Syria’s position on Iran-US standoff signals change of course

As the war in Syria fizzles out, thanks to massive Russian support for the Syrians, Damascus might be trying to reposition itself as a mediator in regional conflicts.
Sunday 26/05/2019
Intricate context. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem speaks during a news conference in Damascus.  (AP)
Intricate context. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem speaks during a news conference in Damascus. (AP)

BEIRUT - Syria’s position on the standoff between Iran and the United States was mild, to say the least, especially when compared to other Iran allies. Rather than fan the conflict and aggressively side with their Iranian allies, the Syrians called for “dialogue,” saying that regional confrontation was in nobody’s interest.

Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi had travelled to Tehran, however, while Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi sent one delegation to Iran and another to the United States, hoping to find common ground between the two countries.

Other regional allies were less diplomatic, such as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a broad coalition of Iraqi Shia militias, whose military commanders began preparing for retaliation after a much-publicised meeting with Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani. Other military groups, such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, showered Iran with praise, saying they fully supported the country in any confrontation with the United States or Israel.

Syria’s reaction was a surprise to all the above. For starters, a statement only came out of Damascus May 17, 12 days after the crisis started with the dispatch of US aircraft carriers and bombers to the Gulf.

The Syrians said nothing when four oil ships were sabotaged near the Strait of Hormuz May 12, raising red flags throughout the Arab Gulf. Two of the attacked tankers were Saudi ships and another belonged to the United Arab Emirates. Syrian media did not gloat, as customarily expected because of Saudi support for the Syrian opposition since 2011.

On the contrary, a “source” at the Syrian Foreign Ministry — rather than the foreign minister or any top official — called on “all parties” to show “self-restraint.” It did not mention Iran by name or the United States or any Gulf state. The Foreign Ministry statement condemned any action that leads to “impairing maritime transport in the Arab Gulf.”

The term “Arab Gulf” was noteworthy, upholding a universal Arab consensus to call it by that name, rather than the “Persian Gulf,” which Iran insists on using.

Iran had threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic sea passage through which one-third of the world’s liquefied natural gas flows, along with 20% of oil. By calling for it to remain open, Syria was either urging its Iranian allies to reconsider their position or hinting that Damascus could play the go-between with Tehran.

It is yet to be seen whether this relatively calm position was crafted in coordination with the Iranians, or independently of them, with the Russians and Saudis.

Before the Syrian crisis started, the Syrians boasted of being what they described as “agents of stabilisation in the Middle East.” They had the ear of non-state players such as Hezbollah and Hamas and that of the Iranians. During the Lebanese civil war, for example, they helped release US hostages held by Iran-backed militias in Beirut, and, later, in Baghdad as well.

During the bloody Iran-Iraq War, Syria served as a backchannel for Arab states that were bankrolling Saddam Hussein and refusing to have direct talks with the Iranians. In 2007, the Syrians talked the Iranians into releasing 15 British sailors held hostage after venturing into Iranian waters.

Over the past eight years, however, Syria lost much of that influence, along with any desire to put out flames in the region. It became very difficult to mediate in any conflict, since none of the regional players was talking to Damascus.

As the war in Syria fizzles out, thanks to massive Russian support for the Syrians, Damascus might be trying to reposition itself as a mediator in regional conflicts, especially after relations were re-established last December with several Gulf countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif went to Damascus in April, trying to mend relations with Ankara after Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested revisiting the 1998 Adana Agreement, which would re-establish security and military contacts between Damascus and Ankara, as a prelude to diplomatic relations. Days later, a Russian presidential envoy landed in Syria, hoping to normalise relations with Saudi Arabia.

Despite the high rhetoric, there is very little appetite for war in either the United States or Iran. Even Gulf states that have an axe to grind with the Iranians, such as the Saudis and Emiratis, don’t want a military confrontation. However, in the Middle East, anything can happen and things can easily slip out of control. They have in the past.

The closing of the Strait of Hormuz — if it happens — sounds painstakingly similar to the closing of the Straits of Tiran by Gamal Abdel Nasser 52 years ago, which triggered the Six-Day War of 1967.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would love to see a military confrontation between Iran and the United States and so would hardliners in the Arab world. It is up to regional heavyweights, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to see that such a potentially destructive conflict does not happen. They can do the talking with US President Donald Trump, while nudging the Syrians to talk to Iran.