The plot just thickened in the contest to shape post-conflict Syria: Russia, Turkey and Qatar have launched a new trilateral “consultation process” to promote a political solution to the 10-year civil war. Crucially, it does not include Iran.
The goal, it would appear, is to pave the way for broader Gulf Arab re-engagement with Syria, and a concomitant marginalization of Iranian influence.
Since the war was effectively resolved in December 2016 when pro-government forces overran opposition-held eastern Aleppo, most of the action has centered around the so-called “Astana process” that began in January 2017, in which Russia, Turkey and Iran have been negotiating over the spoils. But the Iranian involvement effectively kept out the Gulf Arab states, whose financial muscle is essential for the reconstruction of Syria — and whose diplomatic backing is critical to ending the country’s pariah status.
The new initiative is also an acknowledgment that the Astana process has, for all practical purposes, failed. The original troika have only held five meetings since 2018, and the four “de-escalation zones” they established were entirely disregarded by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad who, with Russian and Iranian support, seized control of three of them. Nor was Astana able to prevent Turkey’s offensives in northern Syria in October 2019, or a confrontation in February last year between Turkish forces and Assad’s troops directly supported by the Russian Air Force.
Astana has produced no political progress in Syria and precious little reconstruction. So, it’s not surprising that Russia and Assad would seek another way forward, this time with Arab partners.
The Gulf states backed the rebel forces at the start of the war, but their unified stance against Assad has softened. The United Arab Emirates, for instance, has already reopened its embassy in Damascus and seems open to an accommodation with the regime. At the same time, Russia has been trying to get Arab states involved in the Astana process.
That was never going to happen while the two other states in the process, Iran and Turkey, remained hostile to the Gulf Arabs. The new forum cuts out the Iranians and seeks to build on recent Turkish efforts to mend fences with the Arab world. (In turn, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have signaled an interest in better relations with Turkey.)
The message from Moscow and Ankara to the Arabs is clear: Your rebel friends may have lost the war, but that doesn’t have to mean that your Iranian enemies well be the main beneficiaries. If you help this new process succeed, it will go a long way towards marginalizing Tehran’s influence in Syria.
This would suit Assad. The dictator currently depends on both Russia and Iran in securing his control of much of the country. But he would prefer a long-term arrangement in which Russia is the principal outside power in Syria, since Moscow’s demands on him are less onerous than Tehran’s.
Russia’s goals include maintaining its naval and other bases in Syria, securing its considerable investments in the country and using the Damascus as the key to its renewed influence in the region. Iran wants to integrate Syria into a regional network of supplicant states, and to use it as a springboard to threaten Israel on one side and maintain its domination in Iraq on the other. Moscow would allow Assad a great deal of local authority; Tehran, on the other hand, would be a micromanaging overlord with designs on most of his prerogatives.
For its part, Turkey is primarily concerned about U.S.-backed Kurdish militias, along its border region in northern Syria. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regards these fighters as proxies of Kurdish terrorists and separatists operating within Turkey. So long as the Arabs don’t support the Kurds, Ankara would welcome their involvement in Syria.
As Turkey’s closest Arab ally, Qatar’s inclusion in the new forum was inevitable. Moscow and Ankara are clearly hoping to capitalize on the end of Doha’s isolation in the Gulf. The Qataris have deep pockets of their own, of course, but just as importantly, they might be able to bring other Arab states into the postwar arrangements in Syria. Qatar’s cordial relations with Iran were useful during the embargo, but its return to the Arab embrace gives it space to distance itself from Tehran.
Iran can be expected to fight tooth and nail to maintain its influence in Syria. Overstretched and impoverished as it is, the Islamic Republic has considerable leverage in Damascus, and a tried and tested formula of using proxy militias and co-sectarian politicians to protect its interests — as it does in Iraq and Lebanon.
Tehran’s Arab opponents will have to be watchful that they’re not being played by Assad and Russia, and that the money and effort they invest in Syria really does mean a diminishment of Iran’s control.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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