Syria and the Regional Restructuring
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Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy

Deputy Special Envoy for Syria of the United Nations (2014-2019).

Valdai Discussion Club

More than ten years have elapsed since the Syrian crisis erupted. During these years, around 500,000 Syrians are estimated to have died, and many more were wounded. More than half the pre-conflict population of 23 million are refugees or internally displaced. The country’s GDP has shrunk by 60%,  2.4 million children have no formal education, 80% of those remaining in Syria live below the poverty line and 14.2 million are considered to be food deficient. Forty percent of the infrastructure is destroyed. In short, the present situation for the Syrian people is bleak, and if there is no settlement of the conflict in the foreseeable future, the future will be even more bleak. 

Syria is no ordinary country. It has a history and culture that have enriched human civilisation. It has a people who, in spite of mostly adverse circumstances, through perseverance, imagination, hard work and sheer stamina had been able to attain a fairly reasonable standard of living until 2010, certainly when compared to most Arab countries save for the oil-producing ones.  

When the Syrian crisis erupted in March 2011, Syria was one of the top performers in attaining the UN Millennium Goals. Regrettably, the Syrian peoples’ desire for a better life of freedom and dignity quickly morphed into a proxy regional war, sustained by great power rivalry.

In the process, the Syrians lost their ability to decide their future. If they hope to do so, regional rivalries and great power competition need to subside.

Presently, a regional realignment is in the making. Intra-Arab disputes appear to be resolved after the normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt on the one hand and Qatar on the other. Also, Turkey has taken steps to improve its relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and is keen on repairing its relations with Egypt. Moreover, it has restored its diplomatic relations with Israel. Abu Dhabi has recently returned its ambassador to Tehran and, there appears to be a rapprochement on the horizon between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But more importantly, Ankara seems interested in normalising its relations with Damascus. Were the latter to materialise, it could prove to be a game changer. 

Last but not least, if the JCPOA is revived, it could accelerate these positive trends. If these movements are sustained, it is quite possible that a realignment will materialise, producing a more stable political environment in the region in a manner that could increase the prospects of a political settlement in Syria. 

Having pointed out the positive developments in the region that could positively impact a settlement in Syria, many things can still go wrong, both in the region and beyond. 
However, before delving into the possible pitfalls that could forestall a settlement , I need to point out that the Syrians, both government and opposition, bear a responsibility for the situation in which the people find themselves. Both need to rise to the occasion, act responsibly and take action. They owe it to the Syrian people.

As for the region, I do not see a breakthrough if the Arab countries fail to coordinate their positions so that they are able to take the initiative in finding a settlement in Syria. If they remain passive, they will cede the initiative to other regional parties ,  for whom a settlement is not a top priority and who may well be prepared to live with the present messy situation.

Turkiye would certainly prefer to reach understandings with Damascus before the latter returns to the Arab fold. Any delay in Syria’s re-joining the LAS will both strengthen Ankara’s negotiating position and weaken that of Syria. The result of such negotiations may put Turkish interests above those of the Arabs. Given that Arabs are wary of Turkish designs in the Middle East, this may come to haunt them in the future.  

 An update to the 1998 Adana agreement between Turkiye and Syria is certainly a possibility, and is probably the best and most likely culmination of the contact between the two nations. That however may be jeopardised if the pro-Turkish Syrian armed groups presently in northern Syria move east of the Euphrates to confront the Kurds. Were this to happen, it would complicate an agreement between Damascus and the Kurds which is an essential component of any future arrangement between Syria and Turkiye.

A revived JCPOA should act as a further catalyst in the process of normalising Tehran’s relations with many Arab countries. But in this regard, Tehran needs to be forthcoming in addressing the security concerns of its Arab neighbors. If Tehran decides not to modify its present policies in the region, the process of rapprochement will probably fizzle out. On the other hand, if the revival of the JCPOA fails or is postponed to after the US mid-term congressional elections, this will have a negative impact on the prospects of a settlement in Syria. 

Iran’s Eastern Policy: Potential and Challenges
Mehdi Sanaei, Jahangir Karami
The security game between the West and Iran is evolving towards complexity, pressure and restrictions, making Iran’s Eastern strategy the only viable option in the future.

While Arab countries view Iran’s policies in the region as a major threat to their security, Tehran also  has concerns. 

These Arab concerns can only be addressed if Iran’s influence is checked and ultimately reversed. This can happen under three conditions. First, stating the obvious, Iran needs to alter its regional policies. Second, Russia would have to retain its influence in Syria as a counterweight to Iran. Third, serious Arab engagement is needed in Syria, especially in the reconstruction and then in the economic resurgence of Syria. Iran is not the only concern for Arabs, the policies of both Israel and Turkiye also pose serious challenges.

