As the Russian-backed Syrian regime and Turkey faced each other in Syria’s Idlib in recent weeks, the reactions of Arab regimes and their collective body, the League of Arab States, were limited to issuing public statements. This withdrawal from a consequential Arab matter is dictated by geopolitical factors and driven by conflicting objectives of key Arab countries, a situation that reinforces the image of the Arab League as an organization in disarray. However, key Arab countries are attempting to make a comeback in Syria, but their diplomatic success might end up being limited.
Background of Arab involvement in Syria
The Arab League tried early on to play a key role in peacefully defusing the Syrian crisis. In November 2011, the Syrian regime approved an Arab League plan that banned the Syrian army from deploying soldiers and tanks against peaceful protesters. After several violations of this agreement, however, the Arab League suspended the membership of the Syrian regime. Another mediation plan, which included deploying Arab League observers to monitor cease-fires between the regime and the opposition, was also halted in January 2012. This diplomatic failure came at a time when there was a quasi-Arab consensus that the civil war in Syria should remain an internal Arab issue and that the Syrian regime should be deterred from using violence.
This phase of Arab involvement coincided with the transformative period of the Arab Spring, when authoritarian leaders in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, and Libya were ousted from power. But Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar that had shared common objectives entering the Syrian war parted ways in 2013 because they differed on whether to embrace or challenge the rise of Islamists in the Arab world. Decisive factors also contributed to weakening the Arab position in Syria, most notably the rise of the so-called Islamic State in 2014, which allowed for the intervention of foreign powers in the country. By 2017, as the northern and southern fronts of the Syrian war went quiet after the Astana process and the US-Russian ceasefire agreement, the Arab influence in Syria declined significantly, if not totally dissipated.
As the Syrian regime began to expand its territorial control over the country, Arab governments had to choose between two prevailing policies: a Russian position encouraging and endorsing engagement with Damascus and an American stance calling for boycotting the Syrian regime and imposing sanctions on it. Within these two prevailing positions on Syria, there are three motivations for involvement by Arab governments. The first is a common distrust toward Islamists in their own countries; this is shared by the United Arab Emirates (where al-Islah Society is active), Algeria (Islamic Salvation Front), Egypt (Muslim Brotherhood), and Palestine (Hamas). The second motivation comprises the geopolitical factors that dictate foreign policy, most notably the Iranian influence in Lebanon and Iraq. The third is the overarching objective of weakening Iranian influence in Syria and driving a wedge between Damascus and Tehran—a position principally advocated by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
In 2018, a Saudi Arabia-led and Russia-encouraged approach developed to reinstate the Syrian regime’s membership in the Arab League, as key Gulf countries were inching closer toward a rapprochement with Damascus. There were also high hopes in October 2018 that the reopening of the Nasib border crossing between Jordan and Syria would revitalize the regional economy and reconnect Syria to Gulf countries. Russia was urging the Arab states of the Gulf to help in the return of Syrian refugees to their homes and in Syria’s reconstruction process. Some Gulf leaders saw this as an opportunity to gain a seat at the table in any potential Syrian peace talks. However, the Trump Administration poured cold water on this initiative by pressuring Arab countries not to engage Damascus. At the same time, Washington was piling up sanctions on the Syrian regime as well as exerting pressure against the Russian and Iranian involvement in Syria.
This US pressure slowed down that potential Arab rapprochement with the Syrian regime two years ago, but it did not prevent some timid steps in that direction. In December 2018, the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus and Bahrain said its embassy there was fully operational. However, in 2019, Riyadh halted any moves in the direction of recognizing the Syria regime, most notably as it was dealing with the repercussions of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Moreover, Saudi State Minister for Arab Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan visited eastern Syria in June 2019 and met with tribal leaders and showed support for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. This was a direct swipe at Turkey, which considers Syrian Kurdish forces as terrorists and associates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
However, the normalization of Arab countries with the Syrian regime has been tacit and continues to increase incrementally. There are direct flights between Syria and many Arab countries now; these include the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Oman, and Egypt (although most are suspended at present given the coronavirus outbreak). More than half of the Arab countries have some sort of diplomatic representation in, or contact with, Damascus, but they are divided on their Syria policy and on whether the Arab League should focus on Iranian or Turkish activities there. Kuwait and Jordan kept a distance from the Gulf crisis that began in the summer of 2017 and have good working relations with Turkey because they share similar critical views of the Trump Administration’s policy toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Lebanon and Iraq are trying to maneuver US-Iranian tensions but seek to reengage Damascus if Washington does not take punitive economic measures against them.
