The Syrian Civil War is just about over – and the proxy war of outside powers is in full swing – this will be fought with guns and diplomacy – as the re-opening of the UAEs embassy in Damascus shows.
There’s an Arab phrase – ‘If a Wind Blows – Ride it!’ It’s been clear for more than a year that President Assad wasn’t going to lose his war – the re-opening of the embassy, after 6 long years, shows that the Arab states will now seek to ride that wind, and use it their advantage.
UAE Minister Dr Anwar Gargash said the decision was necessary to combat the influence of Turkey and Iran. Bahrain followed suit. Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, had already made the first visit by an Arab leader to Damascus since the start of the war.
The moves were noticed. The UK’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt acknowledged that President Assad will remain in power. That’s several steps from previous UK demands that he had to go – and it’s a step towards what is likely – the eventual reopening of the British embassy.
Now there’s talk, throughout the region’s capitals, of inviting Syria to attend the Arab League summit due to be held in Tunis in March. If Saudi Arabia indicates it favours the move most other Arab states will fall into line. Syria was suspended 8 years ago, if it is allowed back in from the cold there will be strings attached – which brings us back to Turkey and Iran.
President Trump’s surprise announcement last month that American troops were to leave Syria in a hurry – made a lot of countries nervous that Iran and Turkey would fill the gap.
The fear is that Tehran, which has spent decades cultivating ties with groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, will use its position in Syria to strengthen the network’s links.
There’s also concern that, with America out of the way, Turkey will make a third incursion into Syria to attack the US armed and trained Kurdish forces, and even go east of the Euphrates.
U.S. diplomacy quickly kicked in. National Security Advisor John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, toured Middle East capitals. Speaking in Israel Bolton insisted that Turkey must “ meet the president’s requirement that the Syrian opposition forces that have fought with us are not endangered.” An enraged President Erdogan responded -“We cannot accept Bolton’s messages given from Israel,” adding that Bolton had made a “serious mistake.”
The Kurdish forces armed by the USA are primarily the ‘Kurdish People’s Protection Units’ known as the YPG. This is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party which is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey which Erdogan says is a terrorist group and which has carried out a decades long insurgency against the Turkish state. To add to his insult to Bolton the Turkish leader said that the American “probably doesn’t know” who the two groups are.
Nevertheless, Bolton and Pompeo may have delayed the U.S. withdrawal – Trump now stating ‘I never said we’re doing it that quickly’. The troops could stay until the end of the year. On Friday an American commander in Syria said the withdrawal had begun, but there were no reports of any serious movements and its more likely that only small amounts of cargo have been shipped out.
If it is the case that the withdrawal will be a protracted affair, the Arab states will use the time to try and persuade Assad to cool his relationship with Tehran – that’s a big ask – but its why diplomatic relations are being established.