Can Middle Eastern powers help stabilise the Horn of Africa?

By Christopher Phillips, CNBC Africa 13 April 2023

In recent decades, the Horn of Africa has increasingly played host to a fierce competition for influence, stemming from geopolitical rivalries in the Middle East. Typically, such dynamics feed fears of destabilization, particularly in a region with such a troubled recent history of violence. 

While these struggles for influence have, at times, exacerbated problematic dynamics, for the most part these fears have proved to be exaggerated. For the most part, African governments have managed to extract significant material benefits, while Middle Eastern leaders have not militarized the region to the extent that some thought possible at times of maximum tension. A case could even be made that, far from destabilizing the region, power politics in the Middle East have materially contributed to the region’s stability.

The War on Terror, and later the regional tensions exacerbated by the 2011 Arab Uprisings, were the most important catalyst for increased Middle Eastern engagement in the region. 

Somalia, in many ways, has been the most contested area. Qatari involvement in the country dates back to the 2000s, but since then, several Middle Eastern powers have used their wealth to support different candidates. The 2012 and 2017 presidential elections were particularly crucial moments, with Qatar’s preferred candidates victorious both times. The UAE, meanwhile, has secured deals with the breakaway Somali state of Somaliland and the semi-autonomous Somali region of Puntland to establish bases and commercial ports there. Turkey, a regional rival of both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, has established a base in Somalia and explored the possibility of a naval base in Sudan. 

Eritrea has also been seen as a strategically important ally – used for a time by the Iranians to smuggle arms to Gaza. In 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE persuaded President Isais Afwerki to abandon ties with Iran, instead joining their coalition against Tehran’s Houthi allies in the Yemen war and allowing Abu Dhabi to use Eritrea’s port of Assab as a military base. As part of this effort to strengthen their military footprint in the region, Riyadh also turned to neighbouring Djibouti, agreeing to build a new Saudi military base there. 

Despite this, the much-feared militarization of the region has not, for the most part, come to fruition. While the UAE did use Assab as a base for a while, it later dismantled much of its military presence as it reduced its role in Yemen. Meanwhile, the bases in Somaliland and Puntland have not yet been developed, nor has the Saudi base in Djibouti. Turkey’s Mogadishu base was primarily used for training Somalia’s security forces rather than to house the Turkish military, and the Sudanese naval position never materialized. 

This is due in large part to the fact that tensions within the Middle East itself have cooled, with notable rapprochements between the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, alongside the recent improvements in Iran-Saudi ties. The 2022 Somali election, which saw far less external competition than previously and the victory of a candidate with a ‘no enemies’ philosophy, serves as a useful indicator for the decreased level of competition.

This has meant that nations in the horn have been able to reap the rewards of the increased engagement, without suffering the consequences of destabilization. Indeed, this new strategic landscape has opened the door for Arab powers to make proactive contributions to the region’s stability. The UAE has been especially proactive, using diplomacy and strategic investment to grease the wheels of peace. The UAE’s role in brokering the historic 2018 peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea after 18 years of diplomatic deadlock particularly stands out. 

Elsewhere Abu Dhabi has also helped improve critical infrastructure, such as the ports of Assab, Bosaso, and Berbera. In the latter case, it further sponsored a new Berbera-Ethiopia highway, alongside the UK, that will allow the port to act as a major new outlet for Addis Ababa’s trade, boosting Somaliland’s economy. Other Middle Eastern states have similarly invested in infrastructure, notably Turkey’s upgrading of Mogadishu’s airport and port while Ankara, alongside Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Doha have all significantly increased their deployment of aid to the Horn. Meanwhile Turkey and the UAE have joined the US, UK and other western governments in helping to train Somali (and, in the UAE’s case, Somaliland) security forces and coastguards in the twin battles against Jihadism and Piracy.

For the most part, then, leaders in the Horn can see this period of engagement as a success story. Partly, this is due to active efforts to limit the political influence of the Middle East, notably by Eritrea and Ethiopia, but is also down to the significant presence of other global powers in the Horn, notably the US, UK, EU, and China. Moreover, the rapprochements between key Middle Eastern powers have meant that concessions given away by African leaders have not been negatively exploited. 

