25.05.2023 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Syria: the path to conflict resolution is open

After more than a year of behind-the-scenes diplomacy, Syria’s membership in the Arab League of States (LAS) was finally restored when Arab foreign ministers reached a consensus on an issue that has been causing sharp divisions since the start of the Syrian crisis 12 years ago. On May 7, the Arab League’s foreign ministers adopted a resolution by which they decided to readmit the Syrian Arab Republic into the LAS. The decision was taken on the eve of the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia on May 19 and against the background of the rapid normalization of the region’s relations with Damascus in recent weeks.
The move is further evidence of warming relations between Damascus and other Arab governments. And there is no doubt that this was a huge diplomatic victory for President Bashar al-Assad, who at one point, before Russian military aid in 2015, was on the verge of collapse.

The new Arab approach to resolving the complex Syrian crisis is based on a number of factors. More than a decade of unsuccessful attempts to find a political settlement to end this brutal civil war have led to a deadly stalemate, with parts of the country under regime control and others under direct or indirect foreign occupation or influence. It ceased to be an internal crisis almost as soon as it erupted, because it involved regional and external actors who supported various opposition groups, both politically and militarily.

One must not forget the grim episodes of foreign extremists infiltrating Syria to join the terrorists and criminals who filled the vacuum left by the regime to create a disgusting anti-utopian society. Similarly, the documented atrocities committed by these terrorists, including the use of chemical weapons, will continue to demand investigation, accountability, and a final reckoning.

The impasse in Syria has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in all parts of the country, as evidenced by the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in February. Moreover, regional and global geopolitical shifts have changed views on how best to approach the Syrian crisis. Most Arab leaders have agreed that the current “status quo policy” is unsustainable amid shifting priorities, needs and challenges.

What is important to note here is that the process of a kind of rehabilitation of the Syrian regime is only the beginning. The step-by-step approach is open-ended, and it will be years before there is a genuine end to the Syrian tragedy. Meanwhile, the essence of the new approach is based on finding a working Arab formula that complies with UN resolutions on Syria and previous agreements and in other directions, such as Geneva and Astana, while achieving national reconciliation. This is not an easy task, and the recent decision of the Arab League to resolve this conflict is to be welcomed.

One thing to note here is that any genuine approach to resolving the crisis in Syria, which includes political reforms, the return of refugees and displaced persons, the dismantling of the drug smuggling network, and an end to the foreign presence, above all that of US troops, on Syrian soil, must be considered while maintaining the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Syria and, among other things, must be based on a mutual formula. This means that the legitimate government in Damascus and the opposition should give a clear response to this Arab initiative and should soon fully disclose their position on these and many other issues.

For Damascus to state its position on the aforementioned issues is crucial if the new Arab approach is to become a lifeline. Bashar al-Assad is unlikely to abandon his Iranian allies, although he may make token gestures regarding the presence of non-state players. But it will probably be a long time before he signals any concessions on important issues such as writing Syria’s new constitution. There is also the problem of the Syrian Kurds, including their demands for self-rule and the issue of the illegal presence of US troops on Syrian territory.

Washington’s reaction to this latest diplomatic breakthrough has been very predictable and sharply negative. A State Department spokesman stated that Syria did not deserve to be rebuilt, but that the US supported the Arab League’s long-term goal of resolving the crisis in Syria. British Minister of State Lord Ahmad stated that the UK remains “opposed to engagement with the Assad regime.” The fact that Washington’s key Arab partners, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and the UAE, are now actively supporting the political rehabilitation of Syria sends a strong signal to Washington that its failed policy in this Arab country has completely collapsed and does not deserve much attention at present.

The new Arab momentum must be actively pursued in light of the historic rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran and its implications for the entire region, including Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. A broader perspective should include more vigorous Russian involvement to end the Syrian-Turkish rift, which could be decided by the results of Turkey’s presidential election in mid-May.

This is the position taken by Russia, which welcomed the Arab League’s decision, expressing hope that the move would create a “healthier atmosphere” in the West Asian region. “Moscow welcomes this long-awaited step, which was a logical result of the process of Syria’s return to the ‘Arab family’,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. “We proceed from the premise that the restoration of Syria’s participation in operations [of the League of Arab States], as it is one of the organization’s founding countries, will contribute to improving the atmosphere in the Middle East region and overcoming the consequences of the Syrian crisis as soon as possible,” the TASS news agency quoted Maria Zakharova as saying.

An important quadrilateral meeting between Iran, Syria, Russia and Turkey at the level of foreign ministers has just been held in the Russian capital, Moscow. The meeting is a giant step forward in terms of ending the differences between Turkey and Syria, which have been at odds for the past decade. The meeting was made possible by a series of technical discussions that took place between the four states in Moscow in early April.

Although some international issues were also on the agenda, the meeting in Moscow focused primarily on the normalization of relations between Ankara and Damascus. The diametrically opposed positions of Syria and Turkey since the Syrian crisis began in 2011 have seriously undermined their relations. When the Syrian government regained control of most of its lost territory, Turkey has taken steps to normalize relations with Syria through the mediation of Russia and Iran.

The meeting in Moscow is further evidence that Syria is overcoming crisis and war, a trend that has prompted Turkey and many Arab states to restore ties with Damascus. Saudi Arabia, now the informal leader of the Arab world, has reopened its diplomatic missions in Damascus. There is now speculation that Syria’s president may attend the upcoming Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia, which has already officially extended an invitation to Assad to attend the summit.

The meeting in Moscow also provided a friendly atmosphere for bilateral meetings between foreign ministers. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian held separate meetings with his Syrian, Russian and Turkish counterparts. In a meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, Amir-Abdollahian congratulated him on Syria’s return to the Arab League and expressed Iran’s support for Turkish-Syrian normalization. Amir-Abdollahian described the meeting in Moscow as a step forward in his meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.  He also noted that the meeting in Moscow would have a strong message of peace and sustainable security in the region and strengthening good neighborliness between Turkey and Syria.

As things stand, Turkey and Syria are making progress in restoring their ties. Full resumption of ties, however, is hindered by the fact that Turkish troops are illegally present on Syrian territory, thereby violating the territorial integrity of the Arab country. This issue was raised in Moscow.

For Syria’s Arab neighbors, namely Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, the latest developments are undoubtedly taken, as they say, to heart. Amman, for example, views the smuggling of a drug called “Captagon” across its 360-kilometer border with Syria as a threat to national security. There are indications that it was the Jordanian Air Force that carried out the deadly strike on the drug factory, killing the most wanted Syrian drug lord in the process. This is indicative of Amman’s new strategy for dealing with this threat, which, according to various reports, involves members of the opposition actively supported by the US and its allies. Jordan and Lebanon are seeking solutions that will allow the voluntary return of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees to their homeland and thereby relieve the financial burden on these very poor Arab states. Iraq and Jordan, meanwhile, want to secure their borders with Syria to control smuggling as well as to eliminate ISIS (banned in Russia) militants who continue to pose a threat to both countries.

Negotiations with the Syrian government to resolve a long list of issues, either bilaterally or through an Arab League committee, will not be easy. The survival of the legitimate government in Damascus has come at a high cost, and new realities have emerged on the ground that will make it difficult for Bashar al-Assad and the opposition to reach mutual concessions. But in the absence of alternatives, the current path seems the only one that makes sense. There is hope that Damascus will see sense in preserving the benefits of its return to the Arab fold, while the opposition will meet the aspirations of Syrians and both sides, with the help of their international friends, will do their part to overcome the pervasive political stalemate.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook.

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