Syria: A Tale of Two Realities

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


More than ten years since the first protests against the Assad regime, Syria is beginning to experience a thawing of relations with its neighbors. Despite sustained pressure from outside actors and the threat of violence from inside the country, the Syrian strongman has managed, largely thanks to the support of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, to hold on and slowly consolidate power across most of the country. The reopening of the Jordanian border, the reestablishment of working relations with Egypt and the UAE, and agreement by domestic opposition forces to meet with the Assad government in Geneva to negotiate a new constitution have raised the prospects of a return to normality. However, last week’s assassination of a high-ranking Syrian intelligence officer at the Israeli border and the return of Assad’s long-exiled mutinous uncle are reminders of the volatile security situation.

In a forthright assessment of the “state of the Arab world,” Egypt’s former assistant foreign minister, Hussein Haridy, writing for Al Ahram, sums up the situation in Syria as a “battleground for foreign and regional confrontations through proxies …still [in] search… of a way out of the destabilization of the last decade. Despite the war unleashed in Syria in March 2011 against the rule of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the latter is still in power with a new constitutional mandate, however dubious this might appear to be in the eyes of those foreign, regional and Arab forces that have tried to overthrow the Syrian regime. Today, the winds of change are also blowing in the opposite direction in Syria, and some of those very powers that previously worked against the Syrian regime have begun either reopening their embassies in Damascus or having their leaders call on the Syrian president, in developments not seen since March 2011.”

With the economy under severe strain due to international sanctions, the Syrian regime has had to rely almost exclusively on its relationship with Iran. According to a Tehran Times report, that relationship is likely to deepen even further, especially following a recent visit of “Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Hossein Abdollahian to Syria, where he met with several high-ranking Syrian leaders including President Bashar Assad…. Commenting on the visit, [Foreign Ministry spokesman] Khatibzadeh said Iran-Syria relations have entered a strategic phase. The dimensions of Iran-Syria relations are different, and the nature of strategic relations requires that these be established in all dimensions, including economic, cultural, military, and so on,’ he said.”

The most important development of the last few weeks, however, has been a thawing of relations between Jordan and Syria. Khaleej Times staff note that, in addition to opening a main border crossing between Jordan and Syria, the Jordanian government has also been trying for even more economic exchanges between Syria and its Arab neighbors, “in a boost for their struggling economies following a push by Arab states to reintegrate a country they have shunned during its decade-long civil war…. Officials in Jordan, a close US ally, and Lebanon have urged Washington to ease sanctions on Syria to facilitate trade. Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt — another close US ally — this month reached agreement for Egyptian natural gas to be sent to Lebanon via Syria using a pipeline built some 20 years ago in an Arab cooperation project…. Jordan’s state airline, Royal Jordanian, will soon resume direct flights to Damascus for the first time in nearly a decade. The decision was one of several taken at a ministerial meeting to boost bilateral trade, investment and transport ties….”

The good news for Syria doesn’t stop with the likely détente between the regime and many who, not too long ago, had called for the removal of Assad from power. These “breakthroughs,” as Jordan Times’ Osama Al-Sharif characterizes them, seem to have also spilled into the area of diplomacy, where once again the Jordanian king may have played a determining role: “The opposing sides in the Syrian conflict are this week co-chairing a meeting of the Syrian Constitutional Committee in Geneva, after having agreed to begin the drafting process of a new basic law for the country…. This initiative coincided with King Abdullah calling on the US and Europe to engage the Russians in finding a political end to the conflict by focusing on changing the behavior of the regime, rather than removing it…. A secret document, said to be Jordanian, that was published by Asharq Al-Awsat this month suggests taking practical steps to normalize ties with Syria, while recognizing Russian interests in that country, in return for a gradual change in the behavior of the regime.”

Amid the warming of relations and possible stabilization of the domestic security situation, Omer Onhon raises an important question in his Asharq Alawsat op-ed: “[Is] Assad on his way to becoming a respectable member of the international community? Assad has gained some ground …. There are many who envisage that Syria could retain its seat in the Arab League by the end of the year. UAE and Jordan have been at the forefront of building bridges with Assad. Egypt has also joined in…. Assad and his allies feel that they are the winners. They have neither the motivation nor the will to implement [UNSC resolution] 2254, nor are they under pressure from the international community to do so. In any case, the present situation in and around Syria is not sustainable. Tough choices and painful compromises are needed on all sides, in order to avoid renewed armed hostilities and new tragedies.”

