Middle East prepares for the US to exit Syria

The Arab world has taken note of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and is starting to wonder whether Syria, with several hundred US troops, will be next.

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The Biden administration has already given indications it is willing to look away from Gulf Arab states reviving relations with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad rather than actively prevent them from doing so. This marks a slight but significant shift in US policy, as represented by the 2019 Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act.

With Washington showing a diminished appetite for enforcing Syria’s isolation – including through military means – some Arab countries are starting to bring Syria in from its diplomatic isolation.

In recent months, Gulf Arab states – notably, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia – have deepened their engagement with the Syrian government, though to varying degrees and in pursuit of different goals. Kuwait and Qatar, on the other hand, continue to show no interest in doing so.

Is it time to declare ’mission accomplished’ in Syria?

There are limits to how far Gulf Arab states can advance their relationships, which are heavily influenced by the Biden administration’s nascent Syria policy and the still-extensive reach of the Caesar Act’s sanctions.

After a decade of conflict, Gulf Arab states are seeking ways to develop an Arab solution to the war and, by doing so, bring Syria back into the so-called ‘Arab fold’

But Arab leaders no doubt remember that former US president Donald Trump declared victory against the Islamic State in December 2018. Given Joe Biden’s policy toward Afghanistan, predicated on a similar declaration of ‘mission accomplished’, they will likely prepare for Washington’s exit from Syria. After all, it is hard to find anyone in the US administration who publicly argues Syria is a vital US interest.

Apparently, some Arab leaders including from Jordan, the UAE, and others, have lobbied at the highest levels in Washington in favour of sanctions waivers to support expanding their outreach to Syria. It is tempting to characterize this outreach as pure realpolitik by Arab countries – a bid to win influence in Syria and lead the reconstruction process despite the atrocities committed by the regime and its backers as well as a concerted effort to wean Syria off Turkish and Iranian support.

However, each Arab state’s motivation differs, and the initiatives they have undertaken are better considered as ‘prepositioning’ moves ahead of a forthcoming political settlement rather than definitive steps toward normalizing relations with Assad under the current status quo.

Indeed, reaching an understanding with Assad would be far too bitter a pill to swallow, especially for Saudi Arabia given the personal animus felt toward him and his immediate family. Although the Emirati and Bahraini leaderships are less squeamish and, indeed, the former has spoken of brotherly relations that date back to the 1970s, the current environment would be unforgiving and the rewards unlikely to outweigh the risks and consequences of normalization.

Nevertheless, after a decade of conflict, Gulf Arab states are seeking ways to develop an Arab solution to the war and, by doing so, bring Syria back into the so-called ‘Arab fold’. That is a tall order and, in truth, highly unlikely to happen, but working toward that goal gives Gulf Arab states a head start should the US beat a hasty retreat or reach an agreement with Russia on the shape of a political settlement.

Although those options may have looked outlandish a few years back, they are beginning to look slightly more realistic now. Gulf Arab state efforts to rebuild relations with the Syrian government should be seen in that light. They are an attempt to reestablish and cultivate working relations after a ten-year hiatus, but this time, they will be more transactional.

Gone are the days when Gulf Arab states would simply turn up to regional crises with an open checkbook; that approach failed miserably multiple times, including in Lebanon and Iraq, as Gulf Arab nations were outpaced and outmaneuvered by regional competitors such as Iran. Indeed, there is little appetite among Gulf Arab states to fund the reconstruction of the country without assurances their political interests are met in full.

Given Biden’s hard-nosed realism in Afghanistan, it is easy to imagine the president concluding troops in northeast Syria do not serve US interests

Oman has maintained high-level diplomatic relations with Syria throughout the conflict and has recently increased its diplomatic presence in the country. Although it lacks the political capital to push for Syria’s Arab League suspension to be lifted, it has aligned itself with the UAE, Bahrain, and Jordan to pursue that goal.

Meanwhile, the UAE has become more muscular since reopening its embassy in Damascus in 2018, motivated by its goal to roll back Turkish influence as part of its broader struggle with Ankara throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Red Sea region. For example, using the pretext of COVID-19 humanitarian diplomacy during 2020, the UAE engaged with Damascus to encourage Assad to break the Russian-mediated truce in Idlib, Syria, to fight Turkish-backed rebels.

At the same time, the UAE does not see working with the Assad regime and the Kurdish-led opposition group the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as mutually exclusive, believing any political settlement will help reconcile their differences. Indeed, Abu Dhabi lent political weight to the Trump administration’s Kurdish ‘oil project’ which was intended to provide the SDF with an independent source of income – irrespective of legality – so it could continue its fight against the Islamic State and simultaneously resist Turkish incursions in the region.

Saudi Arabia’s interests are more limited in scope for now, though undermining Iranian influence and working with an Assad-lite Syrian government remain long-term objectives. For example, reports of Saudi senior intelligence officers meeting with Syrian counterparts are not intended to bestow legitimacy on the Assad regime itself but establish the means to share intelligence and counter common threats.

As such, they are practical steps to reestablish relations at a working level but do not amount to the full restoration of ties. In fact, the bridges being built now could well support a transition to a political settlement that excludes Assad. Although he won a fourth presidential term in May which the West deemed fraudulent, the proposition of Assad’s departure from a future government cannot be far from the minds of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders.

Does Syria still serve US interests?

The Gulf Arab states will continue to preposition themselves at different paces and in ways that are consistent with existing sanctions on Syria ahead of a political settlement in the country. The question of when such a settlement comes will depend on the US. Given Biden’s hard-nosed realism in Afghanistan, it is easy to imagine the president concluding troops in northeast Syria do not serve US interests.

The debacle of the US exit from Kabul and its sheer inhumanity may persuade Biden, however, that reaching a deal with Russia is better than simply walking away and abandoning its allies in Syria. Biden and Russian president Vladimir Putin can kick-start a deal where Russia accepts the formation of a transitional government ‘composed of elements of the current regime – but from outside the Assad family – and elements of various opposition groups and civil society’. 

In return, Russia gains international recognition of its interests in Syria as well as a continuation of its political and military sway in the country. That would be enough for the Gulf Arab states, all of whom are well disposed to Moscow, to normalize relations with Syria and capitalize on the steps already taken, even as it means Kuwait and Qatar will be forced to play catch-up.

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy.