One of the earliest markers to define the civil war in Syria and signify its intensity was the closure of foreign embassies in Damascus. Not only did the closures—along with Syria’s suspension from the Arab League—suggest that the seat of government itself was threatened, they also indicated more clearly which countries supported the Syrian state and which sought its downfall. After years of global leaders stating, “Assad must go,”with many of those same figures now out of office, the backers of the failed revolutionaries have finally begun admitting defeat, while those who stood by the government are now reaping the benefits.
Overestimating Syria’s Fragility
By March 2012, the Sunni-led theocratic Persian Gulf monarchies of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait had withdrawn their diplomatic staffs in an attempt, along with their neighbors, to isolate the Syrian Arab Republic. By January 2019, however, the former two had reversed their decision, while Syria announced it was sending its diplomats to Kuwait. This reversal is striking because the Gulf States have, throughout the war, represented an antithetical model to Damascus within the region, meaning they supplied significant funding for rebel Islamist fighters in Syria. As eight years of perseverance by the Syrian government have demonstrated, the early belief that President Bashar Assad would either flee or be toppled was not only naïve but has come to backfire. In a sense, these countries have now not only recognized the Damascene government, they’ve also recognized that they had bet on the wrong side. An attempt to bring down a regional power—and indirectly weaken Iran—not only failed, it strengthened President Assad’s relative position.
This misjudgment was grounded in the notion that the situation in Syria was identical to that in Iraq and Libya—i.e. a fickle dictatorship controlled by a strongman—and that it would only take a bit of external pressure for the house of cards to collapse. This, however, conflates the tribal nature of the rulership of Saddam Hussein and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi with the much more bureaucratic and institutional form of governance found in Syria. Additionally, the military resilience that has come to define the Syrian Arab Army, which was once seen by Western observers as being on the brink of collapse, lies in decades of experience dating back to its participation in the First Gulf War Coalition of 1990-91, as well as its leading role in the Lebanese Civil War, which featured dynamics strikingly similar to the ones it now finds at home.
The Key to Peace
Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once remarked, “The Arabs can’t make war without Egypt, and they can’t make peace without Syria.” The changing mood in international capitals has slowly drifted toward this conclusion, in which the primary stabilizing force is accepted to be the Syrian government, with the state seen as integral to any lasting peace—both within and without the country. The increasing fiscal and social pressure of Syrian refugees on the Turkish state helps explain why it reversed its course, departing from President Erdogan’s claim that President Assad “is a terrorist who leads state terror” to instead announce that it would consider cooperating with the Syrian leader if he won an election. This acknowledgment of the Syrian government’s central role is not purely an external phenomenon, but one which has manifested itself internally as well, such as when the Kurdish-led SDF—which controls the northeastern portion of Syria—called on the Syrian Arab Army to enter the region in order to defend it from foreign (i.e. Turkish) invasion.
The rationale is not always related to the war itself but is often motivated by economic factors. Greece, which still maintains its embassy in the country, reestablished its importation of phosphate from Syria, which had, prior to the war, provided upwards of a fifth of the European Union’s phosphate imports. Although the estimated $400 billion reconstruction cost facing the country is certainly daunting, it does present a unique opportunity to foreign firms seeking to win the contracts to rebuild Syria. Though Syria’s closest allies in the war, namely Russia and Iran, would have the easiest time attaining them, their current fiscal positions leave them unable to finance reconstruction on their own. China, on the other hand, which has been a consistent backer of the Syrian government, may prove able to offer critical infrastructure support. Recent overtures, particularly by wealthy petrol states, can be recognized as an attempt to get into Syria’s good graces before the dust has settled.
In early 2019, Abu Dhabi was the site of a UAE-Syria private sector forum, which may prove to be the start of a reconstruction partnership. Particularly well positioned are friendly, though militarily uninvolved, countries such as India, which has led bilateral ministerial meetings, extended credit to Syria, and broadened counterterrorism cooperation in light of the latter’s enhanced skills following its fight with the Islamic State.
