First there was the Emirati Embassy in Damascus that reopened in 2018, then a few high-profile Arab delegations met with Syrian diplomats and politicians abroad, and soon normalization between the Arab world and Bashar Assad became the hottest thing in regional politics. Everyone, from Jordan’s King Abdullah II to Egyptian and Saudi generals, was busy crafting a new path on Syria in order to bring it back into the Arab fold.
Back in 2019, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE’s foreign minister, said his country “intends to ensure that Syria returns to the Arab region,” while Russia, Assad’s main backer, called on the Arab League to reinstate Syria’s membership that was revoked back in 2011.
Off record, Arab officials explain that by normalizing relations with Assad’s Syria and helping it “restore stability” through economic development and postwar revival, they will also promote another important goal – squeezing Iran out of Syria, or at least minimizing its role there.
The US did not prevent a rapprochement between Jordan and Syria, yet it harshly criticized the recent meeting between Abdullah bin Zayed and Assad, whose regime is heavily sanctioned by both the US and EU.
Israel, however, took a more nuanced position, quietly hoping that Arab influence would replace the Iranian one. One has to wonder: Is there a real chance to squeeze Iran out of Syria by normalizing Assad and pouring Arab investments into Syria’s devastated land?
Dr. Raz Zimmt, an expert on Iran at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University, expects no reduction in Iranian influence in Syria for the foreseeable future.
“It is worth distinguishing between the Iranian influence on the military level, and the ‘soft’ Iranian influence on the political, economic, religious and cultural levels,” said Zimmt, speaking with The Media Line. “In terms of military influence, however, Iran has greatly reduced the presence of Revolutionary Guards in Syria in recent years due to the change in operational circumstances (as there is no need for a large presence of Revolutionary Guards) and is increasingly relying on local Syrian personnel recruited by pro-Iranian militias aided by Hezbollah and the militia.
“The Syrian regime is currently unable to retain control of the territories liberated in recent years without Iranian military involvement, which is therefore not expected to shrink. At the same time, Iran is working to preserve and even strengthen its political, economic, cultural and religious influence,” he continued.
“Although Syria (with Russian support) seems to prefer Russian or Turkish involvement in its economic rehabilitation, this does not stop Iranian efforts to integrate into reconstruction efforts in Syria and at the same time act to strengthen its religious-cultural influence, especially in Shiite-populated areas,” Zimmt said.
Since 2013, Tehran has significantly tightened its grip on Syria’s civilian and economic affairs, according to a report from the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, so that it would be impossible to sideline or push Iran out altogether. In 2019, Tehran announced that it would build a railway network from western Iran to Syria’s Mediterranean port of Latakia, while Iranian companies have seized a share in Damascus’ property market and its businessmen have become influential figures in Syrian real estate.
In addition, during the last few years, important demographic changes have taken place in Syrian towns and villages that were abandoned by refugees who had to flee for their lives; newcomers – all Shiites from Iran, Afghanistan or Pakistan, replaced them.
How do Iranians feel about the news of Sunni Arab efforts to normalize relations with Syria that are meant to minimize Iranians’ influence and power in the country?
“There are two perceptions in Iran on this issue,” says Zimmt. “One view holds that Arab efforts to get closer to Assad are intended to weaken Iranian influence in the country and promote Arab (and especially Gulf) influence at Iran’s expense.
“Yet, there is also an assumption that the normalization between Syria and some Arab countries is a positive expression of the Arab world’s recognition that Iran has won the battle in Syria and that the Arabs must come to terms with the Syrian regime. It is worth noting that this process is taking place in parallel with the ongoing rapprochement between the United Arab Emirates and Iran in the past two years and the Iraqi-mediated talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” he adds.
According to his school of thought, at this stage, there is no particular concern on the part of Tehran regarding this process and it does not currently identify a real threat to Iranian interests in Syria.
“As long as this is Iran’s assessment, it is not likely to try to sabotage efforts by the Arab world to approach the Syrian regime and it will continue to present them publicly as proof that the Arab world, which previously supported the Syrian opposition, has been forced to recognize the new reality shaped by Iranian influence and assistance,” Zimmt says.
Russia has also expressed support for Arab normalization efforts vis-à-vis Damascus.
According to Marianna Belenkaya − an expert on Arab affairs and a journalist at the Kommersant newspaper and publishing house − Moscow has encouraged the reinstatement of Arab ties with Syria and its readmission to the Arab League for quite a long time, as it believes this will best serve Russian interests in the country.
“Along with the political aspect of normalization, there is also an economic angle. Russia needs the Gulf money for Syria’s reconstruction,” Belenkaya told The Media Line.
“Will this move allow Iran to be pushed aside?” she asks rhetorically. “Iran is engrained in the Syrian soil both militarily and economically, and it’s hard to believe that it can be squeezed or pushed out,” she says.
“Theoretically Russia would be happy to diminish Iran’s power, and it’s common knowledge in Moscow that Iran stands in the way of quite a few issues in Syria, for example, political reconciliation, and provokes Damascus to act in a more aggressive way, for instance in the Daraa region. At the same time, Russia is very realistic. It believes that Iran cannot be pushed out militarily, but its power can be diminished if there will be an alternative,” Belenkaya says.
The experts agree Arab rapprochement will be gradual, and that it will take time to achieve an Arab consensus. (For now, Qatar has voiced vocal opposition to the move.) It’s also unclear what price Damascus would need to pay to regain Sunni Arabs’ favor and whether it will be willing to actually pay.
As for Israel, for now, its policy on preventing Iranian encroachment in Syria will remain unchanged.
Source » themedialine