While the Nasib border crossing has opened since October 2018, it remains technically idle as Jordan––like several Arab countries––is struggling to strike a balance between American and Russian policy in Syria. North African countries are concerned about Arab and foreign intervention in Libya but do not want to challenge Saudi Arabia or become involved in the Gulf crisis, hence they timidly condemn Turkish intervention in Syria as part of the collective voice of the Arab League. Saudi Arabia and its allies are currently the most influential faction driving the Arab League.
The US-Russia competition
The United States and Russia renewed their competition to persuade Gulf countries to support their positions on Syria. Their rivalry was driven primarily by the last Turkish incursion into Syria and the Russian-Turkish confrontation in both Syria and Libya. The rapprochement on Syria between Russia and the three Arab allies (Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt) began in October 2019 when US President Donald Trump gave a tacit green light to his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to begin an incursion into northern Syria. Cairo immediately called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League Council, which condemned Ankara’s move as an “invasion of an Arab state’s land and an aggression on its sovereignty” and called on the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Turkey. This trend continued as the Russian-Turkish spat evolved following the Syrian-Turkish military confrontation. A second Arab League meeting was held on Libya in December 2019 to warn against Turkey’s “facilitating the transfer of foreign extremist fighters from other regional conflict zones to Libya.” The Arab League has recently shifted to a general position of condemning Iranian and Turkish influence in Arab affairs with no mention of either the American or Russian roles.
Moscow’s diplomatic engagement in the Gulf regarding Syria was meant as a swipe at Ankara, which considers some Gulf countries as regional foes. On February 12, Russia’s director of foreign intelligence service, Sergei Naryshkin, visited Abu Dhabi to discuss with his Emirati counterparts “the prospects for cooperation in the fight against international terrorism” and noted similar approaches to conflict resolution between the two sides.
This cooperation was translated into a breakthrough and led to a direct diplomatic link for the Syrian regime with General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA). The Libyan embassy in Damascus, closed since 2012, was reopened on March 3, but not as a link to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. Saudi news media reported that Haftar secretly visited Damascus, which led to the deal between the two sides. This breakthrough brings the Syrian regime closer to the Arab coalition with Russia, even though Saudi Arabia remains hesitant to publicly engage Damascus through a direct contact. Riyadh, however, is making gestures that reflect a movement in this direction. Syrian regime news media reported in January that the Syrian representative to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, recently attended a special ceremony in New York held to honor Saudi State Minister Fahd bin Abdullah al-Mubarak. There, Jaafari was told by a Saudi diplomat that tension between the two countries is nothing but “a summer cloud that will inevitably pass.”
There are other indications of Arab movement toward engaging the Syrian regime. In February, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune told RT Arabic that the Syrian regime should return to the Arab League. On March 2, Lebanese Minister of Social Affairs Ramzi al-Musharafieh visited Damascus to discuss the return of Syrian refugees to Syria, which is a Lebanese priority. Jordan’s Minister of Industry, Trade, and Supply Tariq Hammouri visited Damascus on March 5 for the first time since opening the Nasib border crossing. With the struggling Jordanian economy, Amman hopes to increase its exports to Syria, which fell from $255.5 million in 2011 to $13.9 million in 2016.