Brexit: The grown-ups are back in charge

By Christopher Phillips, Al-Majalla 3 March 2023

Rishi Sunak’s new agreement with the European Union on Northern Ireland has been a long time coming. The status of the province was one of the most contested issues in Britain’s divorce from Brussels, helping to topple Theresa May’s government and contributing to how long and acrimonious the process was.

The eventual compromise, the ‘Northern Ireland protocol’ agreed by May’s successor Boris Johnson, proved no long-term solution, as northern Irish unionists, members of Johnson’s Conservative Party and, remarkably, Johnson himself, later railed against what was agreed. Johnson even proposed legislation to unilaterally end the protocol, which would have broken international laws London had agreed to with Brussels.

Against this backdrop, the ‘Windsor Framework’ agreed by Sunak with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in late February is a refreshing climbdown and display of political maturity from Britain’s new Prime Minister.

After several years of nationalist fantasies from Johnson and other Brexit extremists, this deal suggests the adults are back in charge of Britain’s relationship with the EU.

Brexit and Northern Ireland

Britons narrowly voted to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum, a result that few expected and had prepared for. The Prime Minister who called the vote, David Cameron, immediately resigned, leaving his Home Secretary Theresa May to take on the role and the difficult task of delivering ‘Brexit’.

The referendum had only asked the British public whether they wished to remain in the EU, not what London’s relationship with Brussels would be like should it leave the bloc. May interpreted the result as a desire to leave not only the EU, but also its free market and customs union, a ‘hard Brexit’ that would end freedom of movement of goods and people into the UK and allow Britain to diverge standards.

In doing so, she dismissed those arguing for a ‘soft Brexit’ that would have seen Britain remain in the free market and/or customs union, maintaining European trading standards and frictionless trade with its biggest commercial partner, but with no say on EU rules and no control over immigration from the bloc.

Northern Ireland proved a major obstacle to this Hard Brexit vision. Peace between Republicans and Unionists in the once-troubled province had been greatly aided by the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the south. Dublin, Brussels, Washington and republicans in Belfast all insisted that Brexit couldn’t risk this.

How then could the UK leave the EU and its common market, erecting borders and customs checks, while keeping a soft border between the two parts of Ireland?

May proposed what became known as ‘the backstop’: that Northern Ireland would effectively remain in the EU’s customs union and single market until a solution could be found that allowed it to leave without creating a hard border with the republic.

But this effectively created a customs border in the Irish Sea, outraging Northern Irish unionists and Conservative hardliners, who saw it as severing the region from the rest of the UK.

This helped derail May’s proposed agreement with the EU and contributed to a plot by pro-Brexit Conservatives, particularly the powerful European Research Group (ERG) to topple May in 2019.

Boris Johnson, who was elected as May’s successor, had promised Northern Irish Unionists and businesses that he would not allow a customs border in the Irish Sea, but effectively renegued on this when he eventually agreed a divorce deal with the EU. Unlike May, Johnson had a large parliamentary majority, won soon after succeeding his predecessor, meaning he found it easier to get his agreement with the EU approved into law.

But despite suggesting on the campaign trail that he had ‘an oven ready Brexit’ deal that might somehow solve the problems, especially on Northern Ireland, in fact he ended up negotiating something very similar to that agreed by May.

The major difference was the ‘Northern Ireland protocol,’ which agreed to permanently align Northern Ireland with the customs union and single market, not just temporarily as under May.

It meant customs checks for all goods entering Northern Ireland’s ports, whether staying in the province or moving on to the Republic, causing significant delays and paperwork, and prompting several British companies to cease shipping due to excessive costs.

A broken promise

Johnson’s deal broke his promise to Unionists about a customs border in the Irish Sea and to businesses about trade being frictionless. Such broken promises were unsurprising, given Johnson’s past conduct. He had been the most high-profile member of the ‘Leave’ campaign in the 2016 referendum, making bold claims about the prosperous future that awaited Britain if it left the EU.

The campaigners promised that £350m a week could be diverted from the EU to the NHS; that trade would be uninterrupted by departure from the bloc; and that Britain would be wealthier as a consequence.

None of this turned out to be true. The NHS was not given extra funds and became weaker after Brexit when it could no longer easily recruit vital European staff. Trade between the UK and EU fell by about a fifth, with new customs paperwork (like that in Northern Ireland) impacting profitability.

Meanwhile, far from thriving, Britain’s post-Brexit economy has struggled, being the lowest performer in the G7 and not experiencing the post-Covid recoveries seen elsewhere.

