Syria and the Arab Countries: Strategic Hostility or Forced Peace?

Bashar al-Assad mural in Latakia
Credit: Emesik, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ten years have passed since the start of the uprising in Syria in March 2011. A war in which more than 400,000 people were killed and has been called one of the bloodiest wars of the century. Arab countries have reacted harshly to this incident since the beginning of the war. They closed their embassies in Damascus and suspended Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the Arab League in November 2011. However, after 10 years and the help of Iran (at the beginning of the war) and Russia (in September 2015), the situation of the war went in favor of Bashar al-Assad and the country was able to regain a large part of its territory.

The recent progress of the Syrian regime and the stabilization of its position in the main political and economic centers such as Damascus, Aleppo and the coastal region showed the Arab countries that this regime is not as shaky as it was in the past and these countries will have to normalize their relations with Bashar al-Assad in the near future. This coercion stems from the coercive requirements that oblige Arab countries to resume relations with Syria.

Economic requirements

The process of rebuilding Syria is very extensive and requires a lot of financial resources. The process of rebuilding Syria is estimated to require about $250 billion to $400 billion, and at most up to $1 trillion. This amount is very tempting, and all the neighboring Arab countries of Syria are eager to participate in this great financial reconstruction. Especially in light of the COVID-19 Pandemic, which has plagued most Arab economies, even the Persian Gulf monarchies, and Syria is a way to strengthen their damaged economy. In this regard, it is necessary to pay attention to a few points. First, this volume of reconstruction requires a lot of manpower. Second, participating in the reconstruction brings great economic benefits to the countries involved in the reconstruction of post-war Syria, and third, the countries investing in post-war Syria can dictate their future needs to the Syrian government.

Egypt is one of the countries that exports a large labor force to the Arab countries in the region. The unemployment rate in the country in 2020 was 10.13 percent, which is a high figure, and the country is trying to reduce this figure by exporting labor. Every year, Egypt receives a significant amount of remittances from Egyptian workers. For example, Remittances in Egypt increased to $8028.10 million in the third quarter of 2020 from $6212.50 million in the second quarter of 2020. With this outlook, Egypt hopes to reconstruct Syria and use its revenues to strengthen its own economy. That is why more than 30 Egyptian companies participated in the Damascus International Fair in August 2019, and in January of the same year, representatives of the Egyptian Engineers’ Union met with their Syrian counterparts to discuss areas of joint cooperation. These activities show Cairo’s serious determination for its potential participation and contribution to the reconstruction of Syria.

Jordan also sees Syria as a trade bridge. Nasib Border Crossing is one of the busiest crossings in Syria, located between Jordan and Syria. The crossing fell to opposition forces in April 2015, and Jordan was forced to close the crossing the same year. After Syrian government forces recaptured the crossing on July 6, 2018, both countries decided to reopen the crossing in October 2018. For Jordan, the reopening of the border with Syria carries huge economic benefits. Trade between the two countries in 2010 was estimated at $750 million. For Jordan, however, Syria’s importance as a gateway to Lebanon, Turkey and Europe far exceeds its value as a trading partner. Likewise, Jordan is an invaluable doorway to Persian Gulf markets for Lebanon and Syria.

Political requirements

Syria has been one of the influential Arab countries in the axis of resistance in the region, which has had a significant political impact on the Middle East peace process, and therefore the Arab countries simply cannot ignore it.

Lebanon is tied to the political destiny of Syria for various reasons. The Hezbollah’ s presence in Syria is one of the things that makes Lebanon to consider resuming relations with Syria. Lebanon’s Hezbollah has sided with Bashar al-Assad since the beginning of the unrest in Syria. Hezbollah, along with its affiliates such as the Amal Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement, uses Lebanon as a base to support Bashar al-Assad. This has put Lebanon in a sensitive and dangerous position. Through its verbal and practical conflicts against the Gulf monarchies, Hezbollah is helping to worsen relations with Arab countries and keeping Beirut away from its Arab and Western investors and sponsors. Despite Lebanon’s heavy national debt and declining foreign exchange reserves, Hezbollah and its supporters are always careful to meet Syria’s basic needs such as bread, fuel, grain and the Syrian dollar as much as possible. This not only damages the economy and worsens the economic situation in Lebanon, but also puts Lebanon on suspicion of violating the Caesar Act — which is being used by the United States to sanction those who help the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Another political requirement of Arab countries to start inevitable relations with Damascus is the issue of Iran’s presence in Syria. Syria and Iran have a lot of strategic cooperation with each other. The Arab countries, especially the Persian Gulf monarchies, understand this fact and are not happy with it. They want to separate Bashar al-Assad from Iran and return him to the unity of the Arab countries. But so far, these efforts have not achieved the desired results. Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Tehran in 2019, which was his second trip to a foreign country other than Russia after the 2011 unrest, and his meeting with the Iranian leaders showed the extent of Iran’s deep relations with the regime. Iran’s billion-dollar aid to Syria since 2011 and its support, training and spiritual and material support for pro-Iran military groups in Syria have left the country dependent on Iran in the aftermath of the civil war. In February 2011, Tehran and Damascus signed eleven agreements, including one aimed at facilitating “long-term strategic economic cooperation” between the two countries. These collaborations show the strong bond between Damascus and Tehran. 