In a parallel track to lobbying for an Arab League condemnation of Turkey, Saudi Arabia moved to have more control over the Syrian opposition at the expense of Turkish influence. Riyadh called for a meeting to elect new representatives of the Syrian Negotiations Commission; the Saudi-backed Hadi al-Bahra (who replaced Ahmad al-Jarba) was chosen to lead the opposition’s Constitutional Committee in the peace talks with the Syrian regime. This meeting in Riyadh was attended by the Russia and Egypt platforms in the Syrian opposition, which reflected the emerging opposition coalition in Syria as well as Russia’s exacerbation over Ankara’s reluctance to pressure the Syrian opposition to offer concessions. The Turkish-backed factions of the Syrian opposition have condemned the Riyadh meeting, noting that it has no legal basis nor was it convened in consultation with all parties of the Syrian opposition. The Russian-sponsored Syrian peace talks are expected by the end of March—unless they are delayed given the coronavirus pandemic.
This alignment of interests between Moscow and some influential Gulf leaders is expectedly being balanced by Washington. Last December, President Trump signed into law the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act, which authorizes additional sanctions and financial restrictions on institutions and individuals doing business with the Syrian regime. The governor of Damascus’s countryside, Alaa Ibrahim, met with Emirati embassy officials to discuss “investment and cooperation,” which shows how some Arab countries can potentially help Russia to offset US sanctions on Syria. The Trump Administration is engaging Riyadh regularly on the Syrian issue to make sure it does not drift toward Russia, but it might be increasingly difficult for Washington to balance the contradictory interests of Ankara and Riyadh. The Trump Administration simultaneously wants to drive both Turkey and Saudi Arabia away from Russia while achieving its objectives in Syria, which might be an uphill task in the future.
Will Arab countries play a role in Syria?
The spat between Moscow and Ankara could potentially reshuffle cards in Syria and offer an opportunity for some Gulf countries to play a role once again in the country, albeit a limited one under Russian preconditions. Having Saudi Arabia on the record endorsing the Russian approach would give other Arab countries the cover to follow suit in engaging the Syrian regime by reinstating its membership in the Arab League. The Russian-Saudi oil price war and the implications of the coronavirus pandemic could complicate this emerging dynamic in Syria, especially at a time when the United States is focused on presidential elections in November.
However, these dynamics do not negate the lack of a coherent Arab approach to Syria, which remains the major barrier to an effective Arab role there. Most Arab governments are focused on their internal domestic challenges; still, the decision to restore the Syrian regime’s membership in the Arab League seems inevitable—pending the Saudi decision to go in this direction. Arab regimes are constrained by several factors that prevent them from having a coordinated approach to Syria; these include the inter-Arab rivalry, US-Russian competition, and lack of Arab consensus on strategic challenges. Some Arab regimes are expecting Russia to rein in Iran and Turkey on their behalf while others prefer that Moscow preserve its alliance with only one of these regional powers.
Given the US-Russian competition, the policy options facing Arab governments range between some sort of limited engagement with Damascus and the reinstatement of the Syrian regime’s seat at the Arab League. Moreover, to strengthen its leverage, Russia might be playing both Turkey and Saudi Arabia against each other; thus, at the end of the day, it will leave Arab countries once again with little to gain or concede in Syria.
This article has been republished with permission from the Arab Center Washington DC.
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
keep readingShow less
Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
As Russia’s war in Ukraine approaches its two-year anniversary, President Vladimir Putin has reportedly had his suggestions of ceasefire rejected by Washington.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Russia had approached the United States through intermediaries in late 2023 and early 2024 to propose freezing the conflict along the current lines. Washington reportedly turned down the suggestion, saying that they were not willing to engage in talks if Ukraine was not a participant.
“Putin was proposing to freeze the conflict at the current lines and was unwilling to cede any of the Ukrainian territory controlled by Russia, but the signal offered what some in the Kremlin saw as the best path towards a peace of some kind,” according to Reuters, which cites three anonymous Russian sources.
The plan, one of the sources told Reuters, was for national security adviser Jake Sullivan to meet with the Russian counterpart to hash out the details. But after meeting with other senior officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director Bill Burns, “Sullivan told Ushakov that Washington was willing to talk about other aspects of the relationship but would not speak about a ceasefire without Ukraine, said one of the Russian sources,” according to Reuters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly said that there is no point in negotiating with Putin and has maintained that he will never accept Russia controlling any part of Ukraine.
