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Syria’s long and horrific civil war is winding down, and recent weeks have seen a flurry of diplomatic moves bringing Bashar al-Assad's regime back into the embrace of the Arab world. Momentum is building for Syria’s readmittance to the Arab League, which suspended Damascus’s membership in 2012. In play in the long term is even the international rehabilitation of Syria. Arab countries are already working their connections with the West to bring this about. Observers and officials say the dramatic shift is a carefully calculated political move to reverse both Iranian and Turkish gains and to maximize the economic dividends of peace. There are big profits to be made in the rebuilding of Syria. But there’s a substantial sticking point: the ability to bring along civilian populations who for years saw the other side as evil. “It is going to be very difficult to swallow and stomach for the public after all these atrocities,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati professor of political science. “But no matter the crimes the Assad regime committed, the reality is you must deal with Syria as a country, and over time people will accept that reality as governments have.”
After nearly eight years of trying to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Gulf states and their Arab allies are rapidly embracing Damascus anew.
The bitter enemies in the civil war-turned-proxy war that has killed more than 500,000 people and displaced millions are reopening embassies, reestablishing trade ties, and paving the way for Syria’s return to regional organizations.
At stake in the shorter term are regional efforts to contain Shiite Iran, and in the long term even the international rehabilitation of Syria.
The past few weeks have seen a flurry of moves marking Syria’s return from the cold:
• The United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus after seven years in late December, with Bahrain and Kuwait expected to follow.
• Saudi Arabia, the staunchest anti-Assad government during the war, reportedly is leaning toward reopening its embassy and recently appointed as foreign minister Ibrahim al-Assaf, head of the Saudi-Syrian Friendship Committee.
• Syria’s security chief and Assad adviser, Ali Mamlouk, has been on recent visits to Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo, and several trade and political delegations from the UAE, Jordan, and Egypt have visited Damascus over the last month.
• And momentum is building for Syria’s readmittance to the Arab League, which suspended Damascus’s membership over its killing of pro-democracy protesters in 2012, with Egypt and Jordan reportedly pushing the organization to accept Syria in time for its annual summit in Tunisia this March.
Driving the rapid thaw in ties is the shift in the balance of power in Syria and a recalibration of Arab foreign policy. Observers and officials say it is a carefully calculated political move made both to contain Iranian influence and maximize the economic dividends of peace.
But there’s a substantial yet unquantifiable sticking point to the rapprochement: the ability of both the Arab regimes and Syria to bring along civilian populations who for years saw the other side as evil.
With Mr. Assad exerting control over 70 percent of Syrian territory, Arab governments have adjusted to the fact that after seven years of their pouring billions of dollars and arms into Syria, Assad has all but “won” the civil war. Not only is he still standing, but Iran has become more entrenched in Syria than ever.
Analysts and insiders say Gulf states and their Arab allies are now attempting a different tack – rebuilding ties with Damascus on joint interests.
“We have to view these developments in a realpolitik manner here: The warming of ties did not happen as a result of the leaders of the Gulf and Syria kissing and making up,” says Riad Kahwaji, Emirati analyst and director of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
“This move comes under the current equation of the balance of power and the ongoing cold war with Iran,” he says. “This is part of a bigger effort by the Gulf countries to contain Iranian influence.”
Despite Assad owing his very survival to Iran, along with Russia, Gulf states believe the end of the war is an opportunity to compete with Tehran for influence and establish a presence within Syria before Iran can capitalize on its investment.
Insiders say that Gulf and Arab states have been engaging a strong current within the Assad regime that resents Iran’s increasing dominance in Syrian affairs. Arab officials hope to tap into the desire within Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime to place Syria as a player in the Arab world, rather than simply as part of a Shiite Iranian axis.
Opening to the West
As part of this regional rapprochement, the Gulf Arabs, Jordan, and Egypt are offering Syria reintegration into Arab organizations, giving Damascus regional legitimacy after nearly eight years as a pariah state, and paving the path toward the international recognition and normalization it craves.
Under this grand “bargain,” insiders say, the Arab states are offering to mediate and lobby on behalf of Damascus in Washington and Brussels, using their Western alliances to ease Syria’s reintegration into the international system and global economy.
Lobbying has reportedly already begun in earnest between Arab officials with their European counterparts and the Trump administration.