The most effective means to address both Arab and Iranian security concerns, and for that matter, those of Turkiye and Israel, is through a comprehensive and inclusive regional security process that would ultimately establish a regional security architecture that would guarantee a balance of interests among all parties. This is a complicated proposition, but it is the only way to guarantee peace and stability in the Middle East. The challenge is therefore how to kick-start such a process. There are many ideas and proposals in this regard from Egypt, Saudi Arabia,  Russia and Iran, in addition to numerous ones emanating from think tanks and individual academics.  I have made numerous contributions in this regard, the latest of which is my article : “ Towards a Middle East Regional Security Architecture “ published in Al Ahram Weekly on April 22, 2022.

As far as Israel goes, barring the eruption of a conflict in Lebanon, its present policy (until an acceptable arrangement is found concerning the Iranian presence in Syria) in selective air raids on Iranian targets will continue. Such an arrangement can only be the result of a bigger understanding involving Damascus, the Arabs and Tehran. The acquiescence of both Moscow and Washington would at least be required. Again, the establishment of a regional security architecture is the best means to address this matter. 

Now to the difficulties that may arise from beyond the region, namely from the US and Russia. 

Without a doubt, Moscow would encourage a settlement that would preserve its influence and interests in Syria. It accomplished its principal aims during its military intervention: acquiring air and military bases in the Eastern Mediterranean and preventing the replacement of a friendly regime in Damascus with an Islamist one, thereby enhancing its prestige and influence, not only in the region but beyond.

With the special operation in Ukraine, Syria’s strategic importance for Moscow has increased. Prior to the Ukraine conflict, Washington would have been prepared - under certain conditions - to reach a deal on a settlement in Syria. Now, however, matters have changed.

 Clearly the conflict in Ukraine has cast its shadow on the situation in Syria. An understanding between Washington and Moscow was always a critical ingredient for a settlement. At present, both nations are engaged in a conflict that far outweighs the advantages of reaching an agreement on in any regional conflict, including Syria. For Moscow, the conflict in Ukraine has existential implications. For Washington, it has consequences for the leadership role in the evolving international system it aspires to maintain. 

As long as the conflict in Ukraine persists, Washington would probably prefer that there is no rapid settlement in Syria, so Moscow would continue to be, at least, partially distracted.

Regarding Moscow, given that the conflict in Ukraine will not end anytime soon, some are predicting that it will reduce its military commitment in Syria. In fact there are rumours that Russia has already pulled out some air-defence systems from Syria and moved them to Crimea. I, however, cannot conceive of a situation where Russia reduces its military commitment in Syria to the extent it can no longer have leverage on the situation there. Were it to do so, it will have squandered all the benefits from it’s military intervention. But more importantly it will prove that it is incapable of fighting two wars simultaneously. This becomes more ominous for Russia given its military commitment in Syria is already minimal. Reducing it further would be deadly proposition for a great power.

So Moscow will not withdraw from Syria and Washington will not want to hand it, at least for now, a victory. At least until the conflict in Ukraine is resolved.

Given that Washington’s policy in minimising its military footprint in the Middle East, it cannot fulfil its objective directly. It can only do so through its allies in the region and, in this case, principally the Arab countries. 

If however, the Arab countries come to the conclusion that their interests and that of Washington do not overlap on Syria. This is not inconceivable, as they have increasingly done so of late. They may therefore decide to accelerate a settlement in Syria. If they do so, then Washington’s ability to complicate a settlement will be greatly diminished. 

In conclusion, we are probably faced with two  probable scenarios for the future of Syria. 

The first is a frozen conflict. The present de facto divisions would continue: Damascus, with the assistance of Russia and Iran, controls more than sixty percent of the nation’s territory, whereas the remainder will be divided between the indirect control of Turkiye and the United States. No leader in Damascus can survive if he acquiesces to a de facto partition of the country. In other words, Damascus will do whatever it takes to prevent that from happening. And as we have seen of late in the Donbas region of Ukraine, frozen conflicts do not remain frozen forever. This is a scenario that would perpetuate regional instability. In other words, Syria and the region will not escape the vicious cycle that has prevented it from reaching its full potential. 

The second scenario is that of steady positive change: i.e. where the present regional realignment continues with limited manageable conflicts, resulting in stabilization and a gradual movement towards a political settlement in Syria. Syria and Turkiye reach an accommodation that responds to the security concerns of both parties, while paving the way for Damascus to exercise its sovereignty over the areas where Ankara now exercises effective control. 

Normalising relations between Iran and the Arab countries proceeds, in a manner that addresses Arab security concerns, including in Syria, while reaching some sort of accommodation on Iran’s economic interests in Syria. 

Following a regional realignment, the Syrian government, encouraged by the Arab countries and Russia , would take steps towards implementing United Nations Security Council resolution 2254, and the international community would positively respond by encouraging the reconstruction of the Syrian economy, so the path to a settlement would materialise. 

In other words, a virtuous cycle will be set in motion. Such a scenario will be greatly assisted if all efforts take place in the context of establishing an inclusive and comprehensive regional security architecture.

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