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Syria re-enters the international diplomatic arena

Syrian President Bashar alAssad official visit to UAE

Last March, news reported by Reuters had a historic echo about Syrian diplomatic relations after 12 years after the outbreak of the war that had caused the breakdown of diplomatic relations, the closure of foreign embassies, and the withdrawal of diplomats to protest President Assad’s policies accusing him of suppressing popular protests by force. What will be a historic event is the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria, in fact, the two countries will reopen their diplomatic representations and reestablish diplomatic relations that had broken down 12 years ago after the beginning of the war in Syria. The two governments are preparing to reopen embassies after “Eid al-Fitr,” which marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan. According to Reuter’s reports, Hussam Louqa, an official who heads the Syrian intelligence committee, has been in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, for days in recent weeks, where he reached an agreement to reopen the embassies soon.

In addition, cruciaI topics such as security on Syria’s border with Jordan, such as measures to combat the smuggling of illegal Captagon amphetamine pills (a synthetic drug with antidepressant functions derived from amphetamine and caffeine that is widespread in Arab countries) from Syria to the Saudi Kingdom, the refugee crisis and also the humanitarian issue were discussed on the occasion.

The reopening of the Saudi embassy in Damascus will be preceded by a visit to Syria by the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, during which he will meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, according to a report by the Russian news agency Sputnik, which has a fast track on Syrian issues given the relations between Putin and his Syrian counterpart.

Perhaps an important role in the reconciliation of the two Middle Eastern players was played by China? Role it certainly played in the re-establishment of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran last March, China, therefore, proving to be very capable in the resolution of regional disputes in the Middle East, and this is certainly a tough blow to the United States and sodalist Israel in the Middle East.

As for relations between Israel and Syria, however, these remain very tense.

These exacerbated in recent months because the Israeli government decided to conduct several bombings in Syria at irregular intervals to target the Iranian presence in the country. The latest operation took place in early January near the Damascus airport, causing several casualties.

Israeli bombings are aimed at weakening armed groups close to Iran or limiting Tehran’s supply of weapons to Syria.

The Israeli government sees these military operations as necessary to safeguard the country’s internal security, which is threatened by hostility from the Islamic Republic. Indeed, despite the protests of recent months, Iran continues to maintain political and military influence in Syria. For about a decade, Tehran has been supporting various armed groups in the country and has now carved out a strong influence in parts of the south and east of the country, where various figures are linked to the Islamic Republic such as: businessmen, militias, and political authorities who exercise political, social, and economic roles.

In recent months Iran is reportedly planning to increase its presence in the south of the Syrian capital this should be seen both in a logic of opposition to Israel and as an attempt to counterbalance Turkish influence over large areas of the country, given the growing rivalry between these two countries.

Instead, the diplomatic relations that Syria has long resumed with some Arab countries without yet achieving full regional rehabilitation should be highlighted.

Indeed, although several governments have now re-established formal relations with Damascus, Syria continues to be excluded from the Arab League and did not attend its latest meeting in Algeria. Several countries in the region have called for its readmission to this international organization, notably Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. This decision, which, moreover, has not yet been made, would certainly sanction Syria’s full regional rehabilitation.

An important initiative in this regard, before any other country, has been taken by the United Arab Emirates, a country that presents itself as the political and economic vanguard of the region and which sets itself the goal, which was once held by Erdogan’s Turkey, namely to have excellent relations with almost all countries in the area, even those at war with each other (glossing over its own military involvement in Yemen). The initiative taken by the Emirate was to reopen its embassy in Damascus in December 2018, the first state in the region, thus sending a signal to the other Arab countries about the imminent need, dictated by a strong pragmatism, to rehabilitate President Bashar al-Assad and his entourage in the impossibility of eliminating him militarily and diplomatically and in the quite marked disinterest of the US, which in the region exclusively pursues two primary objectives: Israel’s defense and the eventual, but increasingly remote, possibiltiy of an Iranian nuclear deal.

Since 2021 to date, 9 of the 22 members of the Arab League have thus followed in the footsteps of the Emirates by sharing its basic premises: notably the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and Maghreb countries such as Algeria and Tunisia, not to mention countries such as Oman, which have never broken off their diplomatic relations with Damascus.

The Kingdom of Jordan has a national interest in re-establishing good relations with Syria as it is in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis and is interested in the eventual repatriation of Syrian refugees present in large numbers on its territory, which according to UNHCR figures number 675,000.

The only regional exception remains Qatar, a traditional supporter of movements afferent to the Muslim Brotherhood, now virtually everywhere repressed and out of the area of political legitimacy, with the eminent exceptions of Turkey and Jordan.

An important issue for Syria is its relationship with Turkey.

In this regard, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for talks a few weeks ago, with the very aim of mending ties between Damascus and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Ties between Erdogan and al-Assad have been severed since fighting broke out in Syria, and successful Russian mediation would give Putin diplomatic action at a time of isolation by the West over the Ukrainian conflict.

The Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, has strained relations between Damascus and Ankara, which has long supported rebel groups opposed to al-Assad.

Moscow has been trying to bridge the “gap” between the two countries by placing crucial issues in common such as: the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the U.S. presence in northeastern Syria, and economic interests related to open borders, transit and trade at the center of the interolutions.

Erdogan therefore recently indicated that he might meet with al-Assad, following what happened last December 28 when the defense ministers of Russia, Syria and Turkey met in Moscow. The first real meeting since the war broke out in Syria.

However, complex issues need to be resolved, particularly on the presence of Turkish troops in northern Syria therefore also the consequent support for groups considered as terrorists and the issue of refugees as Ankara continues to demand from Damascus steps in ensuring their safety in order to encourage their return which it is currently evidently avoiding.

It now seems quite clear that after more than a decade of war, Syria’s future is now largely decided by partners outside the country. For Damascus to reestablish its role in the geopolitical chessboard with alliances and a newfound image seems crucial. What is on the horizon is not at all positive for the country as two major unknowns emerge involving Syria’s main allies, Iran and Russia. On the one hand, Damascus sees the risk of a weakened Iran, which must prioritize its internal issues over support for the Syrian government. On the other, the Ukrainian conflict forces Russia to turn its resources and attentions outside the Middle East. A weakening of the two allies could bring changes for the country and the opening of a new political and military phase but all this could further change if China, as from recent events, more than ever becomes a central pivot in international relations here in the Middle East as well.

By Michele Brunor

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