high note, days after US President Donald Trump announced that he would withdraw US forces from north-eastern Syria, which was music to the ears of officials in Damascus, Tehran and Moscow.

The complete withdrawal, which will take 60-100 days, leaves Syrian Kurds in a dire condition, given that they had relied heavily — and solely — on US support for their military existence since 2015.

When the Americans are gone, their territory will be overrun by the Syrians, Turks and Russians. Already, Syrian forces have entered the Kurdish-held city of Manbij, west of the Euphrates River, threatening to overrun the strategic cities of Qamishli and Hasakah, once the US withdrawal is complete. Left in the hands of the armed opposition would be one city — Idlib in north-western Syria — held by an assortment of jihadist groups since mid-2015.

Politically, new UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen is to assume his job in January, replacing Staffan de Mistura. Pedersen is expected to jump-start a morbid peace process, whose end objective has been dwarfed from creating a “Transitional Government Body with full executive powers” to rule instead of Syrian President Bashar Assad, into a more realistic “drafting of a new constitution for Syria” in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Thanks to the military might of the Russian Air Force, gone is all mention of Assad’s departure and of a power-sharing formula with the Western-backed Syrian opposition.

All sides agreed in December on 150 names — 50 for the government, 50 for the opposition and 50 for representatives of civil society — for the constitutional assembly. Damascus insists on leading the committee and getting a final say on its verdicts. There is no deadline for when the committee will start work or when it will finish, a process that might take years. The Russians have been trying to migrate the constitutional talks from Geneva to the Astana process, where the Americans are absent and so is the United Nations.

It has been one year since 1,500 Syrian delegates assembled at Sochi, Russia, where they agreed to draft a new charter for Syria.

At the time, the Russians included a handful of representatives from the opposition — such as human rights lawyer Haitham Manaa, Russia-backed activist Randa Kassis and tribal leader Ahmad Jarba, former president of the Syrian National Coalition — into the Sochi process. Other figures, such as Khaled al-Mahameed, a prominent doctor from the southern town of Daraa, who resigned from the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee in October and has put himself at the service of the Russian endgame, are expected to join.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has toyed with the idea of reviving the Sochi talks or empowering Astana at the expense of Geneva. If he succeeds, this would give his partners in Astana — the Turks and the Iranians — an upper hand in the Syrian political process.

To prevent that, several Arab countries have been making overtures towards Damascus, trying to lure Assad back to the Arab fold, hoping to minimise Iranian influence in Syria. Four months ago, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa took the initiative, embracing Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem on camera at the United Nations. He then appeared on Al Arabiya television saying: “We deal with the Syrian government and not with those trying to bring it down.”

One week later, a Kuwaiti delegation visited Damascus and interviewed Assad, running a favourable review in the Kuwaiti newspaper al Shahed. In return, Assad showered the Kuwaiti Emir Sabah Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah with praise. In December, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir landed in Damascus, the first Arab leader to visit Syria in seven years. Many speculated he carried a goodwill message, either from Saudi Arabia, to which he is aligned in the Yemen war, or from Qatar.

Judging by the fierce coverage he has been getting in the Doha-based Al Jazeera, his message was a Saudi, not a Qatari one. Days later, the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus and Lebanese parliament Speaker Nabih Berri is insisting on inviting Syria to attend an economic summit January 20 in Beirut. If that happens, Syria would be automatically readmitted into the Arab League and invited to attend its March summit in Tunis.

In private circles, there is talk of a Saudi-led “Arab initiative” for Syria, aimed at diluting Iranian influence and overshadowing the Astana process. For that to happen, however, it would require Saudi re-engagement with Damascus, something that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz might be willing to do if the Syrian regime contains Iran and Turkey. Crown Prince Mohammed has distanced himself from the regime change policy of his uncle, the late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Also, Adel al-Jubeir, who has repeatedly called on Assad to step down, has been removed from the position of Saudi foreign minister but was named minister of state for foreign affairs. The new foreign minister, Ibrahim al-Assaf, has made no comment yet on Syria. Climbing down the ladder would be much easier for him than it would have been for Jubeir, if rapprochement does bear fruit with Damascus.

A Saudi-initiative might not sound like a bad idea for Riyadh. In 2017, Saudis reached out to former adversaries in Iraq — all being historical allies of Iran — making friends with Muqtada al-Sadr, Ammar al-Hakim and then-Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. Jumping behind enemy lines is something the Saudis seem to be good at, realising that these figures were in Iraq to stay and, by refusing to work with them, they were only leading them further and further into the Iranian orbit, losing any threshold in Iraqi domestics. A similar policy might soon emerge on Syria.