Articles > > MUTUAL RETURN

Articles - Addostour - Date: 2019-01-09
By: Oraib Al Rantawi

Syria will return to the Arab League and the Arabs will return to Syria.

It is only a matter of time. This is what various developments in the region are indicating and what a number of – public and covert – moves and contacts between the various relevant capitals suggest.

What happened in Cairo on Sunday during the meeting of the Arab League's permanent representatives, and what will happen this Wednesday, will make no difference either way. The hesitation and dithering that characterizes some Arab capitals' positions reflect the hesitation and dithering that plagues the U.S. decision-making process under President Trump. He first demanded a rapid and early withdrawal from Syria, only to subsequently grant a longer period for implementing his decision. This was in response to the pressures from the 'deep state' in Washington on the one hand, and it aims to grant Washington's allies – especially Israel – a greater chance to reassess the situation and decide on the best means of dealing with the consequences, on the other.

The fact that two of the Trump administration's most senior officials have begun to travel across the length and breadth of the region is significant. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton dealt with the non-Arab allies, namely, Turkey and Israel, while Defense Secretary Mike Pompeo assumed the task of coordinating with the '6 + 2' group of states that includes the six Gulf countries as well as Jordan and Morocco.

This is taking place against the background of scattered reports about attempts to convince Turkey not to 'pounce' on the YPG (Kurdish People's Protection Units) and the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), and amidst attempts to reassure Israel of America's continued commitment to fight Iran everywhere, specifically in Syria, and by all available means, both before and after the decision to withdraw.

As for the Arab side, the discussions will not exclude the possibility of reviving the old idea of deploying Arab forces to Northeastern Syria to replace the withdrawing U.S. forces as the first mission of the alliance that Washington has dubbed 'the Arab NATO.'

Washington is withdrawing from the ground in Syria – the 'land of sand and death' as Trump himself described it – leaving Iran and Russia free to do whatever they wish there – as Trump has also said. But Washington, and specifically its 'deep state,' does not want the vacuum left by the U.S. to be filled by the Syrian army; nor does it want the Damascus regime to impose its authority over the quarter of Syria's area ruled by the Kurds and that is under the protection of the 'international coalition.'

But Washington also does not want Turkey to fill the entire vacuum, even though, like Russia, it does not mind enabling it to maintain a security cordon along its borders with Syria. For this area is a focal point of tension and a cause for chronic divisions between the members of the 'Astana trio' one hand and between Turkey and Syria on the other. And this is an outcome that Washington wants, as long as it keeps Ankara in need of it, and as long as it enables it to protect the Kurds after lowering the ceiling of their expectations, and as long as it would be a permanent focal point of attrition for Russia, Iran, and the roles they are playing in Syria.

But one can totally rule out the possibility that the Arab states will comply with an American demand to deploy forces to Syria. No Arab state can do this, and none of the capitals concerned is confident that its forces would not sink in the Syrian quicksand. Moreover, given the choice between the growth of Turkish influence in the Syrian North and the regime's return to fill the vacuum left by the U.S., many, if not most, Arab capitals would choose Damascus over Ankara. And this may be what explains the recent wave of 'Arab pilgrimage to Damascus'.

But what complicates matters for the leading Arab capitals is that Iran's ghost haunts them as they consider the possibility of bringing Syria back to the Arab League and returning to Damascus. This is the source of their need to secure a prior position from Damascus committing it to reducing Iranian influence, if it proves impossible to end it. But this is difficult for Damascus to either make or abide by when its mind is brimming with fresh and lively memories of Arab statements and positions threatening to force Assad to step down, either by peaceful means or by force of arms. 

It is here, and here in particular, where the secret behind the Arab hesitation and dithering lies. But this will only last for a while, and is most likely to soon be overcome.