For more than a decade, Washington’s “regime change” agenda in Syria involved not only defeating the Assad regime, but also forcing a territorial disintegration of the Syrian state. In the past few years, the US military presence in Syria has only served to prevent Syrian reunification. For decades, Syria and its allies – mainly Iran and Russia – worked as a durable alliance to defeat Washington’s agenda. However, with Syria’s formal inclusion into the Arab League after an 11-year-long suspension, Washington’s agenda seems to have been defeated fair and square. Ironically, this defeat has come at the hands of a country that, until three to four years ago, was itself allied with Washington’s agenda of “regime change.” Saudi Arabia’s normalisation with Syria and the former’s success in snubbing opposition within the Arab world – mainly expressed by Qatar, which opposed the decision but did not block it – against Syria’s inclusion comes against the backdrop of Riyadh’s own continuously deteriorating ties with Washington. This deterioration led Riyadh to consolidate its ties with Moscow and Beijing, with the latter states facilitating Riyadh’s normalisation with Syria and Iran, respectively. This normalisation led to Syria’s inclusion in the Arab League in early May 2023.
In this context, the Arab League’s announcement is extremely meaningful insofar as it acknowledges the demands that Iran and Russia have been making for the past many years and negates the agenda the US and its allies pursued for those many years. To quote from the statement made to formally announce Syria’s inclusion, Arab League members:
“Reiterate the commitment to the preservation of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and stability of Syria, under the Charter of the Arab League and its principles … [and] Continue and intensify the Arab efforts aimed at helping Syria to emerge from its crisis and end the suffering of the brotherly Syrian people that has lasted over the past year, and in line with the common Arab interest and the fraternal relations that they unite all the Arab peoples, including the Syrian people.”
The overall statement is more meaningful than meets the eye. The clear emphasis on “common Arab interests” reinforces a return to what some analysts have rightly called “Arab nationalism” that once defined the region’s geopolitics in the 1960s and 1970s. This potential trajectory towards “Arab nationalism” is in line with the changing global geopolitical dynamics, i.e., a shift away from the US-led unilateral world to a multipolar world with many power centres. For Arab states with major power ambitions, such as Saudi Arabia, consolidating the Arab world under its own leadership, even if it involves normalisation with rival states, is necessary for them to act as a centre of power in the emerging multipolar world. Syria’s inclusion in the Arab League is, therefore, not any ordinary development.
In fact, it sends a very strong message – even a rebuke – to the US and its allies, who actually opposed Syria’s inclusion. The reason for their opposition is that both the US and its allies believe that Syria’s inclusion in the Arab League will make them even more irrelevant in the Syrian peace and reconstruction process. As the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “I think the Arab perspective as articulated through the Arab League is that they believe they can pursue these objectives through more direct engagement” i.e., without necessarily engaging with the US, which remains opposed to both normalisation and inclusion. The fact that Arab states completely ignored Washington’s position and interests and are now apparently pursuing Syria’s reconstruction in alliance with Russia and Iran – with both of them still maintaining a presence in Syria – means that Washington’s exit from the Middle East remains an ongoing process and is unlikely to change its direction. In other words, instead of the Biden administration making Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state, it is Washington on its way to becoming a “pariah” in the Middle East.
And, given Washington’s deep entanglement with Russia and China in a great power competition, Washington is slowly but surely being replaced by Russia and China in the Middle East. This has had the effect of driving the Biden administration into a frenzy, as its efforts to counter the US rivals – and protect its own hegemony – continue to fail.
A key reason for this failure is the inability of the US to reconcile to the fact that the world is already quite different from the 1990s or the first two decades of the 21st century. The rise of China and Russia as two superpowers rivalling the US and pushing for an alternative world order has made it possible for many states – especially, in the Middle East – to diversify their ties away from the US. For the US, this is certainly a tectonic change with no means to block or reverse it.
More importantly, this shift in the Middle East also means that two global US rivals, instead of getting “isolated” due to US policies, now have very powerful – and oil-producing countries – as their allies. What it means is a sharply reduced US ability to manipulate and manage global economics through a macro-management of global oil supplies and prices.
As a recent report in The Washington Post noted with regard to the Saudi decision to cut oil production and drive up prices, the Saudi decision “sent a simple message: The United States doesn’t call the shots in the Persian Gulf or the oil market anymore. For better or worse, the era of American hegemony in the Middle East is over.”
What this message also tells us is that the Biden administration’s efforts to resuscitate Washington’s decades-old ties with Riyadh by merely sending US officials with no new message, or an effective policy shift, are unlikely to change anything for the better.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“