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The Arab League summit opened Wednesday in Jordan. Heads of government and state of 22 countries in West Asia and North Africa have assembled in the Dead Sea, a fitting name for a body that has struggled to be relevant in the conflicts that bedevil the region. Egypt’s Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, the Secretary General of the League, said at the threshold of the summit that Arab governments should ‘work in every possible way to play a more active role in major crises.’
Aboul-Gheit, who mentioned Libya and Yemen as two examples, was more circumspect on Syria. What role the Arab states might play as a bloc here is unclear. Aboul-Gheit’s own Egypt is now fully behind the government of Bashar al-Assad, while Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab states remain settled on the view that Assad has to resign. It is this divide not only on Syria, but also on Libya and Yemen that has made it impossible for the Arab League to drive an agenda. It is revealing that the ministers have indicated that ‘Arab solidarity’ is a priority for them. It would only be a priority if it were so threadbare.
Fighting inside Syria continues with grave implications for its population. Gains by the Syrian Arab Army, the government’s force, and its proxies had been swift in the past few months. These forces seized Aleppo and opened a corridor all the way down to Damascus, as well as taking Palmyra from ISIS and other towns in southern Syria. An overstretched army, with little chance of revitalization from new recruits, left Damascus vulnerable. A motley group of rebels from the extremist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (which includes the al-Qaeda army) and the Faylaq al-Rahman forces dashed into parts of central Damascus. Heavy arms fire in central squares and along avenues of the city shocked residents, who had assumed that these parts of the city were not vulnerable to rebel advances.
Three explanations for this rapid advance have been put forward. First, that the Russians and Iranians as well as sections of the Syrian government are eager to get to Raqqa before the Turks and the United States. The deployment of forces in that region—and not in Damascus—left the city under threat. Nonetheless, the Syrian forces in the city rapidly beat back the rebels to their strongholds, such as in the enclave of Jobar and Eastern Ghouta. Second, that the Russians are eager for the Syrian government to make some kind of arrangement with the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, which Damascus is loathe to do. Somehow the Russians opened the door for this small advance to send a message to Assad that the political process needs to be taken seriously. Third, that the Gulf Arabs pushed their rebel proxies to strike inside Damascus before the Geneva V negotiations to show that they remain relevant on the ground. These are not mutually exclusive explanations, nor is one able to verify them fully. Intelligence services that spread these stories are less interested in what is happening than in how they want others to understand the events. It is a battle over narratives.
It is reasonable to suggest that the Syrian civil war is effectively over. The battles will continue, but any real change in the balance of forces is not foreseeable. The war ended when Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States turned their backs on their various proxy armies inside Syria. Over-extension in Yemen, financial problems and failure of its proxy to make gains soured Saudi Arabia’s attempt to overthrow Assad. Turkey’s internal problems, its anxiety over Syrian Kurdish advances on its border and Turkish business interests with Russia pushed it to make a deal with the Iranians and the Russians. The United States, which had provided the most aggressive diplomatic push for the rebels, found it impossible to create a ‘moderate’ rebel army. The Russian entry into Syria in 2015 made a US ‘full spectrum domination’ strike on Syria impossible. Jordan closed its border, which made a southern rebel front impossible.
Without these external backers, the various rebel factions—including the extremist groups—can no longer hope to seize Damascus. This is why the High Negotiations Committee’s lead negotiator at the Geneva V talks—Mohammed Sabra—said, ‘There can be no real and viable political solution without the presence of the Americans.’ He did not, I believe, suggest that the Americans have to bomb Damascus. The full weight of reality has now swept through the political arm of the armed opposition. But what they would like is for the United States to push—once more—for their agenda: namely, that Assad must resign and that the members of the Assad government must be tried for crimes against humanity.
Sabra, who is a lawyer, was a member of the opposition’s technical team for the 2014 Geneva talks. He is one of the leaders of the Syrian Republican Party, formed—it should be said—in 2014 in Istanbul with the encouragement and assistance of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party. The Muslim Brotherhood ties between the Turkish and Syrian parties are clear. That US President Donald Trump had considered a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood should send a message to Sabra of the impossibility of his position. He has few real allies in the White House.
Nonetheless, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations—Nikki Haley—made some sharp comments about Assad that echo Sabra. Assad is a ‘big hindrance in trying to move forward’, Haley said Wednesday. That sounded a great deal like the ‘Assad must go’ formula of the Obama administration. But then Haley stumbled—‘I’m not going back into should Assad be in or out. Been there, done that, right, in terms of what the US has done.’ This is not what Sabra and his friends would like: namely vacillation on Assad’s future role in Syria.
Curiously, Ambassador Haley said that the United States wants to make sure that ‘Syria can no longer be a safe haven for terrorists’ and that ‘we’ve got to get Iran and their proxies out.’ It demonstrates a distinct lack of strategic honestly to make such a statement, when the United States relies upon Iran to bolster the Iraqi army in its assault on Mosul. To link ‘Iran’ with ‘terrorism’ is an old Israeli trick, but one with little credibility when it comes to Iran’s actual operations on the ground.
Iran and Qatar have just conducted a deal to break terrible, intractable sieges on a number of Syrian towns. Iran has also been urging Assad and his government to stay at the negotiating table and to make real concessions to the opposition. Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani, who was in Moscow early this week, has urged the players to return to Astana (Kazakhstan) for another round of discussions after the Geneva V meetings ended inconclusively. The Syrian opposition initially came to Astana, but then refused to participate in those talks. But it was at Astana last year that the Syrian government and opposition agreed to a major ceasefire—brokered by Iran, Russia and Turkey—that remains the basis for the present ceasefire regime. UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura recently called on Iran, Russia and Turkey to ‘undertake urgent efforts’ to strengthen the ceasefire. These three countries have played an important role in trying to pressure the Syrian government and the opposition to hold their fire and to widen the safe zones already in existence in Syria. Haley’s statement is far from the reality of the situation in Syria.
The Arab League’s politics on Syria has become almost entirely symbolic. It refused—once more—to fly the Syrian flag in its row of flags. There will be clichéd discussions on the conflict, with words thrown about between those who remain rhetorically committed to Assad’s departure and those who insist that he is part of the process. Meanwhile, there will be no discussion about the plight of the actual Syrians.
Syrians who flee their country either go into refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon or else seek asylum in the West. Where are the Gulf Arabs and other rich Arab states? They have not offered to welcome the millions of Syrians who are bereft. In 2014, Amnesty International produced an important report—Let Out in the Cold—that pointed to the failure of the Arab states to welcome even one Syrian refugee. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are not signatories of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, so they are not legally obliged to follow international law for their migrants.
Those Syrians who do find their way to the GCC states enter the web of the kafala or sponsorship system, where the rights of the migrants are minimal. GCC countries prefer to provide funds to the UN and others so that the refugees remain outside their fortress. ‘Assad must go’ is an easier slogan for them to chant than ‘Syrian refugees are welcome here.’