The Arab countries do not want Syria to become a second Iraq. They want Sunni Syria to remain for the Sunni Arabs. They see Syria as a source of wealth and power for Iran in the Arab world, and fear Iranian investment and political and economic power in Syria. The access of Iranian oil to Syrian territory represents an increase in Iran’s oil maneuvering power. Arab countries are trying to prevent Tehran from accessing the Mediterranean corridor in competition with Iran. In 2013, Iran and Syria signed the “Friendship” oil pipeline agreement through Iraq. In addition, Iraq owns the Kirkuk-Tripoli (or Kirkuk- Baniyas; built in 1952) and Kirkuk-Haifa (built in 1943) oil pipelines.

Iran’s access to these oil pipelines reduces Iran’s oil transportation costs, access to new markets, finding potential customers and consequently, cheaper Iranian oil, which is a severe blow to the Persian Gulf monarchies’ oil markets and increases political maneuver and economic power. The Persian Gulf monarchies seek to strike such agreements by seeking to oust Bashar al-Assad from continuing to cooperate with Iran and integrate Syria into their political systems. That is why, at the height of the coronavirus crisis on March 27, 2020, Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, spoke over phone with Bashar al-Assad to change the face of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Syria and overtake its rivals, and spoke of his support for Syria and its people amid the Covid-19 Pandemic: “Syria and her people will not stand alone.”

Russia’s presence in Syria and its consequences are other political requirements for the Arab countries’ reactions towards Damascus. Moscow entered the Syrian civil war on Sept. 30, 2015, and provided significant assistance in consolidating the power of Bashar al-Assad. However, although Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have welcomed Russia’s entry into Syria, they are not optimistic about Moscow’s long-term presence.

Russia cannot balance among all its partners in Syria. The parties involved in Syria, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, Turkey, etc., may ask themselves to how much and to what extent they can rely on Russia as a trans-regional power and hegemon in Syria and whether Russia can bring about long-term coordination between their conflicting interests. For example, Russia’s relations with Iran disrupt Russia’s relations with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies, or Moscow’s alliance with Hezbollah in Syria complicates Moscow’s relations with Tel Aviv. In addition, Russia lacks an extensive network of economic assistance programs, trade relations, military alliances, and diplomatic partnerships, as the United States builds and replicates these networks in the region.

Turkey is another rival of the Arab countries in Syria. It has wide differences with the Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE. Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood movements in the region, their differences in Libya and Turkey’s presence in northern Syria highlight the differences between them. For this reason, the Arabs of the region, especially the Persian Gulf monarchies (excluding Qatar) intend to create a multidimensional system in northern Syria by reconciling with the government of Bashar al-Assad and being present in Syria in order to create instability in southern Turkey. They seek to find a place of refuge so that they can create armed opposition groups vis a vis Turkey and try to force Ankara to retreat from its strategic goals in the region by creating security tensions. It does not seem impossible to pursue this goal given the hostility between Damascus and Ankara.

The reaction of the Arab countries towards Syria is not uniform and coherent. Each of the Arab countries has issues with the regime of Bashar al-Assad due to various factors, and therefore, in return for the normalization of relations with Syria, they consider different conditions and pursue their own interests. Morocco, Iraq and Oman were neutral on the suspension of Syria from the Arab League. The UAE and Bahrain initially opposed the Syrian regime and provided significant assistance to Bashar al-Assad’s opponents, but over time they both adopted a softer policy toward the Syrian government, and both reopened their embassies in Damascus in December 2018.

Oman officially introduced its ambassador to the Syrian government in October 2020, although it had never closed its embassy in Syria. Saudi Arabia and Egypt believe in an UN-led political solution in Syria. Kuwait has taken the ‘wait-and-see’ approach towards Syria, and Qatar continues to pursue the fall of Bashar al-Assad and oppose the normalization of relations with the Syrian government. In general, the UAE, Bahrain, Iraq and the Arab countries of North Africa want Syria to return to the Arab League and encourage the start of relations with the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Overall, the Arab countries were divided and hesitant at the beginning of their relations with Bashar al-Assad. However, all these countries are forced to reconcile and resume their relations  with the Syrian regime according to the requirements explained.

Mohammad Salami has a Ph.D. in International Relations. He writes as an analyst and columnist in various media outlets. His area of expertise is Middle East issues, especially Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and the GCC countries. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.