Will Gulf outreach to Assad regime mean more focus on Israeli actions?

For years the Syrian regime was isolated, working closely with Moscow and Tehran, but with few other friends.

A WORKER affixes the United Arab Emirates embassy emblem during its reopening in Damascus on Thursday (photo credit: OMAR SANADIKI/REUTERS)
A WORKER affixes the United Arab Emirates embassy emblem during its reopening in Damascus on Thursday
Gulf countries are re-opening embassies in Damascus. After the United Arab Emirates made an announcement at the end of last week, news emerged that Bahrain and Kuwait were also upping their diplomatic role in Syria.
This comes after seven years in which Syria was suspended from the Arab League and given the cold shoulder in the region. Now, as Damascus recovers from the chaos of conflict and civil war, the ramifications may be felt in Israel and neighboring countries.
For years the Syrian regime was isolated, working closely with Moscow and Tehran, but with few other friends. However, 2018 has been a good year for Syrian President Bashar Assad. He reconquered the southern part of the country and with the US announcement that it is leaving Syria, he looks set to take back much of the east. The Syrian conflict is also ending in a series of ceasefires, such as the one in Idlib that was brokered between Russia and Turkey.
The return of Syria to its place in the region may not be swift, but it appears to be on the way. This will mean that Syria may return to the Arab League, although UAE minister for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash said that this would require consensus.
There are also other hurdles. Turkey, Russia and Iran recently met in Geneva to discuss a constitution committee for Syria which would involve some in the opposition and some from the pro-government side. Syria’s future is still partly being decided in Geneva and also in Astana and Sochi, where Russia has led talks about Syria with Iran and Turkey.
As the Syrian regime recovers, it will seek more control over its own territory. This doesn’t just mean token control, but it will be more outspoken about what is going on in Syria as it clamps down on former rebel areas. One question about the post-Syrian civil war era is the degree of influence Iran will have. During the years of the war, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps built bases and outposts and sent thousands of Iranians and others it recruited to fight in Syria. After the US announced its withdrawal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel would continue to act against Iran’s attempts to entrench itself militarily in Syria.
“We will even expand our actions there,” Netanyahu said.
On December 25, airstrikes lit up the sky west of Damascus. The Syrian regime blamed Israel and Russia put out a statement also accusing Israel of the strikes. It said that Israel had carried them out “under the cover” of civilian planes heading to land at airports in Damascus and Beirut.
“We are very concerned with the fact of the attacks as well as how they were carried out,” Moscow said. “This is a gross violation of the sovereignty of Syria.” The US released a statement saying it “fully supports Israel’s right to defend itself against Iranian regional actions.” This included Iran’s support and supply of “terrorist groups in Syria,” which Washington says are unacceptable.
With one hand, the US is leaving Syria, but with the other it appears to be upping support for Israel’s actions. Over the last year and a half Israel has said that it struck 200 Iranian targets in Syria. The question now is what comes next, given the changes in Syria and especially normalization with Arab countries in the region.
HUSSEIN IBISH, writing in The National in the UAE, notes that the US presence had effectively blocked the Iranian “military corridor” that passes from Tehran via Iraq to Syria and then to Lebanon.
“Trump’s backers claim Israel can block Iran on the other side of Syria, towards the southwest,” Ibish wrote. “But that would allow Iran to get within 60 km. or even less of the Lebanese border.” Ibish thinks the Syrian struggle has now moved to the diplomatic realm. That means that it is time to try to move Syria away from Iran. “The goal now must be to split the Astana talks partnership of Russia, Turkey and Iran, and to even draw the Assad regime away from Iran and Hezbollah.”
Is this just wishful thinking? Ibish says that there are ways to induce Syria away from Tehran. “There is no way Russia or the Assad regime wish to remain forever at the mercy of Iran,” he wrote.
Nicholas Heras, Middle East security fellow at the Center for a New American Security, wrote on Saturday that Trump’s team might “achieve a strategic Israel, Turkey, US alliance to box Iran from eastern Syria.” This could theoretically diminish Hezbollah’s network in Syria, he tweeted.
The major question that hangs over these assumptions is Iran’s understanding of this pressure and how it seeks to exploit the situation. Pressure to end airstrikes around Damascus is clear from the Russian side. Iran has been relatively quiet in discussing the impact of airstrikes on its forces.
However, the increasing normalization with the Gulf and the chance that Syria may open more diplomatic connections in the region will eventually lead to a consensus that airstrikes, even on Iranian targets in Syria, are not the norm. They were the norm during the Syrian conflict when there was chaos in Syria and a fog of war. But the movement to the diplomatic front, as Ibish argues will happen, will likely mean a closing window for military confrontations of Iran.
Whether the theorized push by Turkey or Russia to remove Iran’s influence will come before that window closes is a key question. Given Iran’s influence in Lebanon and Iraq, as well as how it has ingratiated itself in Ankara and other countries in the region, such as Qatar, the chance that Iran will walk away from Syria easily, the way the US did, is unlikely. Iran already senses victory in Syria, it just doesn’t know how to play that victory yet.