Syria’s slow return to mainstream West Asian politics – Analysis – Eurasia Review
By Kabir Taneja
While much of the bandwidth of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Islamabad this month was reserved for the Afghan crisis, in the presence of the Taliban, another window of diplomatic restart was achieved in the Arabian Gulf narrative as the heavily sanctioned Syrian private airline, kicked off direct flights between Damascus and Karachi.
While a road restart isn’t usually seen as a big event, this one has a slew of geopolitical maneuverings behind it, ranging from a rapidly developing thaw between Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE ) and Saudi Arabia after months of tension to Abu Dhabi’s efforts to normalize relations between a war-torn and isolated Syria with as many other countries as possible. While such moves to restore people-to-people trade and contact are fairly recent, other Arab states, such as Oman, had begun restoring ties as early as 2015, despite heavy political and economic sanctions against Damascus by the United States. United, a long-standing ally of Muscat, raising concerns against the Sultanate, which is now increasingly seen as the “Switzerland of the Middle East (Western Asia)”, for its growing role as a neutral actor and mediator in the turbulent geopolitics of the region. Syria is accused of a wide range of war crimes and human rights abuses, from relentless military crackdowns on protesters to accusations of using chemical weapons against its own people.
Syria, under the beleaguered presidency of Bashar al-Assad, has been on the fringes of the international and regional order since the Arab Spring, and protests against Assad’s government have morphed into a broad conflict that has seen the rise of so-called Islam State, the often brutal pressure of the Assad government to maintain its power, the intervention of Russia and Iran to protect the political order in Damascus, and even from December 2021, the decision to Israel to carry out airstrikes in Syria against Iran-backed militias, making the Arab country an extremely chaotic geopolitical record.
For more than a decade now, pressure from the West to support a popular uprising against Assad and Moscow’s desire to keep him in power, and by association to protect Russia’s own military and geopolitical interests in the region has s extending to the Mediterranean Sea, have come up against internal crisis. However, after all these years of isolation, and even manipulation by other soft-handed Arab powers, Assad’s Syria is seeking to return to the mainstream. In December 2018, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain reopened their embassies in Damascus and in May 2021 Saudi officials met with Assad, as indications that Riyadh was also willing to reopen its mission in the country grew stronger. Moreover, the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates arrived in Damascus in November 2021, amid widespread criticism of this awareness. Reports that some Western countries are also approaching a level of diplomatic normality on the ground in Damascus have also surfaced.
The easing of pressure against the Assad regime at the regional level in the Middle East is not necessarily due to a change in fortunes for the Syrian president, or a radical change in the political discourse of the West, but may -to be more to do with regional reshuffles, where larger Arab powers try to mitigate their risks to the bare minimum, especially when it comes to a wider conflict of interest between the Gulf states , Israel and Iran. The Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between a group of Arab states led by the United Arab Emirates and Israel, ending a historic geopolitical status quo, prompted others to mend ties as well, seeking political stability to greater, long-term economic gains. Saudi Arabia has held talks with Iran in Iraq and Jordan to try to defuse tensions with Tehran, particularly over the civil war in Yemen, where the two sides are tied in a long-running conflict. The bucket. over the past few years has also maintained constant awareness of Iran, helping the seat of Shia power during the pandemic and building general awareness to enhance mutual stability. Syria faces many challenges as it remains a host of Iran-backed proxy militias across the country, and the northern parts of the state, especially areas like Idlib, still host many Islamist groups. which were created in the aftermath of battles with ISIS, al-Qaeda, etc. Groups such as Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) run their own protectorates as de facto states in Syria. HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani even appeared on a US news network dressed in crisp Western attire to try to generalize about the terror group and its goals.
However, the Assad government has a very difficult road ahead of it. Today it effectively functions as a protectorate of Iran and Russia, both of which have rescued the political ecosystem from Assad over the years. Moscow is already using Syrian territories for its extensive geopolitical tactics, such as the Kremlin sending Syrian mercenaries to Libya to support warlord Khalifa Haftar. In the north, Turkey remains a divisive force in Syria, backing groups against the Assad government as part of its broader tactical efforts to ban Kurdish unity and push back the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group designated terrorist. Syrian mercenaries were also discovered during last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Central Asia. The presence of Syrian fighters in Kashmir aided by Turkey and Pakistan is also folklore that has found its way onto social media since 2015. With a collapsed economy, the Syrian people have very limited livelihoods and the fight against the wars of other states has accumulated. as a viable economy, winning on a battlefield while the states sponsoring these private mercenaries avoid the domestic political fallout that accompanies initiating or participating in international conflicts.
Throughout the Syrian crisis, very few countries have been diplomatically active in Damascus. India was one of them, having largely maintained a constant diplomatic presence. As New Delhi publicly opposed the Libyan war and its aims to unseat former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, fearing the ills of the world order of another failed state, similar views also prevailed. at Raisina Hill on the fate of Damascus. So, despite Syria’s isolation from the West, India has maintained regular diplomatic contacts, with the late Walid al-Mouallem, then Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister in Delhi, visiting Delhi in 2016 and India’s then Minister of State for External Affairs, MJ Akbar, returning the favor. the same year by visiting Damascus. During the COVID-19 pandemic, India stepped in to offer full assistance to deliver vaccines to Syria under the guidance of the World Health Organization (WHO), stressing that the situation in the country was “catastrophic “. In June 2020, Syria provides a single flight to New Delhi to help evacuate Indians stranded in the country. In July 2021, New Delhi again declared that it did not favor a military solution in Syria. Over the years, Syria has also added weight to India’s global diplomacy on the Kashmir issue, especially within the Muslim world.
Even as Arab states seek to reintegrate the Assad government into the political diversity of West Asia, the journey may not be so easy. Syria, over the years, will have to unravel to become a playground for proxy battles, especially between Israel and Iran, and seek to mitigate Moscow’s influence. All of these deliverables are difficult given that Assad’s political survival has been ensured by these foreign actors, and if the Syrian president is looking to hedge his bets with the UAE and Saudi Arabia now, Russia and Iran could react by digging their heels in deeper around Assad. ecosystem that is fraught with infighting and economic misery.
Meanwhile, the United States has already expressed displeasure with Abu Dhabi’s diplomacy in trying to normalize the Assad government, which means easing sanctions on Syria may not be on the table. horizon, and that companies and entities working in the region, which could engage with this Emirati project could be subject to sanctions by association. The road to normality remains extremely complicated for Syria, with too many cooks already in its kitchen, the Assad government may have to reconsider its own realpolitik on how long it can maintain a survivalist conception of the state, and by isolationist association.
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