Denial and boosterim

Yet as Prime Minister Johnson, like many of his hardline pro-Brexit MPs, denied that his deal was responsible for the problems. At times, this meant boosterism, talking up ‘Global Britain’ and highlighting the many supposed benefits Brexit had brought. New trade deals were greeted with triumphs by ministers, even though the vast majority simply replicated relationships that Britain had previously enjoyed as part of the EU and brought no new benefits.

Such was the lack of obvious advantages that Johnson had to create a Ministry of Brexit Benefits and the minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, resorted to taking an advert out in a newspaper asking readers to send suggestions of EU regulations they wanted scrapped.

More often though, the hardliners fell back on Brussels-bashing, their favoured predilection throughout the referendum campaign, the Brexit negotiations and for decades before. Incredibly, Johnson blamed the EU for the difficulties caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol, despite having introduced it himself and insisting it was, “a good arrangement…with minimum possible bureaucratic consequences,” when he signed it.

The betrayed unionist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) expressed their anger by engineering the collapse of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing assembly, while hardline Conservative Brexiteers insisted Johnson renegotiate aggressively with the EU. This he did, introducing the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which threatened to unilaterally override much of the agreement with Brussels, to overcome, “unacceptable barriers to trade.”

Despite being warned that this would break international law, damage Britain’s global reputation and risk a trade war with the EU in response, Johnson and his short-lived successor Liz Truss, pushed the bill through, insisting this would force Brussels to compromise.

‘Quite a departure’

Rishi Sunak’s Windsor Framework is, therefore, quite a departure in both content and style. In terms of the agreement, Brussels and London will significantly reduce the customs checks. These include ‘green’ lanes without customs for goods remaining in Northern Ireland and ‘red’ lanes with checks for those going on to the Republic and the EU.

Importantly, it also includes a ‘break’ that allows the Northern Irish Assembly at Stormont to vote against the introduction of any new EU laws it disapproves of, in an effort to appease the Unionists. This has yet to be approved by either the British Parliament or Northern Ireland’s politicians but, assuming it passes, would be a victory for level-headed compromise.

As Irish Journalist Fintan O’Toole has noted, this solution could have been adopted two years ago, but Johnson, the ERG and some Unionists were blinded by their pro-Brexit zeal. In contrast Sunak has seemingly embraced realism to find a workable solution.

Muted praise

Sunak deserves credit for this achievement. He has had to face down some hardline Brexiters in his Conservative party, including Johnson who, retains some support and has said he may not vote for the deal in parliament. Sunak has also risked the ire of Northern Ireland’s Unionists, both the DUP and even more right-wing parties, which could yet trouble him. He has also dared to break the grip that hardliners have had on the Conservative party since Brexit and steer closer to the centre of UK politics.

An indicator of this has been his abandonment of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill days after agreeing the Windsor Framework.

However, praise should be muted.

Firstly, Sunak is no outsider. He is a Brexiter himself and was Johnson’s chancellor, approving and endorsing all his premier’s policies and approaches, including the EU divorce deal and the Northern Ireland protocol. In essence, Sunak is fixing a problem partly of his own making.

Secondly, the Prime Minister is driven by necessity not altruism. His party is 20 points behind in opinion polls and he has a personal approval writing of -26. Most Britons believe victory for the opposition Labour party in the next election is inevitable, so Sunak has to roll the dice in a desperate attempt to shift the dial.

Hardline Brexit and hostility to Brussels are no longer the vote winners they were for Johnson, and he needs to change tack.

Related to this, most voters’ focus is on the economy, which is struggling badly. The Windsor Framework opens the door to better trade for Northern Ireland, greater investment in the province as already indicated by the Biden administration, and closer ties to the EU that might eventually lead to improved commercial links.

This will probably not work, and it could well be Labour leader Keir Starmer who, as the next prime minister, reaps the economic and diplomatic benefits of improved EU ties. But Sunak is a canny operator and will know that if he improves the Conservatives calamitous current position and at least runs Starmer close at the next election it will improve his chances of remaining party leader.

While London may be weaning itself off unrealistic fantasies, that may not yet be true of Belfast’s Unionists. The DUP and other hardliners could yet oppose the changes and refuse to re-enter Stormont, leaving Northern Irish politics in a state of paralysis. Yet they too would benefit from a reality check.

