An upcoming meeting between Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in Baghdad will probably reveal the outcome of Russia’s recent diplomatic push to restore Syria’s membership in the Arab League.
It will also reveal the results of Syria’s “Arab depth” proposal, which it submitted to Baghdad, that outlined the steps needed for returning Damascus to the Arab fold and confronting Iran and Turkey’s infiltration of its territories.
Russia had dispatched its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to the region. He held talks with Egyptian officials in Cairo on Monday and had carried out a tour of the Gulf region a month ago. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, had also met with Syria’s President Bashar Assad two days ago and made unannounced visits to Arab countries.
Moscow has urged Arab countries to restore Syria’s membership in the Arab League and to draft an Arab position that would be declared at the League’s next summit, which is set for Algeria. Lavrov had discussed this issue during his visit to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar last month.
Moscow believes that the Syrian presidential elections will serve as a turning point in the course of the country’s ten-year conflict. It has also seen “progress” in the political process as demonstrated in the meetings of the Constitutional Committee in Geneva and frontlines that have remained largely unchanged since March 2020.
Meeting behind closed doors, Russian officials have said that “weakening Iran in Syria demands that Arabs restore their political and economic presence in Damascus.” They have also stressed the need to avert the collapse of the Syrian state due to American and European sanctions that are “suffocating the Syrian people”.
The Russians have therefore, urged Arab countries to offer financial aid to the Syrian government. Moscow has also sought to free some 1 billion dollars belonging to the Syrian government and that have been frozen in Arab banks. The funds will be used in financing the delivery of wheat and oil derivatives to Syria. Moscow has also vowed to offer a 500-million-dollar loan to Damascus as part of measures to avoid the collapse of the Syrian pound.
Russia and Arab countries are aware of the “limits of what they can offer” to Damascus given the legal restrictions imposed by Washington’s Caesar Act and European-American conditions on Syria’s reconstruction.
The Arabs are divided over restoring Syria’s membership to the Arab League and normalizing relations with it. Some countries are committed to the need to implement the Geneva declaration and United Nations Security Council 2254 and ensure the withdraw of sectarian and foreign militias from Syria. The first steps in this regard should be taken by Damascus.
Some Arab countries have already reopened their embassies in Damascus, but without appointing ambassadors in what is seen as a test of Syria’s position. Others have reappointed ambassadors, such as Mauritania. Oman has maintained its diplomatic ties with Damascus and their foreign ministers have exchanged visits over the years.
Throughout this situation, one issue is clear: Arab countries are growing increasingly concerned with Turkey’s “infiltration” of northern Syria and Iran’s entrenchment in the country amid the “complete Arab absence from the scene”.
Arabs believe that Syria’s return to the Arab League demands a “collective position” from the chief Arab countries, as well as initiatives on Damascus’ end. The host, Algeria, is hoping for such an achievement to be reached on its territories. On the technical side, Damascus needs to submit a formal request to the League for its membership to be restored.
On the political side, Arab countries are waiting on Damascus to “carry out a series of political steps to implement resolution 2254 and approach the UN-sponsored Constitutional Committee meetings with tangible positivity.” Moreover, it should provide the necessary conditions for the safe return of refugees to their homes.
On the geo-political side, Arab countries expect “tangible steps” from Damascus in easing Iran’s influence in its territories and pulling out sectarian militias. They expect Moscow to take measures that prevent Turkey’s incursions in northern Syria and exert efforts to push the political process forward. Moscow is also expected to respect prior understandings about curbing Iran’s influence.
‘Arab depth’ initiative
Given the above, prominent Syrian figures proposed the “Arab depth” initiative to Arab countries, including Egypt, Jordan and Iraq to bolster their contribution in “finding the best solution that should lead to achieving internal Syrian stability and boost the Arab role.” The figures believe that several Arab countries share Damascus’ keenness in restoring stability in Syria and its fear over the expansion of religious extremism and terrorism in the region. They are also concerned with Turkey and Iran’s growing influence in Syria amid the absence of an effective Arab role.
Should the “Arab depth” initiative truly get off the ground, then it will act as a parallel platform to the Astana process that includes Russia, Turkey and Iran and the new platform that was recently launched by Russia, Turkey and Qatar.
The initiative calls for the release of detainees, encourages the return of refugees with Arab support, urges the establishment of an independent judiciary and hopes for the formation of a new Syrian platform with the Arab League’s sponsorship. It also urges dialogue with the Americans and Russians to ensure the success of the initiative.
Damascus believes it can break through the Arab “wall” after finding the door firmly shut against it by the Americans and Europeans. It has received some of the ideas of the initiative during its foreign minister’s recent visit to Muscat, Assad’s meeting with Lavrentiev and security contacts between Syrian and Arab officials.
Damascus has expressed reservations over the speed and “depth” of the conditions it is expected to meet and the “incentives” it is set to receive. On the technical side, two years ago Damascus refused to submit a request to the Arab League to end its suspension, saying at the time: “The Arabs should request to return to Syria, which is a founding member of the organization.”
Politically, Damascus is so far prioritizing its presidential elections, set for mid-May, with Assad expected to claim victory. Some officials have hinted that “political reforms could take place after the polls” and that they would positively deal with the Constitutional Committee. Damascus is also prioritizing its fight against western sanctions and its efforts to improve living conditions for the Syrians by receiving oil shipments from Iran and food from Russia. It is also striking deals with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to receive oil derivatives and grain from northeastern Syria.
Tactically, Damascus is still playing both sides, between Moscow and Tehran, whereby it turns to one whenever it comes under pressure from the other. This strategy is so far working as demonstrated in Lavrov’s recent remarks that “the more Russia pressures Damascus, the more it turns to Iran.”
Geo-politically, Damascus believes that the further Turkey, Iran and Russia expand their influence in Syria and the region, Arab countries will eventually find themselves forced to cooperate with it. The “initiatives” and “incentives” will then flow from Arab capitals, not Damascus.