Analysis

Under Russia's Auspices, Syria Looks for Legitimacy in Arab World

U.S. military presence in Syria failed to stymie plans of Turkey, Russia and Iran ■ On Syrian-Turkish border, Kurds prepare for the worst ■ Assad cozies up to Egypt and Iraq as Saudi Arabia's reputation declines

A Syrian national flag with a picture of Syrian President Bashar Assad flies at an army check point in the town of Douma, July 2018.
AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

UPDATE: The Damascus embassy of the United Arab Emirates is set to be reopened on Thursday. It was shuttered in 2011.  

Syria? "It's all yours," Donald Trump told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, adding, "we are done" – as though he were an Ottoman sultan grandly giving one of its officers an estate to run. Israel would love to hear such a promise. But even if it had, it wouldn't have meant anything. The one who decides on Israel's room to maneuver in Syria isn't the U.S. It's Russia, and in Moscow, Israel has suffered a series of threatening condemnations. From Israel's perspective, Trump's decision to withdraw American troops from Syria doesn't change a thing.

It's not just that Trump's decision changes nothing for Israel; the American military involvement, which began very belatedly, after half a million Syrians had died and eight million fled, didn't stymie the plans of Turkey, Iran and mainly Russia itself. Back in the Obama administration, Washington distanced itself from political moves aiming at finding a diplomatic solution to the war, despite the fight against Islamic State. The political channel that opened at the Geneva conference, and Saudi Arabia's efforts to establish an alliance of militias, flopped and were abandoned.

>> Read more: Timeline: U.S. involvement in Syria, up until Trump's surprising decision to withdraw ■ Trump leaves Syria with Putin holding Iran cards and Israel more isolated than ever ■ Syria withdrawal and Mattis’ resignation startle Israel – and undercut Netanyahu

In their stead, Russia created an alternative avenue called the Astana channel (after the capital of Kazakhstan, where most of the crisis management talks were held). The western coalition that America tried to lead was replaced by a triumvirate of Turkey, Russia and Iran, which decided to set up safe zones. Turkey took responsibility for Idlib and north Syria; Iran agreed to stay a little bit farther from Israel's border but remains involved in the area of Damascus; Hezbollah is running the border area between Syria and Lebanon; and Russia transitioned from fighting and supervising its and Syria's forces, and to restoring Assad's status in the Arab world, as part of a larger diplomatic move.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, shakes hands with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in Damascus, Syria, December 16, 2018.
,AP

Assad's return to the Arab League is up for discussion this week, and no final decision has been reached. But Russia's efforts to persuade Arab leaders to take back the son they kicked out in 2011 will continue until March 2019, when the Arab League convenes in Tunisia. It's no coincidence that Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir – who is wanted in The Hague for crimes against humanity – flew to Damascus on a Russian plane, which also flew him home. He was followed by Iraqi President Barham Salih; Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi is also expected to visit soon. 

But the most significant meeting was on Sunday, between Ali Mamlouk – head of national security in Syria, Assad's right-hand man and the man in charge the entire Syrian intelligence apparatus – with the head of the Egyptian intelligence, Abbas Kamel. Egypt released a laconic announcement saying the two had discussed bilateral matters on the regional situation. But the editor of the Egyptian government newspaper al-Ahram, Jamil Afifi, explained at length that Egypt's relations with Syria are "historic" ties that should not be severed, and that any threat to Syria's national security is like a threat to Egypt's.

Afifi was expressing the intentions of Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who said a year ago that he is prepared to help the Syrian army because it's a national one, as opposed to militias. And in contrast with Saudi Arabia's position, Egypt voted at the UN in favor of a Russian resolution proposal that ruled out condemning Syria. Will Egypt take the next step and support Syria's return to the League? If Egypt has until now avoided stepping on Saudi Arabia's toes, it appears that following the Jamal Khashoggi incident and the ensuing diminishment of Saudi Arabia's status in the Arab world and internationally, Egypt's decision won't be that hard to make.

Like Jordan, which opened its border with Syria, Egypt would prefer that Syria stay within the League. Expelling it did nothing to change Assad's policy; Iran grew stronger against the Arab coalition; and Turkey – nemesis of Egypt and Saudi Arabia – became the proprietor of the northern part of the country. The Russian interest in bringing Syria back to the Arab League's arms is based not only on wanting to achieve legitimacy (first Arab, later international) for it, but also on a desire to balance Iran's and Turkey's influence in Syria, a goal that the U.S. didn't make (and, it seems, didn't intend to make) a reality.

The American helplessness was reflected in statements by James Jeffrey, America's envoy for Syrian affairs, who explained that removing Iran from Syria would be achieved diplomatically and not militarily. He just didn't mention who would spearhead the diplomatic initiative and what means of diplomatic pressure the U.S. would have.

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters raise the opposition flag as they arrive in the border rebel-held town of Qirata on December 25, 2018.
Nazeer AL-KHATIB / AFP

The approaches toward Assad among the Arab leaders are also happening against the backdrop of a conflict that is likely to develop on the Syrian-Turkey border between the Turkish army, the militias subordinate to it, and Kurdish forces.

On Tuesday, Erdogan's special adviser Ibrahim Kalin said that all hell will break loose if Syrian forces were to attack their Turkish counterparts. Moscow doesn't appreciate such threats, since it will have to decide how long a rope it's prepared to give to Erdogan. But the plans to expand the Turkish occupation of Syria were not formed in conjunction with the sudden American pullout. Turkey did and does see Washington as ally of the Kurds, and did not hesitate at conquering the Kurdish city of Afrin back in March despite American disapproval.

It seems that even if the 2,000 American soldiers were to remain in Syria, Turkey wouldn't exactly view them as an obstacle. The interests and moves on the ground have developed and progressed regardless of the American presence. Meanwhile, the Kurds' understandable alarm and concern for their safety are seen as, at most, "collateral damage" that will not change policy in Russia, Turkey or Iran. The Kurds are bracing for a fight, it looks like they will have to seek shelter under the Syrian wing, with help from Russia.