As has been widely reported, demographics and attitudes in Northern Ireland are changing. For the first time since Ireland’s partition, Catholics now outnumber Protestants in the province, while commitment to unionism is waning, especially among the young.

A recent poll showed the majority of Northern Ireland’s population expect unification with the Republic within a decade. Ironically for the DUP, who supported Brexit, the UK’s departure from the EU has played a major role in this. While Britain was part of the EU, formal unification with the rest of Ireland seemed less pressing given the seamless interaction that the single market afforded.

The Brexit process has brought this to an end and, even with the new framework, it is unsurprising that more people are contemplating joining the Republic and with it, returning to the EU.

Such a departure, of course, is the choice of the people of Northern Ireland but, were it to happen, would not reflect well on Brexit. Despite the promises of sunlit uplands, the reality of departing the EU has been tough.

The Windsor Framework goes some way to mitigate some of the harsher effects but will not compensate for the economic and diplomatic losses of the last few years.

Perhaps more significant than the detail of the new framework is the change in approach from London and the improved relationship with the EU it might bring. Now that the adults are, seemingly, back in charge in London, the UK might have more luck at making Brexit work or, at, least, making it work better than it has so far.

Turkey’s Diplomacy Drive: Is this ‘Zero Problems’ 2.0?

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye 3 February 2023

Turkey is undergoing a quiet diplomatic revolution. For much of the last decade, Ankara has weighed in firmly on one side of the various conflicts and disputes in its Middle Eastern neighbourhood.

It supported rebels in Syria, the embattled government in Libya, the overthrown Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt, and the blockaded regime in Qatar.

As the region became more and more contested, these positions contributed to a sharp decline in Turkey’s relations with other major players, including the UAESaudi Arabia and Israel.

Yet, the past year has seen a change of course. Last February, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed a detente with the UAE during a visit to Abu Dhabi, while in May, he visited Jeddah to reconcile with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In August, Turkey agreed to restore ties with Israel, four years after severing them over the killing of 60 Palestinians in Jerusalem protests.

Just before the opening ceremony of the World Cup in Qatar, Erdogan shook hands with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and later said that Ankara could reset relations with Egypt following Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections in June.

In December, Turkey also ended its 11-year ostracism of the Syrian regime, when defence ministers met in Moscow, raising the possibility of a permanent thaw in ties.

‘Zero problems’

There are echoes of Ankara’s former policy of “zero problems with neighbours” in the recent regional activity. That policy, devised in the 2000s by Erdogan’s then-foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, aimed at improving Turkey’s historically fraught relations with its neighbours to improve Ankara’s regional influence and clout.

It proved highly successful, with Turkey enjoying strong diplomatic, trade and cultural ties by 2010, before Erdogan abandoned neutrality to back certain factions during the upheavals of the 2011 Arab uprisings.

Might the recent reconciliations hint at a revival of this past approach, a “Zero Problems 2.0”?

Turkey is in a very different position today than it was in the 2000s, making it hard to revive Davutoglu’s approach. Back then, Turkey’s economy was booming, and much of its “zero problems” policy was aimed at finding new markets for the flourishing manufacturing and construction sector.

Improved ties with Syria, for example, allowed the flow of Turkish goods overland to entice Gulf markets, while closer ties with northern Iraq saw Turkish companies benefit from the Kurdistan Regional Government’s oil-driven prosperity.

Turkey’s politics similarly had many admirers. Erdogan was held up as a model to emulate, being a democratically elected, moderate Islamist who enjoyed strong ties with the US and EU – whose membership he courted – as well as with the Middle East.

In contrast, Turkey is in a weaker position today. Its economy is struggling after years of poor fiscal decisions by Erdogan and his government, with inflation hitting 85 percent last October.

Erdogan’s democratic credentials have been damaged after cracking down heavily on dissent, opposition groups and freedom of speech in the last decade.

His dreams of joining the EU have long since been abandoned by both Brussels and Ankara, while his ties with the US have similarly frayed, including being ejected from the F35 programme after buying Russian weaponry. In short, Turkey is in a far weaker regional position than in the 2000s.

Few concessions

This weakness is reflected in how few concessions have been granted by Ankara’s regional rivals prior to reconciliation. 

