In Arabic culture, it is extremely bad form to not humor your host and his fantasies or allusions about himself. In Lebanon, when a boy comes home from school in a white lab coat and announces to his family that he will become a doctor, none of his family nor even his neighbors will mock him. Instead, they will indulge his dream by calling him doctor and even buy him accessories to support his aspiration.
This is really the best way to explain what is happening with Gulf Arab leaders, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the recent presidential elections in Syria which everyone knew was a foregone conclusion. Suddenly Gulf Arab leaders have found a useful role for Assad. Thus, they are humoring his visions of rekindled political grandeur by recognizing his re-election as President, despite considerable evidence challenging its legitimacy.
Exhausted by the Syrian civil war, which drained their coffers and divided them via the various terrorist groups they chose to support, Gulf Arab leaders have decided to bring Assad in from the cold.
Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer? Not really.
Assad could turn out to be a real friend with benefits. Gulf Arab leaders have conceded that their support for the revolution to topple Assad was not only misconceived but has also backfired on them. They despised Assad when the Syrian leader refused to show reverence to their hegemony and their Western allies. This relationship crumbled entirely when, after years of a UN investigation into the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri in Beirut, the finger was pointed at the Syrian leader himself.
Gulf Arab leaders have conceded that their support for the revolution to topple Assad was not only misconceived but has also backfired on them.
By 2008, the idea, initiated by US House Speaker Nancy Palosi a year earlier, to “bring Assad in from the cold” seemed impossible, as did an “association agreement” which the EU was trying to hammer out with the Syrian regime.
But now we have come full circle. Perhaps due to worries by Gulf Arab leaders that Syria’s ally Iran will become stronger and that the US will not protect them, there is a new mindset towards Assad: bring him over to our side by appealing to his pan Arabism.
To some extent, although the last in the line to open an embassy in Damascus, it is Saudi Arabia (KSA) that is hoping there is mileage in this ruse. But, it’s also due to the Biden administration’s shake up in the Middle East, which has bashed the heads together of the leaders of Egypt and Turkey, KSA, and Qatar. Foes have become friends and are looking for opportunities.
And so, this idea that the region needs a new relationship with Assad has been borne by a trail of havoc from erroneous policy decisions in the region by those same Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which have had to accept some mea culpa and eat humble pie. And also, Washington’s tacit support for what was essentially a Muslim Brotherhood attempted coup in 2011.
Those same Arab leaders now are lobbying Washington to lift sanctions – targeting the people in Syria who Hillary Clinton labelled “good” terrorists, rather than bad ones, because they were on the side of the US.
However, their campaign to convince the DC elite that Assad needs to be helped is unlikely to be taken seriously. In fact, the banal shake up of relations in the region due to the Biden factor, is likely to be replicated by some controversial decisions taken in the Oval Office. The somewhat opaque relationship which Trump had with the Kurds in Northern Syria – and continued to fund militarily despite firmly denying he was supporting them – is unlikely to be pursued by Joe Biden.
The current US President is more likely to take this relationship with the mostly Kurdish militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to the next level. This will put pressure on the Syrian leader, Russia, and Iran all in one blow, without one threat to US lives and little blowback expected.
Biden is rumored to be preparing to throw the lever on Kurd support, with the aim of helping them create a state within a state in Syria.
Biden is rumored to be preparing to throw the lever on Kurd support, with the aim of helping them create a state within a state in Syria. The idea is not a new one. Indeed, even in 2014, Assad himself held out his hand to the Kurds and suggested a similar deal, based on peace – as Kurdish forces were equally as effective at hitting ISIS as the regular Syrian army.
However, if Biden makes this move, it will not be on very friendly terms with Assad, but will aim instead to weaken the credibility and strength of the Syrian leader. A breakaway state not only makes the regime look fragile but also sends the wrong message to other ethnic groups in Syria who might be inspired to follow a similar path – not to mention in the region.
Yet something has to give.
If such a move is really being mulled by Biden, then how does that impact the new relations between GCC leaders and Assad? Would this decision throw the relations with the UAE, in particular, into the long grass? It is worth noting that only back in 2020, Abu Dhabi had made some very lucid statements about “supporting” the SDF, when Turkey was planning a 32km “buffer zone,” and there were even some reports of huge cash offers to supposedly destroy Turkey’s forces there. Therefore, the UAE’s relations with the Kurds will always be a grey zone and one which Assad will watch carefully.
And perhaps even more relevant is where does a stronger SDF in the North place Turkey’s relations with both Washington and Israel? Can these two relationships get worse? And as a consequence of a stronger SDF (which is made up largely of Kurdistan Workers’ Party – PKK – fighters), could we see Turkish President Recep Erdogan thawing relations with Assad, which this author predicted in 2017?
This latter scenario is in fact inevitable as Turkey is also being pacified by KSA and the UAE into improving ties, although it presents some challenges. While there has been a certain loathing of Assad by the GCC leaders for years, there was always a common enemy which kept a bond between them: their fear of the Muslim Brotherhood.
A certain thawing of bad relations will benefit both Assad and Erdogan as they both look to contain Kurdish ambitions in Syria.
Thus, Erdogan becoming as friendly to Assad as Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the region is probably unlikely. But a certain thawing of bad relations will benefit both Assad and Erdogan as they both look to contain Kurdish ambitions in Syria.
In the meantime, watch out for news that Syria will soon be welcomed into the bosom of the Arab League and expect photo handouts of big media featuring Assad and GCC figures in “dish-dash” attire.
The Arabs in the region will now humor Assad and his regime. And in return, they will get some free training on how to contain any further Arab Spring revolutions with a back-channel door open to the Russians, if and when they need it. After all, what’s a rigged election between friends?