Meanwhile, Ray Hanania, an Arab News contributor, draws attention to the fact that, while a number of countries, including Turkey, Russia, and China, have made important inroads in Syria, the United States seems to be adrift in terms of its strategy, adding that, while “Syria is a mess… it is not a mess for everyone. Russia is building a strong base through its alliance with President Bashar Assad. Turkey is establishing justification for a long-term presence as it battles to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state along its border. Iran also has a strong presence in Syria. And Hezbollah has an armed presence in the country, expanding its base of militant violence….  And, in recent months, China has engaged in the Syrian conflict by joining Russia in demanding that the US ‘abide by international laws.’ The only nation not engaged in Syria in a meaningful way is the US, which is slowly but steadily finding out that the country is being used as an instrument of international political pressure…. If the US loses its influence in Syria, especially by failing to take decisive, strong action, it could eventually lose its influence everywhere.”

There is no denying that the last few weeks have been, on balance, good for the Syrian regime. And yet, shadows lurk in the background. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan drew attention this week, according to this Daily Sabah report, to his country’s ongoing presence in Syria and the necessity of a political rather than military solution: “Turkey continues to do whatever is necessary in northwestern Syria’s opposition-held Idlib region and is responding with heavy weaponry, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Thursday…. The Bashar Assad regime, backed by Russia, has recently intensified its attacks on Idlib in violation of a truce agreed upon last year by Moscow and Ankara…. The situation in Idlib was most recently discussed between Turkey and Russia during a visit by Erdoğan to the Russian Black Sea resort Sochi, where he met with President Vladimir Putin…. Russia is the main ally of the Syrian regime, while Turkey supports groups that have fought to unseat Bashar Assad. However, Russian and Turkish troops have cooperated in Idlib, the final holdout of opposition forces, and in seeking a political solution in the war-torn country.”

Then, there was the news of the assassination of a Syrian officer by an Israeli sniper, reminding everyone of the volatility of the situation at the border. That Madhat al-Saleh had been working in tandem with the Iranians raises the stakes of the incident even higher. As Israel Hayom staff point out, “The death of a Syrian intelligence official – allegedly by Israeli sniper fire – could mark a new phase in Israel’s war against Iranian entrenchment in neighboring Syria…. Syria’s state-run SANA news agency said that Madhat al-Saleh – senior adviser to President Bashar Assad – was fatally shot on Saturday in Ein el-Tinneh, a village along the Israeli border in the Golan Heights, where he ran a government office. According to Al-Jazeera, he was shot dead by an Israeli sniper. Israeli media said Al-Saleh had been working with Iran to establish a front against Israel on the Golan border.”

Even closer to home, Iranian Press Tv reported this week on the bombing of a bus carrying Syrian military personnel. That the event took place in Damascus, in an area ostensibly under the control of government forces, was not lost on anyone: “Syria says terror attacks like the deadly bombing that recently targeted a military bus in Damascus will not stop its fight against terrorism, calling on the international community and the United Nations to condemn the bloodshed and take action against the countries sponsoring terrorism. In a statement on Wednesday, an official source with Syria’s Foreign and Expatriates Ministry strongly condemned the “cowardly” terrorist act, the official SANA news agency reported…. Since 2011, Syria has been gripped by foreign-backed militancy, leading to the emergence of Daesh and other terrorist groups in the Arab country.”

Finally, the return of the “prodigal” uncle promises to serve up a number of conspiracies inside the Syrian “court.” Rifaat al-Assad, the brother and for a time the right-hand man of Syria’s former president Hafez al-Assad, left the country in 1984 following a failed coup against his brother. Sam Hamad, writing for the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, believes his return is a calculated move on the part of President Bashar al-Assad, but one that carries risks nonetheless: “It is possible that, if not for Rifaat’s stature among Alawites, the most loyal base of the Assad regime, Hafez would have purged his treacherous brother. It could very well be that this is what lies behind Assad’s apparent mercifulness towards him…. Assad, thus, could have sensed an opportunity in calming or offsetting unrest among the Alawites as Syria’s economic situation worsens by allowing his well-respected uncle to return. It is certainly not due to latent affection between the two – Rifaat has always considered himself to be the rightful heir to Hafez’s throne, … [H]e denounced Bashar’s enthronement as president in 2000 and claimed that he was the legitimate ruler. Likewise, he called on Assad to step down after the eruption of the revolution in 2011.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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