Is Assad out from the cold?
At the outset of the Arab Spring, President Bashar Assad’s Syria was part of a very clear regional setup. Despite its sister Baathist regime in Baghdad toppled and its hidden hand pried off of Lebanon, Syria relished its unchallenged mantle of Arab nationalism in a region where only Jordan and Egypt were at peace with Israel.
A decade on, the regional landscape is unrecognizable. The wave of revolution and popular protest that swept through the region unseated some of its most longstanding leaders, and saw its traditional centers of power lose influence to smaller states with large hegemonic ambitions. This coincided with a US withdrawal from the region that has created a vacuum for Russian and Iranian projection of power, and a wave of Arab normalization with Israel.
Having decimated Syria for over a decade, provoking the displacement of 13 million people, the civil war has supposedly been drawing to a close for several years. However, today the regime is in arguably the best position it has been in for many years. Assad now controls two-thirds of Syria’s territory, importantly including its main cities.
In what is a complete turnaround from the regime’s besieged position in 2013, the country’s rehabilitation in the Arab and international folds is an increasingly pressing issue. With re-admittance to the Arab League on the horizon, Jordan and the UAE have reinstated their respective embassies.
But Barbara Leaf, US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, has said Washington will not support the Syrian president’s rehabilitation “in any form,” adding: “Assad and the coterie around him remain the single largest impediment to a political solution in Syria.” With almost half a million Syrians dead, the US position in this regard is hardly surprising.
“The Assad regime has not earned the right to normalize relations with the international community,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the UN. This principled view, however, does not appreciate the realpolitik of the situation.
Regional events will have a knock-on effect on the regime’s prospects of survival. Cooperation between some Arab countries and Israel, alongside the formal gesture of the Abraham Accords, have created a less divided region, putting the belligerence that had become part of Syria’s raison d’etre increasingly into perspective.
Amid skepticism over Tehran’s willingness to forge a new nuclear deal, Arab states and Israel are increasingly coordinated on Iran, putting Damascus in a bind. Should Assad hold onto Tehran, he could jeopardize his international rehabilitation and worse, provide a convenient target for Israeli efforts to pummel Iran and its regional proxies in any future conflict.
Syria today requires rebuilding. Its chronic electricity shortages and public health crisis are part of the daily struggle faced by those left behind. Having shaken down the country’s oligarchs, a new clique of businessmen continues to hollow out what remains of the state by racketeering and dealing in drugs and embargoed oil.
The regime no longer enjoys the strategic depth it once did, neither among institutions nor its local allies to support further conflict. Therefore, being caught up in a regional swoop on Iran is by no means a priority for Assad. Though Iran has been seen as essential to his survival, in reality it is Russia’s enduring involvement that has provided him with a lifeline.
After all, it was Moscow that lobbied hard to encourage Arab states to reinstate bilateral relations with the Assad regime, which has led a public relations campaign to announce the end of the civil war and the start of the reconstruction process. When Russia intervened in Syria in 2015, it was very much a junior power in America’s unipolar world, but as it created instability elsewhere, it has become a more robust ally than Assad had first hoped for.
According to Kamal Allam, Syria expert and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, “Syria is not a natural partner of Iran, it is a practical one. The Syrian military and political elite also prefer Russian support over Iranian, however they are acutely aware of the need for both.” It is this need that the Assad regime will need to exploit if it is not to be caught on the wrong side of events regionally.
Long before the civil war, Syria had acted as an interlocutor between Iran and its Arab neighbors. Both Assad and his father thread this into their foreign policy, at times playing both sides off against each other, and at other times bringing them together. Today, this is what the regime envisages.
Hezbollah and other Iran-backed Shiite militias currently control around 20 percent of Syria’s borders, a thorn in the side of Syrian sovereignty that the Assad regime would hope to reverse. The distancing from Tehran that this would require is already underway.
Allam argues that “Damascus is looking to regain its place between Iran and the Gulf. Lebanon is a key part of this strategy. Syria does not always see eye-to-eye with Iran on Lebanon and increasingly acts to counter it there.”
There is nevertheless a real threat of Syria being caught on the wrong side of a regional conflict with Iran. Much as the mercurial Assad played different interests off against each other to remain in power, it is likely he will do so again.
Unlike elsewhere in the region where normalization with Israel was granted with very little by way of concession, Syria will not change its position without the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967. The Palestinian issue is also central to Syria’s political dynamic, a card of legitimacy that Assad needs now before he is played out.
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC. Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid