Syria has long been an important centre for pan-Arab states in contemporary times. Its significance can be gauged from the fact that Syria has been considered as the heart of Arabism. Since the beginning of the Arab nationalist movement in the late 19th and early 20th century, Syria has hoisted the banner of Arab nationalism. But since the onset of civil war in 2011, Syria has got diplomatically isolated in the Arab world. However, the dynamics are changing now in Syria’s favour.
Recently President Bashar al-Assad told a Kuwaiti newspaper that Syria had reached a "major understanding'' with Arab states after years of hostility over the Syrian civil war. Assad revealed that Syria and several Arab nations are on the verge of resuming diplomatic relations. It is the first interview that president Assad gave to a Gulf-based media outlet since the beginning of the war. Many Arab countries are courting the Syrian government at present that the civil war is almost over. Arab states are rethinking their next steps to deal with the status quo in Syria, coming to the realization that they will have to cope with the presence of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at least for the near future. Moreover, Damascus remains attentive to its changing regional environment and Syrian diplomacy is also eagerly searching for Arab allies. Let’s have a look at some important Arab state’s rapprochement towards Syria.
The Hashemite kingdom shares a border of more than 385 kms with Syria and is one of few Arab states that refused to sever its diplomatic ties with Syria and allowed Syrian embassy to operate in Amman. Recently the Nasib border crossing between Jordan and Syria was also reopened which clearly indicates that Damascus and Amman are looking forward for more deeper engagement.
Doha is under blockade and faces immense pressure from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their allies. Relief comes in the form of supplies flown in from Iran a staunch ally of Syria. Moreover, Qatar is eager to improve relations with Russia, another ally of Syria. Qatar has communicated to both Iran and Russia that they are willing to tolerate President Assad in Syria.
The most significant indication of a possible shift in Saudi-Syrian policy was when Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman made a surprising statement to Time magazine that "Bashar is staying. Saudi Arabia for quite a while now is seeking to pull Assad into the Arab fold so that it can weaken his alliance with Iran.
Egyptians seem to have come to the reluctant conclusion that ending the conflict is a more pressing need than replacing the Assad regime. They think the destabilizing impact of the war, particularly the rise of ISIS, is more of a concern than the continuation of Iran’s long-established influence in Damascus. Hence Cairo looks more tolerant towards Syrian government.
UAE Minister of State for Gulf Affairs Anwar Gargash in June this year said in a statement to prominent Middle East newspaper “The National” that he regretted Syria’s suspension from the Arab League as it had shut off a major conduit for regional voices in pushing for peace talks and a negotiated settlement to the conflict. Earlier this year, Syria flagship airliner resumed flights to an airport in the emirate of Sharjah in a move that potentially indicated improving trade relations between the two states.
The sultanate is the only Gulf state to have hosted the Syrian envoy even during the civil war. Oman has unusually good relations with Syrian close ally Iran because of this Muscat have maintained amicable relations with Syrian government.
Kuwaitis has been following their traditional pattern of avoiding participation in external conflicts. Kuwait is also skittish about the Syrian conflict because it does not wish to unnecessarily antagonize its relatively well-assimilated Shia population.
All this points to Arab world’s willingness to take Syria into its fold. But for Syria to be fully integrated in Arab world and to play a dominant role, it has to redefine its political approach in the region. Syria has to decide whether it must remain an independent country or as a satellite of another powerful state in the Arab world.
In a country that’s lost 75% of its GDP, reconstruction is for now a much-desired dream. Assad’s backers do not have the necessary resources for more than subsistence recovery, and they are already looking for their share of what’s left of Syria’s economy. Hence it is more important for Syria to get support of other important Arab states which can help it get back on its feet again. President Assad has won the military war but he has to be victorious in another one – which is to reconstruct Syria. That can only be achieved by realigning the state with Arab world.