Weeks ago, it looked like that the Arab “normalization” train was on track towards Damascus. Some thought that the speed of the train was higher than what happened at the end of 2018, after the opening of the UAE embassy in the Syrian capital and the expression of support to the return of Damascus to the Arab tent in Cairo.
Over the past weeks, Syrian officials, including Foreign Minister Faisal Miqdad and Special Adviser to the presidency Buthaina Shaaban, issued statements about major Arab breakthroughs towards Damascus including visits by senior Arab security officials, the imminent opening of embassies, the return of Syria to the Arab League, and the expectation of phone calls from Arab leaders to congratulate President Bashar al-Assad on his victory.
Added to this were media reports of secret European diplomatic contacts with Damascus, talk of opening embassies, and the arrival of ambassadors, in addition to a message from Miqdad to some of his European counterparts.
Indeed, security visits took place. A high-ranking Syrian security figure visited Cairo and other capitals, while Arab countries refrained from criticizing the outcome of the presidential elections. Arab humanitarian and medical aid was also sent to the country.
European diplomats residing in Beirut visited Damascus. Washington has also made exceptions to the sanctions on humanitarian and medical grounds. However, much of what was said about the content of the Arabic “compliment letters” did not materialize. Why?
First, it is clear that these Arab contacts with Damascus are still subject to many tests. In fact, each side is insisting on its declared positions: Damascus is committed to its conditions for “normalization”, while Arab countries require a consensus that supports this end.
Here, Syria must be placed in its broader regional and international context. Iranian presidential elections will be held on June 18, while negotiations with major powers are ongoing over the “nuclear issue”. Moreover, US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, are meeting in Geneva next Wednesday. Syria is a “carrot” or a “stick” in these developments and the mutual signals between the key actors.
When examining the Syrian-Arab framework, we see that Damascus is still attached to its position. Assad’s vote in Douma, and then the victory speech, carried many symbolic references to the “conditions for accepting normalization.”
There is no doubt that the “symbolic messages” left their mark in the attempts at rapprochement. The initial security consultations also revealed the depth of the gap in stances.
At the beginning of 2019, Damascus stipulated that the Arab League begin the path of returning Syria to the Arab fold. Indeed, the Syrian government refused to submit a memorandum to request lifting the membership freeze announced at the end of 2011.
Syrian officials were quoted as saying: “The Arabs should return to Damascus - the cradle of Arabism, and not the other way around. We will not provide a request for reinstatement. You submit a request and we will study it.”
One of the meetings held in Cairo in recent days showed that this condition did not change.
Some go further, to say that even in executive matters on cooperation to combat drug smuggling and terrorism, Syrian security officials showed carelessness on requests in this regard.
A Western diplomat said in this regard: “Smuggling has become a major source in the Syrian economy, in light of the sanctions. It generates billions of US dollars, and it will not be easy to abandon it…”
Within this context, American advice came to the Europeans and European-American advice to the Arabs. It is true that the Biden administration lowered the ceiling of its demands in Syria, and stopped imposing sanctions on Damascus. It is also true that Syria is not a priority for Biden’s team, which focuses on two issues: Humanitarian aid across the border and the continued defeat of ISIS east of the Euphrates. But the US advice to the Arabs was that normalization “is not useful at the moment” and that “it should not happen without any price.”
The US requests have changed and are no longer focused on a “regime change” nor a “transitional governing body,” but rather a “change in the behavior,” which includes a “comprehensive cease-fire in Syria, the release of political detainees, a dignified return of refugees and displaced persons, as well as dealing positively with political and constitutional reform.”
The same instruction has also reached Brussels, by emphasizing the necessity of “the coherence of the European position” regarding the normalization.
Consequently, “normalization” is now placed on a low fire, awaiting the Putin-Biden meeting, the US-Turkish summit and the results of Biden’s mobilization of his allies during his European tour, in addition to the outcome of the Iranian elections and the negotiations with the major powers on the “nuclear deal”.
Undoubtedly, the speed of the Arab train will be determined at the meeting of the foreign ministers of the international-Arab mini-group led by the United States, which will convene on the sidelines of the conference of the international coalition against ISIS in Rome on June 28.