Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Syrian Regime: Jeddah’s Spring and Syria’s Hot Summer

The Syrian regime complex dynamics pose challenges in solving the Syrian crisis after Syria’s return to the Arab League.

The Syrian Regime
Bashar al-Assad speaks during a press conference with Iraq’s Prime Minister in Damascus on July 16, 2023. LOUAI BESHARA / AFP

Hussein Ali Alzoubi

The Syrian regime wasted no time declaring its opposition to the outcomes of the Jeddah consultative meeting, the Amman meeting and the Jeddah Summit Declaration, which marked its return to full membership of the Arab League 12 years after its suspension. This suggests that the regime will persist in its inflexible stance towards the main unresolved issues hampering the settlement of the Syrian crisis.

Syria’s return to the Arab League was a bona fide gesture by the Arab group towards the regime, which had agreed to the final statement of the Amman meeting. The statement emphasised the need to take a proactive Arab role in resolving the Syrian crisis through a quid pro quo approach based on the Saudi initiative.

Ayman Safadi, the Jordanian foreign minister, restated this principle, affirming that the Arab League will continue to build upon the agreements made in the Amman statement to implement a gradual, quid pro quo approach that paves the way towards resolving the Syrian crisis through joint action.

However, Faisal al-Miqdad, the Syrian foreign minister, held a different opinion. In a recent interview, he stated, “We did not talk about quid pro quo, but rather about steps to reach solutions to the conditions that Syria experienced as a result of its response to the terrorist attacks.”

Al-Miqdad denied that the political solution in Syria is consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The international resolution stipulates the formation of a transitional governing body. In this regard, al-Miqdad said, “We said that we would implement what concerns Syria in this decision. On this basis, we are seeking a political solution that requires the elimination of terrorism, which requires reviving economic conditions. Furthermore, Western sanctions imposed on Syria should also be removed.”

Al-Miqdad also threw the agreements concerning the elections, constitution, detainees and missing persons overboard. He dismissively mentioned these issues, “Syria has already held three presidential elections, four parliamentary elections and municipal elections. We answer to no foreign dictates.”

Saudi and Jordanian officials took note of al-Miqdad’s statements, which align with the directives of Bashar al-Assad, but chose not to publicly address or respond to these statements.

Al-Assad’s Victory

The Syrian Regime
Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad attends a regional meeting in Amman on May 1, 2023 to discuss Syria’s long-running conflict. Khalil MAZRAAWI / afp

Al-Miqdad’s attendance at the meetings in Cairo, Jeddah and Amman, followed by Al-Assad’s participation in the Arab Summit, came as a disappointment to the Syrian opposition. Some interpreted these events as a symbolic victory for Assad, overlooking the plight of over 10 million refugees, tens of thousands of detainees and an equal number of missing persons.

According to Syrian journalist Nidal Maalouf, however, the recent events did not signify a victory for al-Assad. He, instead, perceived them as a ploy to “draw al-Assad into a trap.”

In the analysis he shared on his YouTube channel, Maalouf highlighted the significance of the Amman meeting, which he believed marked the beginning of a new path that united past endeavours and established UN Resolution 2254 as a comprehensive framework for a political solution in Syria.

According to Maalouf, the points mentioned in the Amman statement emphasised coordination with UN bodies, as everything now revolves around adherence to the UN decision. Consequently, the focus has shifted from bilateral actions to collaborative efforts to achieve a political resolution in alignment with the UN’s guidance, supported by Arab initiatives.

Accepting the statement’s terms carries with it an obligation to implement, something the Arab nations count on. Maalouf, however, expects the regime to procrastinate. The provisions regarding Syrian refugees put pressure on the regime, which will struggle with the economic burden of repatriation. The Amman statement did not address reconstruction or the lifting of sanctions imposed on Syria, such as the Caesar Act.

A significant aspect emphasised in the Amman statement is the importance of achieving the national reconciliation of different factions. Yet, this notion contradicts the regime’s viewpoint, which restricts the concept of “opposition” to only the internal opposition within Damascus. It tends to label other opposition groups as “terrorist” or “terrorist-supporting groups.”

Resolution 2254

UN Resolution 2254, issued in December 2015, comprises 16 articles and received approval from two of the regime’s allies, Russia and China.
The introduction to the resolution highlights the importance of “reiterating that the only sustainable solution to the current crisis in Syria is through an inclusive and Syrian-led political process… with a view to full implementation of the Geneva Communiqué… through the establishment of an inclusive transitional governing body with full executive powers, which shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent while ensuring continuity of governmental institutions.”

As mentioned in the document’s fourth paragraph, the Security Council “expresses its support… for a Syrian-led political process that is facilitated by the United Nations and, within a target of six months, establishes credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance and sets a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution, and further expresses its support for free and fair elections, pursuant to the new constitution, to be held within 18 months and administered under supervision of the United Nations, to the satisfaction of the governance and to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate, as set forth in the 14 November 2015 ISSG Statement.”

