Arabs should send a peacekeeping force to Syria
Following this month’s devastating earthquake, the UAE was the first Arab country to send its foreign minister to Damascus to express support to Bashar Assad. This move was a follow-up to the UAE policy to open up to Assad. Similarly, Turkiye has been warming to the Assad regime. The two countries have different objectives. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is facing an uphill battle, wants an election stunt, while the UAE wants to contain Iran’s presence in the region. However, Assad is neither willing nor capable of delivering on this objective, hence they need to play it smart.
Erdogan’s rapprochement with Assad is aimed at countering the Turkish opposition parties that state that, if they were to win the election, they would normalize with Assad and ensure that the Syrian refugees in Turkiye go back home. On the other hand, Erdogan and Assad have a common enemy: the Syrian Democratic Forces. The various negotiations between Assad and the SDF have failed. Erdogan sees in Assad a potential partner who can facilitate any potential assault on the northwest of Syria. While Iran publicly praises the potential rapprochement between Syria and Turkiye, in reality it dreads it. Any normalization with Turkiye would mean less influence for Iran.
The Turks are sending mixed signals. They say Erdogan is ready to meet with Assad, while also saying that any normalization would have to abide by UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The opposition criticizes Erdogan by saying that the return of refugees can only be secured through an agreement with Damascus. However, this is illogical, as Assad cannot provide the basic condition for their return, which is a safe environment. There is nothing called the Syrian Arab Army. The army is a loose coalition of warlords; it is not a cohesive structure with clear control and command. The only two real legions are the 4th Armored Division led by Maher Assad, which takes orders from the Iranians, and the Tiger Forces that take orders from the Russian Hmeimim airbase.
Assad’s forces cannot deploy all over Syria and other Arab countries definitely do not trust him enough to give him the funds and equipment to beef up his military. They do not trust him due to the Iranian connection. In order for Gulf countries to fully normalize with Assad, he needs to downgrade his ties with Iran. However, the case of Sudan’s Omar Bashir will send an alert to Assad. Bashir gave up on relations with Iran but he was still deposed. The same could happen with Assad. So, guarantees are needed that he will limit the Iranian presence in Syria.
These troops could provide refugees with the necessary safety to go back to their homes, as well as the necessary check on Iran’s influence
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
The Turks cannot leave the northwest of Syria and allow Assad to deploy his forces there. Those in Idlib are irreconcilable with the regime, as we saw with January’s huge demonstrations against Turkiye normalizing with Assad. If Assad’s forces were to take over Idlib, it would result in carnage, as the displaced people would have no place to go.
Russia is having less of a military role in Syria due to the war in Ukraine, which is using up all its capabilities. However, it would be happy to play a diplomatic role. Moscow could get the Arab and Turkish support it badly needs if it brokers a good deal for them in Syria. Erdogan definitely needs a safe environment to return the refugees.
Today, as Turkiye is struggling with the aftermath of the earthquakes, the issue of refugees is put on hold. However, it is likely to come back strongly into the public discourse as we approach the May elections. As said before, Assad cannot guarantee a safe return as stated in Resolution 2254. Hence, the UAE can work with other Arab countries on the deployment of an Arab peacekeeping force to provide refugees with the necessary safety to go back to their homes, as well as the necessary check on Iran’s influence in Syria.
However, Arabs should learn from their mistakes. The Arab League, following the Riyadh summit in October 1976 as the Lebanese civil war was escalating, decided to send a peacekeeping force to Lebanon. However, when the different Arab forces started withdrawing, the Syrians remained. This turned into the much-hated Syrian control of Lebanon that only ended in 2005 with the Cedar Revolution. So, if the Arab states are to send forces to Syria, they must make sure of the commitment of those forces and their cohesion, to make sure one country does not end up controlling the force.
If the Turkish forces were to partially withdraw, allowing an Arab force to replace them, it might be an acceptable solution for the opposition in Idlib. The Arab force can solve the conundrum for both the Emiratis and Turkiye. Ankara would be able to provide a safe environment for the refugees’ return and prevent a confrontation between Assad’s forces and the opposition in Idlib.
It would also be an acceptable settlement between the Syrian opposition and Turkiye. Erdogan, who positions himself as a staunch defender of the Syrian people, cannot abandon the opposition to Assad’s claws. It would also give a guarantee to the UAE and the other Arab Gulf states that Iran’s influence would be curbed.
However, Assad might not accept an Arab peacekeeping force as it would undermine his role in Syria. Here, the role of Russia becomes very important. Russia has been holding on to Assad, even though it knows that the brutal dictator cannot stabilize the country. It is holding on to him for two reasons. The first is Moscow’s defiance of the West and the second is that Assad is a consensual figure in the regime. If he goes while the regime is in its current fragile state and the security situation is not stabilized, the regime might crumble. The deployment of an Arab peacekeeping force can solve this concern. It can stabilize the country and Assad can remain as a figurehead, something Moscow wants as a sign of defiance to the West.
An Arab peacekeeping force would be the best solution for Ankara, Moscow, the Arab Gulf and the Syrian people. However, the key is to force it on Assad. Here, the role of Emirati diplomacy could be vital. Abu Dhabi would have to work closely with Moscow and Ankara on this. It might be a difficult task but, if achieved, it would be a huge win for UAE soft power.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is president of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II.