"Everything fell apart with the Americans," one of the sources told Reuters, saying that Washington did not want to pressure Kyiv into reaching an agreement. The sources also added that given the U.S. reaction to a potential ceasefire, Moscow saw little reason to reach out again.
Both Washington and Moscow have denied the reporting.
The Kremlin “never made any kind of proposal to us nor have we seen any signs that Putin is sincerely interested in ending the war,” an unnamed U.S. official told Politico’s NatSec daily on Tuesday. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that the report that Russia had made such an offer was “not true.”
Despite Washington’s insistence, this is the latest piece of evidence that Putin may have pursued a ceasefire in recent months. The New York Times reported late in 2023 that the Russian president had quietly been sending signals to the West that he was prepared to freeze the conflict.
“The signals come through multiple channels, including via foreign governments with ties to both the United States and Russia,” the Times reported. “Unofficial Russian emissaries have spoken to interlocutors about the contours of a potential deal that Mr. Putin would accept, American officials and others said.” The report also revealed that Putin had been interested in a potential ceasefire as far back as the fall of 2022, following Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive.
As journalist Leonid Ragozin explained in al-Jazeera earlier this week, this may be an effort to pressure the West to negotiate on Putin’s terms.
“What Putin is trying to achieve is making the West face its moral dilemma which boils down to the cost and benefit of resisting his aggression,” Ragozin writes. “The continued support for Ukraine’s military effort will cost thousands of lives and devastate Ukraine even further, while success is hardly guaranteed.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— The prospects for the next tranche of U.S. aid for Ukraine saw the first glimmer of optimism in months, but the chances that it becomes law remain murky. After a tumultuous negotiation, the Senate passed the $95 billion national security supplemental, which includes approximately $60 billion for Kyiv. The legislation next goes to the House of Representatives, which has been more skeptical of sending aid, and where leadership so far appears unwilling to bring the bill to the floor. Supporters believe that if the House voted on the package, it would pass overwhelmingly, and some have floated pursuing legislative maneuvers that would allow them to supersede leadership and bring the legislation to a vote.
— Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke with Paul Whelan, the U.S. Marine currently detained in Russia, on Monday, according toCNN. Blinken provided few details on his conversation with Whelan, who has been detained since December 2018. When asked about a possible prisoner exchange involving Whelan or detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, the Kremlin said that such matters could only be resolved, “in silence.”
— French President Emmanuel Macron announced in a statement that he will sign a bilateral security agreement with Ukraine on Friday. Macron did not specify what exactly the agreement will look like, but he said earlier this year that he was expecting to model an agreement after the 10-year deal that the United Kingdom and Ukraine signed earlier this year.
— The Netherlands will join a coalition of countries that is providing Ukraine with advanced drones, according toReuters.
“Ukraine intends to manufacture thousands of long-range drones capable of deep strikes into Russia in 2024 and already has up to 10 companies working on production, Ukraine's digital minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, said in a Reuters interview on Monday.”
U.S. State Department news:
In a Wednesday press briefing, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller reiterated the importance of Congress passing the supplemental, stressing that it was in the national security interest of Ukraine, Europe, and the United States.
“A lot of that money is spent here, helps develop the manufacturing base here in the United States. And so we will continue to push for the passage of the supplemental bill, and ultimately we think – as the President said, the world is watching,” Miller said. “And certainly I’m sure that when we are in Munich we will hear directly from foreign leaders that they are watching very much what Congress does. We know the Ukrainian people are watching. And as the President said, history is watching as well.”
keep readingShow less
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1952; President Barack Obama, at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, 2014.
President Trump's latest comments criticizing NATO and the ensuing media reaction obscure the fact that Americans have long held dissenting opinions on the U.S. relationship to European security.
As has happened all too often throughout the Trump era, the heat of escalating rhetoric on the part of the 45th President and his committed adversaries has distracted from the more substantive foreign policy debate.
Today, the U.S-European security relationship has never been more sacrosanct, at least in the mind's eye of the national security establishment and their allies in the mainstream press. Yet historically, the range of debate and criticism of this ostensibly sacred pact has been far more open than nostalgia or the modern commentariat may suggest.