Syria’s multiethnic and multifaith character, ranging from Greek Orthodox to Druze to Sunni, has strengthened its capacity to engage with the wider world. A relatively unknown minority to many in the West is the historic Armenian community, one of the largest groups within the diaspora. In light of this minority, the Armenian government has expressed consistent support not merely for the Armenian community (such as through resettlement in the Caucasus), but also to the country at large, whether in the form of humanitarian aid or mine-clearing experts. The growing plight of Christians throughout the Middle East, many of them belonging to the Orthodox faith, has resulted in augmented support for the Syrian government, such as from Patriarch Irinej of Serbia.
This bilateral affinity is the byproduct of the Syrian government’s consistency in terms of secularism and minority protection. Though difficult to imagine it now in light of the past eight years of anti-Assad rhetoric in the West, he was previously a key partner in the War on Terror. The massacres perpetrated by Islamist fighters against religious minorities contributed to the consolidation of minority groups, along with Sunnis, behind Damascus. This is mirrored through the creation of pro-government Christian militias as well as repeated visits and outreach by President Assad to churches and monasteries on holy days.
The government has continued framing the conflict as a struggle against international terrorism; in fact, the Syrian foreign minister described the war as a “battle against terrorism.” The total collapse of non-jihadi combatants and their replacement by rebel groups like the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has made the Syrian state a necessary partner, whether directly or unwittingly, in the fight against jihadis. It is under such conditions that the United States’ military even engaged in covert and unauthorized intelligence sharing with its Syrian counterpart while the CIA continued to support the largely fundamentalist opposition in its aim to overthrow President Assad. This contradictory policy has become increasingly untenable in the face of the Syrian Arab Army’s growing success and the decline of its enemies. This, in turn, has forced countries around the world to either accept Syria’s return to the international community or risk marginalization in the approaching post-war settlement.
The Russian Connection
To a certain extent, friendly relations with Syria are an extension of a state’s relationship with Russia. This is somewhat similar to the way that Guatemala and Moldova recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in order to gain favor with the United States. Widely seen as a stable agent, the Kremlin has successfully expanded its influence in the region. The rapprochement that Syria already benefited from, and from which it will continue to benefit, is the result of Russia’s increasingly prominent position in the region. Whether it is the sale of Russian S-400 missiles to Turkey, Russia’s circumvention of American sanctions on Iran, or its newly cast role as a mediator in Afghanistan, Syria is inevitably a beneficiary of Moscow’s geopolitical development and advancement. Therefore, it is not surprising that when then-President Omar Bashir of Sudan visited President Assad in December 2018—the first such visit by an Arab leader since Syria’s suspension from the Arab League in 2011—he arrived on a Russian plane.
The formation of an informal Israeli-Gulf axis, which has largely coincided with the Syrian Civil War, has been the consequence of the perception of the existence of a so-called “Shia Crescent” from Iran to Syria, as well as partially encapsulating Iraq and Lebanon. However, this has failed to dislodge the wider consensus surrounding Syria’s centrality to the region. For example, in March 2019, 14 of the 15 members of the United Nations’ Security Council condemned Israel’s claims of sovereignty of the Golan Heights, which is still recognized internationally (including by those seeking regime change) as Syrian territory. Similarly, fears that the Balkanisation of Syria would spill over into neighboring countries, most notably Turkey, have resulted in consistent emphasis on the country’s territorial integrity, which consequently has come to strengthen the government’s claim that its ultimate aim is to “retake every inch of Syria.”
The Syrian experience shows that diplomatic isolation is merely a tool, not an end in itself, and the closing of embassies is not a permanent decision but rather one that can be—and often is—reversed. With the question of political legitimacy rearing its head in places such as Venezuela, with heads of states and opposition claimants seeking international recognition, the lesson of the Levant is one of patience and the potential of not immediately capitulating to external diplomatic withdrawals. Increasing desire in Europe and the Middle East to repatriate refugees back to their country, as well as growing fatigue in the West from failed and disastrous interventions, will only aid in hastening the pace of Syria’s reintegration into the global community.
Article written by guest author Naman Habtom-Desta.