Turkey first fell out with the UAE over its support for the Egyptian coup that toppled Erdogan’s Muslim Brotherhood allies in 2013. But Ankara did not demand any kind of shift in the UAE’s Egypt policy or an apology before re-opening ties.

Indeed, Turkey seemed more concerned to secure a much-needed $10bn Emirati investment in its beleaguered economy than righting past wrongs.

Similarly, tensions with Mohammad Bin Salman had heightened over the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi on Turkish soil, but Erdogan proved unable or unwilling to seek concessions on this from the crown prince as a condition for re-engaging.

The same is true with Israel. Tensions with Israel date back to the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident in international waters when Israel attacked a Gaza flotilla, and Erdogan has frequently championed the Palestinian cause. However, no improvement in their treatment was obtained as a condition for restoring ties – if anything, Palestinian rights are worse now than in 2010.

While it remains unclear whether relations with Syria will be normalised, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not expected to grant political concessions or apologise for the repression that prompted Ankara to sever relations in 2011. Most analysts believe Erdogan’s primary goal is to repatriate Turkey’s four million Syrian refugees, not squeeze Assad on human rights.

In marked contrast to the 2000s, Erdogan is today seeking reconciliation with his neighbours out of desperation. He is facing a tough campaign for re-election in June and is using diplomacy as a means to bolster his chances.

This might mean securing much-needed investment from the UAE or Saudi Arabia, or mending fences with Syria in the hope they’ll take back unpopular refugees. It seems less of a long-term regional strategy like “zero problems”, and more like a short-term roll of the dice in the hunt for votes. 

An Erdogan victory will not likely prompt a return to regional antagonism, but it would be short-sighted to think his recent reconciliations mark the dawn of a new era of Turkish regional neutrality.

Multiple concerns have driven Ankara’s latest detente diplomacy, but it is no “zero problems 2.0”.  

New UK Prime Minister, same old problems for the Conservatives and the country

By Christopher Phillips, Arab News 12 November 2022

Rishi Sunak’s attendance at the UN Climate Change Conference, COP27, in Cairo last week was his first major appearance on the global stage as UK prime minister. He has sought to portray himself as a reliable, safe pair of hands after the relative chaos overseen by his two predecessors, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, and his team had hoped that COP27 would be a chance to showcase Britain’s new stability to the world.

However, even before he arrived Sunak partly undermined this by wavering over whether or not he would attend at all, confirming that he would only at the last minute.

When he arrived in Sharm El-Sheikh, his message of stability was further called into question by events unfolding at home: One of his ministers, a close political ally, was accused of bullying colleagues and forced to resign. The minister in question, Gavin Williamson, had been sacked from previous ministerial positions and accused of bullying before Sunak appointed him.

Immediately, the opposition Labour party, and some in Sunak’s own Conservative party, raised questions about the new prime minister’s capabilities as a judge of character. Whatever honeymoon period he might have hoped to enjoy was seemingly over. Far from projecting an image of stability, the new premier appeared to be overseeing yet more uncertainty.

This, of course, is unsurprising. There is a new leader at the top but the problems Sunak faces are the same ones that helped topple the previous three Prime Ministers: Truss, Johnson and Theresa May.

At their heart lie the deep divisions within the ruling Conservative Party. These fractures are complex and fluid. In the past they were ideological; for example, the pro- and anti-Brexit camps that hobbled May’s government. Yet even when Johnson solved this problem by expelling some MPs and orientating the party more firmly into a pro-Brexit camp, new fissures still emerged.

Those splits were over Johnson himself — including his repeated mistakes in office and his creative relationship with the truth, particularly over whether he broke his own lockdown rules during the COVID-19 pandemic. Eventually the anti-Johnson group won out and dispatched their leader, much to the outrage of his supporters.

The contest to succeed him prompted yet more splits within the party, with MPs coalescing around several candidates in what became a bitter leadership battle.

Though Liz Truss emerged victorious in the vote by party members, she faced resentment from many MPs, a plurality of whom had supported her main rival, Sunak. When her initial economic policies proved disastrous, those same anti-Truss MPs acted with brutal speed, toppling her within weeks. Her reign as premier was the shortest in UK history.

Though Sunak has tried to present a display of unity by appointing to his government members who previously served in the cabinets of Johnson and Truss, alongside his own allies, divisions remain. It is no coincidence that the MP who first accused Williamson of bullying was a Truss appointee, although a civil servant subsequently weighed in to say he had been treated in a similar way.

