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Syria Creeps Back Onto the Middle East Stage

 By Henry Srebrnik, [Saint John, N.B.] Telegraph-Journal

Can a horrific disaster like the massive earthquakes that struck southern Turkey and northern Syria in early February have a silver lining for one of them? While most deaths occurred in Turkey, more than 6,000 were killed in Syria.

The earthquakes may offer Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a chance to end his diplomatic isolation, especially in the Arab world. Following the earthquake, Assad took phone calls from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and King Hamad of Bahrain.

On Feb. 20, Assad visited Oman, in one of his few trips abroad in the past decade. According to Syrian and Omani reports, he and Oman’s sultan, Haitham Ben Tareq, spoke of the need for “joint cooperation” and “efforts to consolidate security and stability in the region.” Tunisian President Kais Saied said on March 10 that he plans to restore diplomatic relations with Syria.

March 15 marked 12 years since the start of the civil war in Syria, which has resulted with a defeat for the opposition but, despite Iranian and Russian help, a hollow victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, since he remains without effective control of large swathes of Syrian territory.

The war changed the face of Syria and it is now split into four regions, each under the influence of foreign forces: Regime-controlled territory, the autonomous Kurdish area, Turkish areas in the north, and the Sunni rebel-controlled Idlib region.

Foremost among these outside actors has been Iran, which has come to exert huge influence over the Assad regime. With Assad painfully aware of the extent of Syrian Sunnis’ resentment of their longstanding domination by the Alawite Shia community, less than a fifth their size, the war provided a golden opportunity for both Damascus and Shia-ruled Iran to execute a profound demographic change under the guise of fighting extremism.

Out of a prewar population of 21 million, more than six million are refugees in other countries and some seven million are internally displaced. An economic crisis is ongoing and the humanitarian situation is grave. Food insecurity affects 12 million people in Syria, and the poverty rate stands at over 90 per cent.

Yet Assad’s grip on power seems firm. It’s the combined result of harsh repression of political adversaries, a weak and divided opposition, and the determination of Assad and his Alawite clan.

Shortly after the beginning of the revolution in 2011 and the Assad government’s brutal repression of peaceful anti-government protests, most Arab nations cut ties with Assad. But just over a decade later, the tide appears to be changing as regional leaders reconsider ties to Damascus.

Assad had grounds to hope for reintegration well before the quakes. Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Mauritania and Oman had never broken off diplomatic relations. And others are coming around.

In December 2018, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the first Arab leader to visit since the civil conflict broke out. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain re-opened their embassies in Damascus that same month.

In March 2022 Assad visited UAE crown prince (and now president) Muhammad Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, and this past January the UAE foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was in Damascus to meet with Assad. The UAE affirmed its support for a political solution to the Syrian crisis that restores Syrian sovereignty over all of its territory.

In October 2021 King Abdullah of Jordan phoned Assad, ending a decade of silence. Two months later the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEP) voted unanimously for Syria to host its 2024 conference. More recently Saudi Arabia has started talking to Damascus again.

Turkey has continuously supported the Syrian opposition during the conflict, and Idlib, the last rebel-held territory in Syria, is protected by Turkey as are other, smaller areas in northern Syria. Turkey is unlikely to want to withdraw from these parts of Syria anytime soon.

Nonetheless, since the earthquakes, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, though a longtime Assad foe, said he too might soon meet with Assad. Russian, Turkish and Syrian defence chiefs and top intelligence officers in Moscow last December in the highest level of official contact between the archrivals in more than a decade.

Syria was suspended from the 22-member Arab League in 2011 and the November 2022 Arab League summit deferred Syria’s readmission, despite host country Algeria’s recommendation and Russian lobbying. But the delay is likely to be short, since Egypt no longer opposes it. Several countries, including Iraq, Lebanon, Oman and Algeria, have called for Syria to be welcomed back.

Saudi Arabia will host this year’s Arab League summit. Asked whether Syria would be welcome, foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud on March 7 said “I think it's too early to talk about that.”

“He’s already won, in the sense that the war was primarily about whether he was in charge,” Christopher Phillips, a professor of international relations at Queen Mary University of London, remarked. “And he is still in charge of most of Syria. In military terms, the opposition is no longer a viable alternative.”

Outside the Middle East it’s a different story. The Ukraine war has united Europeans in opposition to Russia, so nobody wants to reconcile with Assad, one of Russia’s staunchest allies. The United States is even less likely to relax its position.


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Syria Creeps Back Onto the Middle East Stage


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