In Resolution 8914, the Arab League, while approving the return of Syria, acknowledged the significance of UN Resolution 2254. The resolution explicitly emphasises the necessity of implementing practical and effective measures to gradually resolve the crisis with a step-by-step approach consistent with UN Resolution 2254.

Syrians are aware that the implementation of Resolution 2254 would likely lead to the end of the al-Assad regime.
As a result, they firmly believe that he will not comply with the resolution. Furthermore, policymakers in the nations that normalised relations with the al-Assad regime are well aware of the regime’s tendencies. These nations recognise that al-Assad is unlikely to implement the agreed-upon terms and may exploit the renewed openness to improve his image regionally and globally.

Leaving Iran for the Arab Embrace

Discussing the situation’s dynamics, we cannot overlook Iran’s involvement. The Arab actions regarding the Syrian situation align with the Saudi-Iranian agreement. The engagement with al-Assad could be an undisclosed consequence of this agreement, which vowed to “respect the sovereignty of nations.”

The Syrian situation is a significant element in Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran. Yet, it is not one of the country’s priorities. Riyadh is more concerned with Yemen, where it has been in a prolonged conflict with the Iran-affiliated Houthi militia.

While the Chinese-brokered agreement may have brought a temporary calm to the front lines, it has not significantly reduced the tension surrounding the Yemeni situation. Despite the fact that several months have passed since the agreement, there has been no notable progress on the political front, and the Houthi’s statements continue to employ ominous language.

United States Presence

The Syrian Regime
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a press conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara, on February 20, 2023. Adem ALTAN / AFP

Saudi Arabia has historically been aligned with and adhered to US policies. Nonetheless, the relationship between Washington and Riyadh has experienced periods of strain, particularly concerning certain subsidiary matters, such as the reduction of oil production.

In response to a recent announcement by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) regarding the cutback in oil production by almost a million barrels, the White House press secretary diplomatically stated that it was OPEC’s decision to make.

However, during his meeting with the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken provided a clearer stance.

He emphasised that “…the United States is in this region to stay, and we remain deeply invested in partnering with all of you… And indeed, the GCC is at the core of our vision for a Middle East that is more stable, more secure, more prosperous, more integrated. Together we are working to achieve a durable resolution to the conflict in Yemen… And we’re determined to find a political solution in Syria that maintains its unity and sovereignty, that meets the aspirations of its people…”

Washington has maintained its stance of rejecting any normalisation with al-Assad’s regime. During a phone call with his Jordanian counterpart, Blinken reiterated that implementing “UNSCR 2254 is the only viable solution to ending the war.” In this conversation, Blinken also made it clear that the United States firmly refuses to establish normalised relations with the al-Assad regime.

Recently, the United States announced it had deployed a Himars missile system to Syria. Blinken denied that the system was sent to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Turkey views as the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

This matter appears to be closely timed with recent rumours of the potential reemergence of the Islamic State. Concurrently, the Washington Post has reported on Iranian plans to escalate attacks against US troops in Syria.

According to the article, Iran is providing training and weaponry to militias in Syria to launch attacks against US troops. Intelligence officials and leaked documents have revealed this to be part of a broader Russian strategy to eliminate the American presence in the region.

Joint reconnaissance operations conducted by Syrian and Russian forces in the Homs desert were recently announced. The objective of these operations is to locate and dismantle terrorist groups. Interestingly, the region is close to the location of the US-backed Free Syrian Army.

This faction operates from the American “al-Tanf” military base, which is located in an area known as the 55-kilometre deconfliction zone in the eastern countryside of Homs.

The Opposition Awakens

Al-Assad’s receptiveness to the Arab League appears to have sparked a response from the Syrian opposition. The Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC) emphasised the Arab League’s insistence on implementing Resolution 2254. The SNC’s efforts align with the American opposition to normalisation with al-Assad and the intent to uphold the Caesar Act and the Captagon Act.

The majority of the Syrian opposition, represented by the SNC, has accepted the idea of engaging in direct negotiations with Bashar al-Assad to address the implementation of Resolution 2254.

Bader Jamous, the president of the SNC, stated that the Syrian opposition is fully prepared to engage in direct talks with the regime regarding all aspects of the Syrian crisis. He further emphasised that the SNC views a political solution as the most effective approach to achieving lasting peace in Syria and considers Resolution 2254 the fundamental framework to be followed.

Observers regard the opposition’s stance as a pragmatic move aligning with Arab and Western attitudes. This is particularly noteworthy since the opposition knows that al-Assad will likely not want to engage in negotiations with them.

Despite the discussions surrounding a political resolution, the current situation appears to be the calm before the storm. This is particularly evident following the regime’s declaration, as communicated by Faisal al-Miqdad, indicating its rejection of the proposed solutions. Jordan, situated in the south, opposes the ongoing influx of Captagon, and its recent airstrike on Captagon production facilities in Syria showcases its unwillingness to tolerate the regime’s actions.

Furthermore, Israel is unwilling to accept the continued presence of Iranian militias near its borders. Meanwhile, Turkey, facing significant electoral challenges regarding the refugee issue, has intensified its rhetoric regarding the return of refugees to Syria, which might require military action.

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