One of the challenges facing Sunak is to try to hold his fractured party together without it undermining his ability to govern. Another example of this dilemma could be observed during his first week in office and concerned Home Secretary Suella Braverman.

She had resigned from Truss’ government for breaching security protocols but days later, after Truss had gone, Sunak reappointed her. Insiders suggested Sunak brought her back because she is a powerful figure with her own following in the Conservative Party, who could prove troublesome outside of government. But as with the Williamson situation, the decision to appoint someone with a questionable record undermined Sunak’s claims of being a leader of integrity and stability.

As the Labour leadership was quick to point out, it seemed like he was putting the needs of his party ahead of the country.

So, what does all of this mean for Britain’s place in the world? Whatever his hopes for an international reset, if he cannot keep his party in line it will prove difficult for Sunak to make much progress.

Arguably the most contentious issue will be Britain’s relations with the EU. Johnson took a highly confrontational approach, especially over the Brexit-related issue of the Northern Ireland protocol governing the border with Ireland, and Liz Truss had promised to replicate this in her leadership campaign.

EU leaders were initially hopeful that the aura of reliability and sensibleness projected by Sunak might mean there would be a more conciliatory tone from London, especially now that the UK’s economic troubles mean it cannot afford a trade war with Brussels.

However, with hard-line Brexiteers still prominent within the Conservative party, many of whom backed first Johnson and then Truss, they will make it difficult for Sunak to pursue any detente with the EU if his position looks weak.

More generally, if Sunak’s administration is riven by the kind of splits, backstabbing and frequent ministerial changes that have characterized the party for the past six years, it will be hard for him to convince international partners that things have changed under his leadership.

Indeed, Brexit and its fallout, of which Conservative party infighting is but one effect, has seriously undermined Britain’s global reputation. A change of leader at the top of the Conservative government, however well-intentioned, will not suddenly fix this.

This does not mean the UK will be inert internationally under Sunak. Internal rifts will not prevent it from playing a prominent role in supporting Ukraine, or other policies Conservatives are largely united on.

But areas of contention, such as relations with the EU or the green policies being discussed at COP27, will be harder for Sunak to push through. Until he is able to unite his party behind him, perhaps by winning a general election, against the odds, or until the fractious Conservatives are voted out of office, Britain is likely to remain divided at home and weak abroad.

Even then, such has been the damage caused over the past few years, it will prove to be an uphill task for any new government to reverse course and repair Britain’s reputation as a global player.

Turkey’s growing ‘empire’ in northern Syria

By Christopher Phillips, Arab News, 19 August 2022

Several Syrians were arrested last week in the Turkish controlled city of Jarablus in northern Syria for“desecrating the Turkish flag” after protests against suggestions that Ankara was considering normalising ties with Damascus and its ruler, Bashar Assad.

The arrests, extending a Turkish law against flag desecration to occupied territory, are intriguing and, to some, alarming — and revive questions about Ankara’s long-term goals in northern Syria. Though Turkey claims its presence is necessary to combat Kurdish terrorism and protect Syrians from Assad, does it also harbor neo-imperial ambitions for a permanent outpost?

Turkey first sent troops into northern Syria in 2016 and since then has launched three further major military operations. As a result it is now the key external player in Idlib, the last redoubt of the anti-Assad opposition, and the de facto ruler in three further northern pockets, centered on Afrin, Jarablus/Al-Bab and Tal Abyad. It is in these three pockets where it is most accused of creeping imperialism.

The operations to capture them, launched in 2016, 2018 and 2019, were designed to push terrorists away from Turkey’s southern border. Daesh was the first target but PYD Kurdish militants, who allied with the US to fight Daesh and who Ankara claims are an arm of its own outlawed Kurdish separatists the PKK, soon became the primary focus. Once captured and purged of the PYD and Daesh, these zones served two further purposes. First, they provided a “safe zone” for two million Syrians, mostly opponents of Assad. Ankara had backed the rebels in their unsuccessful efforts to oust the Syrian president and these zones offered the last remnants fleeing Assad’s reconquest a final enclave, along with Idlib. Second, as the 3.4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey proved increasingly unpopular among Turks, these zones were promoted as a resettlement location, with Ankara stating in 2019 it intended to move 1 million refugees to Tal Abyad.

