How can Arabs contain Iran’s influence in Syria?

For Damascus, as it became for Baghdad, having independent, constructive and progressive ties with its neighbours is a critical national interest.
Sunday 10/02/2019
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) laughs as he welcomes his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem for their meeting in Tehran, February 5. (AP)
Holding the prize. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) laughs as he welcomes his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem for their meeting in Tehran, February 5. (AP)

Syria’s Arab neighbours are leading new efforts to re-engage Damascus driven by a series of inter-linked economic and strategic motivations.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose reign increasingly looks set to continue, said the cost of rebuilding Syria would be approximately $400 billion. Some observers estimated the cost to be even more but, in any case, it represents an enormous figure that will need to be bankrolled largely from international support and assistance over the next decade at least.

In terms of immediate needs, Syria requires tens of billions of dollars for recovering its agricultural sector, food availability and for basic utilities, such as housing, electricity and transport.

With Russia unable to take on the task of sponsoring Syria’s rebuilding by itself and Iran’s growing economic difficulties in the face of US sanctions, Syria must look at renewing its partnerships in the region.

China is being courted to play a central role in rebuilding key elements of Syria’s national infrastructure but there is a growing realisation that the role of Syria’s Arab neighbours has a strategic dimension attached to it that will prove decisive.

Between the moderate Arab bloc led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Kuwait collectively offer a significant resource pool for Damascus to tap into. Indeed, reports suggest a proposed package from the bloc involves manpower and equipment from Egypt and Jordan, with financial backing and oversight from the Gulf.

Any rapprochement could prove a strategic coup for Damascus — as well as Moscow — considering political gains generated beyond the economic ones.

Syria’s conflict may be nearing its endgame but Damascus remains more internationally isolated than ever.

In that context, Syria’s rebuilding poses an even more serious test for Damascus. The scars of Syria’s civil war on its society and its neighbours will remain for many years.

Avoiding significant delay in starting rebuilding and ensuring the effort is spread uniformly rather than focused on territories without significant opposition support or sympathies will be critical to Damascus in winning back those who have been or could now become further alienated.

Millions of Syrians have taken refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and Syria, as well as significant numbers in Gulf countries, since the outbreak of violence in 2011.

The Syrian diaspora has become integrated in key hubs around the region, many having moved wealth and set up businesses. Separately, there remain millions of families who have struggled for survival as they paid the humanitarian cost of becoming displaced by violent conflict.

In both cases, Syria’s ties with its Arab neighbours are underpinned by shared interests in terms of social and economic factors in addition to cultural ones like these.

Considering its geostrategic location as well, modern-day Syria has been a historical gateway at the crossroads between Europe and the Gulf as well as Eurasia and North Africa. An economically vibrant Syria would aim to reap the dividends of its geography as well as its climate and topography — a possibility that is enabled by the extent and scope of its foreign relations.

The United States may be readying a new wave of sanctions against Syria, partly driven by its intense rivalry with Russia, that would further complicate trade and investment for Syria.

In contrast, although Europe effectively continues to tie potential assistance in Syria’s rebuilding to Damascus getting a credible political process under way, some European countries are quietly reopening diplomatic missions. Stemming the flow of refugees and ensuring Syria’s recent progress can continue are important interests for Europe and deep reservations about Assad’s credibility or future must be balanced against these.

Similarly, the moderate Arab bloc has not explicitly tied assistance for Syria’s rebuilding to its nascent political process or demanded that Damascus make a dramatic regional realignment.

Nevertheless, a political exchange that accommodates mutual interests and expectations between Damascus and its Arab neighbours is both logical and entirely feasible.

Damascus will have taken note of and want to avoid Iraq’s experience of Iranian influence and its protracted efforts to preserve independence by pushing back against undue encroachments into its affairs by Tehran.

For Damascus, as it became for Baghdad, having independent, constructive and progressive ties with its neighbours is a critical national interest that should not be held hostage or blocked.

As such, the emerging scenario where Syria moves to an endgame with its civil war in 2019 provides an opportunity to rebuild not only its infrastructure and economic sectors but also strategic relationships with key neighbours to support its re-emergence as a functioning independent nation-state.

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