Iran spectre, reconstruction cost could boost GCC role in Syria

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed now says: “Bashar is staying.”
Sunday 11/11/2018
A poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad, half-covered by a national flag, hangs at the border crossing point of Jdedeh Yabous, Syria, last August. (AP)
A poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad, half-covered by a national flag, hangs at the border crossing point of Jdedeh Yabous, Syria, last August. (AP)

BEIRUT - As the guns go silent in Syria, many wonder where the money will come from to rebuild the war-torn country.

Syrian President Bashar Assad said reconstruction may cost $400 billion. Iran doesn’t have that money, certainly not after US sanctions were reinstated. The European Union is unlikely to help before a political process begins.

Some friends, such as Russia and China, might pitch in. During a meeting in Istanbul on October 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin made it clear that he goes for reconstruction single-handedly but the lion’s share of the finances will probably have to come from the Arab Gulf.

The countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had insisted that would not happen before the transition starts but, recently, fearing a loss of Syria to Iran, many oil-rich countries recalculated their positions.

Since assuming power with his ageing father in January 2015, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz has silently distanced himself from the Syrian quagmire, realising that, with the entry of Russia into the conflict, the wider policy of regime change would no longer be tenable.

Instead, he is looking to the more realistic goal of clipping Iran’s wings in Syria. In March, he parted ways with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, who frequently insisted that “Assad must go.” Crown Prince Mohammed now says: “Bashar is staying.”

Taking their cue from Saudi Arabia, several other Gulf countries started to mend fences with Damascus. In September, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmad al-Khalifa received Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem with a warm embrace at the United Nations.

The hugs and kisses were not aired on Syrian television but did appear on Saudi Al Arabiya TV.

Speaking to Al Arabiya, Khalifa described Muallem as “my brother” and said: “What’s happening in Syria concerns us more than anybody else in the world. Syria is an Arab country after all. It is not right for its affairs to be handled by regional and international players in our absence.”

Neither Khalifa nor the Al Arabiya news presenter used the word “regime” and the Bahrain official wrapped up by saying: “We deal with governments, even if we disagree with them and not with those wanting to bring down those governments.”

Khalifa stressed that Damascus needed to reassert control over all its territory, in a public go-ahead from the GCC for Syrian authorities to retake remaining pockets of the armed opposition.

Days after the Bahraini gesture, a senior Kuwaiti delegation visited Damascus for the first time in seven years. The group was led by media figure Subah Mohammad, who was given a private audience with Assad. Details of the meeting were published in the Kuwaiti daily al-Shahed. Assad said Kuwaiti Emir Sabah Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah was widely respected for his “wisdom, mind and abilities.”

Assad added that Syria was returning to its former role in the Arab world — a statement that made headlines in Kuwait.

Days later, a Kuwaiti journalist who attended the meeting, appeared on Kuwaiti television and said that, after visiting Damascus, he disabled Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, claiming they had fed him “nothing but lies” about Syria.

The barbed wire and concrete roadblocks have been removed from the premises of the UAE Embassy in Damascus, which some see as a step towards reopening the grounds after being closed for seven years. Additionally, the Jordanian Embassy is in operation, although at a low-key level, and the Saudi daily Alsharq al-Awsat reported that a Jordanian ambassador would likely be appointed to Damascus. This came reportedly at the request of the GCC, a staunch ally of Jordan, after the Syrian-Jordanian Jabar-Nassib border crossing opened.

The Syrian-GCC rapprochement is a product of several factors, including a fear of Syria drifting fully into the Iranian orbit. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed did so in Iraq, after all, when he reached out to several Iranian allies, Muqtada al-Sadr and then-Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, trying to get them back into the Arab orbit.

Alarms went off last year when the Astana process started, establishing a Russian-Turkish-Iranian monopoly over the Syrian conflict, away from the United Nations and the Arab League. In September, a deal was reached between Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regarding the north-western Syrian province of Idlib, completely bypassing Arab capitals.

Syria initially saw the Qatari-Saudi dispute that started in June 2017 as driving a wedge within the Syrian opposition. Pro-Saudi politicians were expelled from Doha and pro-Qatari ones lost Saudi cover, both financially and politically. Having regained plenty of territory since 2015, Damascus feels it is in a much stronger position for talks with the Gulf countries, realising that it needs plenty of money to rebuild, money that only the GCC countries can provide.

The broader Arab world is mending fences with Damascus. Egypt re-established ties after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in 2013 and half of the Lebanese government, including ministers and the president, are talking to Syria.

Oman never suspended relations nor did Algeria or Iraq, which announced that the Abu Kamal border crossing with Syria would reopen, in parallel with the reopening of the Syrian-Jordanian Jaber-Nasib crossing. With such a consortium, the Arab League is preparing to invite Syria to its summit next March in Tunisia, ending a Saudi-Qatar freeze on Syria’s membership, enforced at different times, since 2012.