However, the scale of Turkish involvement has raised eyebrows. The Financial Times notes that Turkey has deployed up to 5,000 troops and is spending $2 billion a year there. This includes extending Turkish state services. The Turkish lira has replaced Syrian currency, Turkish banks and the Turkish post office are the only financial services, children learn Turkish as a second language at school, the Turkish Red Crescent operate the hospitals, Turkish ministries direct education and religion, and power comes from Turkey’s grid. Turkish can now be found alongside Arabic on street signs, while some landmarks, such as Saraya Square in Afrin, have been renamed after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Officially these zones are ruled over by Turkey’s Syrian allies — local councils and the Syrian National Army — but these are all salaried and trained by Ankara and it is widely acknowledged they have little independence.

On the one hand, the Turkish government and many of their Syrian supporters reject the accusation of imperialism. After all, there is a legitimate threat from the PKK — an organisation the US and EU have designated as terrorist — and PYD activity along the border has diminished with the advent of these safe zones. Moreover, as seen by the Jarablus protests, Syrian dissidents living there want Turkey to stay and are angry at any suggestion they will normalise with Assad and abandon them. Turkey can further claim that by providing services it is giving northern Syrians a better life than if they remained in Assad-controlled Syria or in refugee camps elsewhere.

But there is a darker side to Turkey’s operations. First, there seems to be a concerted effort by Ankara to shift demographics in its favor. To prevent the PYD’s return Turkey has sought to settle pro-Turkish Sunni Arabs to dilute the Kurdish presence. The most obvious example is Afrin. In 2011 there were an estimated 350,000 Kurds in the city but barely 150,000 after Turkey’s 2018 invasion. Those who remained faced discrimination as Turkey’s Syrian allies looted Kurdish homes, while Kurds were largely excluded from the new ruling and security structures, despite once forming a majority in the city. Turkey then encouraged over 85,000 Sunni Arabs displaced from elsewhere in Syria to move into the vacated Kurdish homes. A once-Kurdish city was transformed into a mostly Sunni Arab pro-Turkish ally.

Second, there have been complaints that Turkey is illegally building permanent structures on occupied land. Rather like Israel’s West Bank settlements, Turkey’s vast new housing projects for the proposed 1 million refugees in Tal Abyad may contravene international law. Third, the character of Turkey’s Syrian allies is questionable. While they’re not as bad as the Assad regime, many of the leading figures in the local councils and the Syrian Arab Army have been accused of acting like thugs and warlords. This is why Turkey’s move to arrest protesters over desecrating the Turkish flag is so controversial. It fits a wider pattern of thuggish autocracy in these “safe zones” that also points to an increasing informal de facto annexation by Ankara.

The future remains unclear. There does seem a degree of genuine support for Turkey’s presence among the local population — at least those who have remained, unlike the many Kurds that fled. As long as Assad remains in Damascus it seems unlikely these opposition-minded Syrians will seek to eject Turkey, nor would they be able to. The future is more likely to be decided in Ankara. These zones are seen as Erdogan’s project, with his domestic opponents less enthusiastic. Were he to lose the 2023 presidential election it is conceivable a new government would cuts its losses. If, however, Erdogan remains for some time, it is plausible to see the imperialism creep more and more, until these regions come to represent de facto Turkish client regimes in the North Cyprus mould.

The dangers of forgetting Syria’s refugees

by Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye 4 May 2022

Syria’s refugees are in danger of becoming forgotten. Western governments have, for the most part, opened their arms to the 5.3 million refugees fleeing Ukraine, providing homes and support during the conflict.

Yet, even more fled the Syria war a decade earlier, but most foreign governments were less welcoming. Instead, many Syrian refugees face a bleak existence: marginalised in their host societies but still terrified of returning to Syria. As western governments cut financial support, their prospects could soon get even bleaker.

The numbers of Syrian refugees are stark. Of a pre-war population of around 23 million, over half had to flee their homes. Over six-and-a-half million fled Syria altogether, with the majority, 5.6 million, staying in countries near Syria.

The greatest number, 3.6 million, is in Turkey, while 1.5 million are in Lebanon (increasing the population by nearly 40 percent) and 660,000 are in Jordan.

Contrary to popular myth, only one in 20 lives in a refugee camp, but many are struggling financially. The UNHCR estimates that over a million have little or no financial resources, while in Lebanon nine out of 10 live in extreme poverty.

