Arab Countries in the Process of a Slow Rapprochement with al-Assad’s Syria
The Nassib border crossing between Jordan and Syria opened to people and goods on 15 October 2018 after being closed for three years. It is a sign of the normalization of relations between the two countries and represents one step closer to the Syrian regime being considered politically and diplomatically palatable by its neighbors.
The reopening of the border was made possible by the Syrian regime, which took over the formerly rebel-occupied area in July 2018 during a Russian-backed offensive. It is a route that is used to facilitate billions of dollars in trade between countries across the region, with hundreds of trucks a day transporting goods between Turkey and the Gulf as well as Lebanon and the Gulf. On the day of the opening, the head of the Jaber checkpoint on the Jordanian side, Imad Riyalat, told Reuters, “we are fully ready to receive passengers and transport goods. We expect the traffic to be slow at the start, but in the coming days we expect passenger movements to pick up.” Meanwhile, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem stated that Syria is “witnessing the first results of the victory.”
Historically, Jordan and Syria have not been close, although they agreed on not supporting the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1970s for territorial and political reasons. The Syrian civil war put an additional strain on the relationship, with Jordanian forces notably clashing with Syrian forces in August 2012 and Syrian ambassador Bahjat Suleiman being expelled in May 2014, a decision motivated according to Jordanian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Sabah al-Rafie by “continued offensive statements, through his personal contacts or writing in the media and social media, against the kingdom.”
Jordan, a staunch U.S. ally that is part of the American-led intervention in Syria, supports its Gulf Arab allies in their tough stance against Iran’s role in the region and is concerned about the expanding influence of Tehran-backed militias in southern Syria, diplomats say, which may explain its decision to move towards normalization of relations. Separately, but in a similar vein, Israel reopened the Quneitra crossing on the occupied Golan Heights front with Syria on the same day.
The Nassib border reopening shows a pacification of the two countries’ relationship, which is explained according to senior media and policy consultant in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates Shehab Al-Makahleh by Syria’s will and desire to develop full economic, diplomatic and political ties with Jordan.
Al-Makahleh wrote that “Syrian interests in linking the resumption of economic and trade exchanges to a comprehensive strategic agreement between both countries hinge on this sense of economic security, despite the many years of conflict in Syria. Thus, the Jordanian diplomatic task of managing the re-opening of the Nassib crossing will be extremely challenging, as Jordan has attempted to balance its relationships with all involved parties throughout the Syrian conflict.” He continues to say that “many Jordanians and even some Syrians have come to the conclusion that after a death toll of more than 420,000 people, an end to the eight-year war is preferable to its continuation, even if that arrangement includes al-Assad. In short, Damascus is demanding political legitimization for economic trade.
Whether or not Amman will accept that bargain remains unclear, yet the status of the crossing point between Jordan and Syria will remain a thermometer of their bilateral relationship into the future.”
Already in late August 2018, Jordanian government spokesman Mohammad Al-Momani had said, “our relations with the Syrian state and regime are going in the right direction,” a sign that every move has been analyzed and decided upon with care by the Jordanians before execution. Political journalist and commentator Osama Al-Sharif pointed out that although Amman had insisted on a political resolution of the conflict in Syria, it ended up softening its position towards al-Assad.
He stated that “throughout the past seven years, Amman and Damascus have kept some channels of communication open at least at the military and intelligence levels. Both countries have a shared interest in preventing southern Syria from falling to Islamist militant groups, while Jordan’s key objective was to secure its long border with Syria. Jordan was quick to read the changing political mood in many Western capitals regarding al-Assad’s fate. Its initial policy toward the Syrian crisis gave it flexibility and, while a political solution has a long way to go, a normal bilateral relationship may give a much-needed boost to that process.”
This normalization seems to be the goal set by the al-Assad regime in order to regain its place in the region and then the world, as he claimed early October that Western and Arab countries are preparing to restore their presence in Syria after years of absence. Al-Assad stated that “for many Arab countries, there is a great understanding between us and them, and many Western countries have begun planning and preparing to open their embassies (in Damascus). Western and Arab delegations have actually begun coming to Syria to organise their return, whether diplomatic, economic or industrial.” Even more significant is that al-Assad made this claim to Kuwaiti newspaper al-Shahid – his first interview with a Gulf media outlet since the Syrian civil war started, according to Associated Press.
Up until 2017 Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had been openly supported opposition groups fighting to overthrow al-Assad and condemning Lebanese militia Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria.
A sign of change in the relationship between Gulf countries and Syria was sparked during the 29 September 2018 United Nations General Assembly, where Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Muallem and his Bahraini counterpart Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa hugged and kissed. The day after on Al-Arabiya, al-Khalifa said that “the meeting comes at a time when there are serious efforts to revive the role of Arabs in the Syrian crisis. Syria is a brotherly Arab nation and what happens there concerns us more than anywhere else in the world. It is not right that regional and international players are involved in Syria while we are absent. We think the state must take back control of the whole country and secure it.” These words show that Gulf states are considering once again connecting diplomatically and politically with Syria, despite their fear of Iran’s influence on the regime.
Egypt has also shown support for the Syrian regime, notably in February 2018, when an Egyptian delegation comprising popular and political figures visited the Syrian consulate in Cairo to announce solidarity with Syria in its “war against terrorism.” Islamic and Arab Assembly rapporteur in Egypt Jamal Zahran affirmed the importance of resuming normal relations between Syria and Egypt. This rapprochement between Egypt and Syria started in September 2017, according to researchers C. Meital and N. Mozes who wrote that Egypt had been “acting openly to tighten political, economic and cultural ties with the Syrian regime, as reflected in its sending a large delegation to the Damascus International Fair that took place on 17-26 August 2017. Egypt is also cooperating with al-Assad’s ally Russia in the latter’s efforts to establish de-escalation zones in Syria, as well as its efforts to expand the Syrian opposition delegation to the UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, so that it will include, in addition to figures close to Saudi Arabia, opposition figures close to Cairo and Moscow.”
This strategy shift on the part of Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf could benefit Russia as it continues trying to align its interests in the region with those of the Saudis and Emiratis. In October 2018, a Russian delegation led by President Vladimir Putin’s Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentiev met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other officials in Riyadh before heading to the UAE and then Oman. On the agenda during the trip was regional security, and especially that of Syria, as Russia attempts to solicit more support for al-Assad’s continuation in his role as president. If these diplomatic attempts, in addition to positive shifts in the relationships between Syria and the region’s power players, are successful, Bashar al-Assad could end up as an unavoidable ally in the Middle East and Russia’s influence will no doubt be reinforced in the end.