In return, the Gulf-Arab alliance expects Syria to reorient itself closer to the Arab world, and allow Arab states to take part in the economic opportunities opened up by reconstruction.
It is a bargain the Syrian regime reportedly is eager to discuss.
“On the political level, the Syrian regime recognizes that neither Iran nor Russia can play the role of normalizer on the international level – you need new protagonists that have the legitimacy and credibility to rehabilitate Syria’s image,” says Amer Sabaileh, a Jordanian geopolitical analyst. “That is where the Gulf comes in.”
Yet with thousands of Iranian boots on the ground and its ties cemented with Damascus, Arab states are not expecting to rival Tehran overnight. Rather, they reportedly view the rapprochement as a long-term project, fueled by the mistakes they believed they committed by shunning postwar Iraq.
“There is no way to completely prevent Iran from having influence inside Syria, but at least we can try to mitigate that influence as much as we can,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati professor of political science and analyst. “Arab states do not want to abandon Syria like we abandoned Iraq.”
Arab officials who have met recently with Syrian leadership say Assad has sent a personal message to Jordan’s king and the Gulf leaders: “Syria would like to look forwards, not backwards” on the divisive civil war.
My enemy’s enemy
Common threats and concerns are also reuniting Damascus and the Gulf.
The Syrian regime, the Gulf, and Egypt all oppose the Muslim Brotherhood and the influence of Turkey, which has backed the Brotherhood and other Islamist opposition movements across the Arab world.
Sources say the Gulf Arabs, as well as Damascus, are committed to preventing Turkey from gaining a territorial foothold in the Arab world, which they fear may be the start of a regional expansionist project by Ankara.
It is a case, analysts say, of my enemy’s enemy is my friend.
“The UAE leadership in Abu Dhabi perceive Ankara’s foreign policy in Syria as well as the greater Arab world to be a big threat to the Middle East,” says Giorgio Cafiero, chief executive of the think thank Gulf State Analytics.
“The UAE and other Gulf states would like to establish a relationship with Damascus that would serve the purpose of putting a check on Turkey as well as Iran.”
Also binding former enemies are the common threats of Islamic State (ISIS), and the potential for the group’s resurgence in any potential power vacuum.
But perhaps one of the biggest drivers pushing both sides to reconciliation is dollars and cents.
With the Syrian economy devastated and Damascus facing an estimated $400 billion reconstruction bill, the potential of Gulf financing and the contracting of idle Gulf and Jordanian engineering firms is enticing for both sides.
With Iranian firms under renewed sanctions and Russia’s limited economic resources, Arab states remain one of the leading solutions to a successful Syria rebuild – and one reportedly being pushed by both Moscow and Washington.
“The financing for infrastructure and reconstruction will almost certainly come from the Gulf, but it will not be charity, and all sides know this,” says Mr. Abdulla, the Emirati analyst. “There will be a lot of bargaining and a lot of negotiating – every single dollar will have to be matched with reciprocal political commitments from the Syrians.”
A peace for the people?
But while Arab governments and Damascus may be putting aside their differences, the question remains whether this reconciliation will translate into a reconciliation between peoples.
Syrians in Damascus and Assad supporters believe the Gulf powers funded “terrorists,” rebel groups who laid siege to their country for seven years. And many Syrians who opposed Assad express resentment that the Gulf states intervened in and encouraged their uprising, only to abandon them to their fate.
Arab citizens across the region, meanwhile, particularly those in the conservative Gulf, have spent years viewing Syrian atrocities on satellite TV and social media news feeds: Syrian fighter jets barrel-bombing schools and mosques, and the corpses of gassed women and children on hospital floors. For many, it is hard to see Assad other than as a “butcher of Sunni Muslims.”
All agree, it is a large gap to narrow.
“It is going to be very difficult to swallow and stomach for the public after all these atrocities,” says Abdulla. “But no matter the crimes the Assad regime committed, the reality is you must deal with Syria as a country, and over time people will accept that reality as governments have.”
One key to bridging the gap between peoples on either side of the conflict is the reenergizing of tourism to Syria, long a favored holiday destination for citizens of the region.
But whether trade and tourism can heal wounds cleaved by eight years of war is yet to be seen.
“It is important to remember that regimes tend to act unemotionally whereas people are emotional,” Mr. Cafiero cautions. “The baggage from the conflict will heavily complicate the relationship between Syria, the Gulf, and its neighbors for years to come.”