Throughout American involvement in NATO, the nation's national security elites, members of Congress, commentators, and, yes, presidents, too, have all challenged the contours of commitment to the organization and its members at one time or another. Furthermore, they did so when Western countries faced a significantly larger Soviet military deployed deep into the heart of Central Europe.
During the early Cold War, the nature of American involvement in the alliance and its commitment to staff Europe with a permanent garrison were not seen as beyond question, even by American officials in positions of authority. In fact, American Cold War architects sold an American garrison in Europe as a temporary measure meant to shore up allies still licking their wounds from the Second World War. In congressional testimony concerning the ratification of the NATO treaty, Sen. Bourke B. Hickenlooper (R-Iowa) pressed Secretary of State Dean Acheson on if he thought the treaty meant that the U.S. would leave "substantial numbers of troops over there." An indignant Acheson responded, "[t]he answer to that question, Senator, is a clear and absolute 'No.'"
Even as Acheson's assurances to Congress proved hollow, NATO's first commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, while supportive of NATO's legal mechanisms of collective security, believed that America's garrison and material aid were temporary. Eisenhower warned that if "in 10 years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project will have failed."
In Congress, the extent of American military involvement remained a persistent issue for the Republican Right. Be they principled noninterventionists or Asia First unilateralists, the extent of American troop presence in Europe remained a contested issue. Retired Army officer Bonner Fellers, writing in a July 1949 issue of Human Events, a conservative magazine, summed up the widely agreed-upon position of these dissenters. While Fellers believed that the NATO treaty had "enormous psychological value," as it served as a "symbol of unity" and deterrence, he did not think that that should translate into a massive and permanent military garrison in Western Europe.
Fellers revisited the issue two years later in an article for Human Events, which was read into the Congressional Record. Rather than see the American European garrison as a deterrent, Fellers asserted that it could be viewed as a provocation and argued that the "presence of our forces on the Rhine gives Stalin a visible symbol, a unifying agent which tends to enlist the support of all Russians behind the Kremlin."
It is important to note that Fellers was hardly a dove. Instead, he was a committed anti-communist who loathed the Soviet Union and supported a nuclear deterrence on the cheap, a Fortress America 2.0. Yet, he, like many within the Republican Right, did not allow their ideological priors to automatically dictate a desire for endless security commitments to Western Europe.
On Capitol Hill, Fellers's views were common and supported by conservative Republicans who saw an American military garrison as an expensive handout to allies whose rebuilt economies could shoulder their defense, all while providing little deterrent effect. In 1953, speaking on the issue of America's military mission in Europe, Rep. Lawrence H. Smith (R-Wis.) asked rhetorically, "[w]here is the threat of military aggression?"
According to Smith, after returning from a fact-finding mission in Europe, his subcommittee on Europe reported that "there was no fear of communism in the hearts and the minds of the people there." The sentiments espoused by Fellers and Smith persisted in pockets of the Republican Right throughout the early Cold War despite the ideological demands of the era.
During the final decades of the Cold War, opposition to the presence of an American military garrison in Western Europe and the continuation of military aid emanated primarily from the left wing of the Democratic Party as a new generation of Democrats took office and sought to rein military spending and commitments. On Capitol Hill, Democrats attempted to force American troop level cuts in Europe in the House in 1988, and the Senate in 1990.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the horseshoe of opposition to maintaining the status quo thickened as a body of conservative Republicans joined progressive Democrats in opposing NATO expansion, first in 1994 and then in 1999. While both votes failed, and the United States maintained a sizeable garrison in Europe, the opposition to outdated Cold War paradigms remained and flowed freely, untainted by the scurrilous charge of echoing "Putin talking points."
Indeed, even as late as November 2016, President Obama mirrored the sentiments of then President-elect Donald Trump in stating that “[i]f Greece can meet this NATO commitment, all our NATO allies should be able to do so."
This latest fervor has, as all too often now, completely ignored these historical debates around American foreign policy commitments, creating in their passions an ahistorical sense of policy inevitability. If Americans past and present, from presidents on down, could question the contours of American security commitments and did so in far more perilous times, then so should we.