Fear of reprisals

There is little prospect of these refugees returning home soon. Most fled the violent regime of Bashar al-Assad, which has now regained control over most of Syria, and fear reprisals if they return. Even were the situation more accommodating, research shows that it takes years for refugees to return, and many never do.

But the situation in their host societies is worsening. In Lebanon, refugees are not granted formal access to the economy, while in Jordan jobs are similarly restricted. Turkey has been the most accommodating host state, with refugees able to access jobs and education, but this has prompted a social backlash, and hostility towards the refugees has increased.

Yet western governments have been cutting their support. The UK has been one of the worst offenders. As part of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s pledge to reduce international aid from 0.7 percent to 0.5 percent of GDP, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s Syria budget has been cut by 67 percent.

While last year the EU was able to mobilise international donors to plug any shortfalls in funding, there are fears that the focus on Ukraine and a general weariness towards Syria and its refugees will prompt a permanent decline in support.

There are moral arguments against such neglect, especially given that many of the governments withdrawing their funds, such as the UK, were active players in Syria’s civil war.

But if this doesn’t convince policymakers to change course, perhaps a security argument will. Research shows that refugees that are not integrated into their host societies, as is the case for Syrians in Lebanon, Jordan and, to an extent, Turkey, are more likely to militarise and destabilise their host country.

Recent Middle Eastern history sadly gives several examples of this. Marginalised Palestinian refugees joined Fatah and other militant groups contributing to the 1970 Black September civil war in Jordan.

Similarly excluded Palestinians in Lebanon, who were even more restricted, also joined militia groups to fight in the Lebanese civil war from 1975-90. Elsewhere, the Taliban recruited heavily from discontented Afghan refugees living in Pakistan to enable their military victory in 1996.

Security threat

This is not to suggest that any Syrian refugee is currently contemplating taking up arms against their host government, or that these governments should view them as a potential security threat. However, history has shown that leaving refugees unsupported for a prolonged period of time is more likely to prompt some to militarise.

In the Syrian case, there is the added threat of radical jihadism, which might find eager recruits among a generation growing up in poverty-stricken exile.

To prevent this, ideally, governments would make more effort to resolve the Syria crisis and find a way for refugees to safely return home. However, the last decade has shown that none is willing to commit the economic or military resources needed.

Instead, it should perhaps be recognised that many of Syria’s refugees are not going home anytime soon and the governments hosting them need more support.

At the minimum, this should entail reversing recent aid cuts and ensuring that Ukraine does not distract from the ongoing Syria refugee crisis. But it would also be wise for foreign governments to make serious efforts to help the host governments properly integrate their refugee population. This is especially true in Lebanon and Jordan, with both economies struggling and barely able to support their own populations.

Though western governments have the resources to take this on, they’re sadly unlikely to do so given their recent aid priorities and their focus on Ukraine.

Instead, wealthy regional governments, notably Saudi ArabiaQatar and the UAE, would do well to reconsider and enhance their engagement with the refugees.

It may lack the glamour of their other foreign policy projects, but could head off a future security threat while ensuring greater regional stability.     

Russia-Ukraine war casts new shadow over Syria

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 7 March 2022

The Ukraine and Syria conflicts have long been intertwined. One of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motivations for intervening in Syria in the first place was to break out of the diplomatic isolation he faced after annexing Crimea in 2014.

The success of this action, and the lack of western pushback for subsequent atrocities, have led some commentators to argue that the February invasion was emboldened by western passivity over Syria. Today, as Ukraine suffers, the overlap is evident once more as Russian military tactics from Syria are now at the forefront of the Ukraine operation. 

Clearly, the Syria war has impacted Ukraine, but how might the current crisis impact the situation in Syria? It is a fair assumption that the crisis will not be resolved soon, meaning it will continue to dominate global media and diplomatic attention. Syria has already been falling down the global priority list and its obscurity will likely continue, despite its civil war being far from over.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s continued domestic repression, ongoing economic suffering, and the sporadic fighting between different extremist factions will get less and less global interest as, like Iraq and Afghanistan before it, Syria becomes yesterday’s war. The ongoing suffering in Yemen and Libya could similarly slip further from focus.

This is arguably most significant for the 5.7 million registered Syrian refugees. Already, they were suffering cuts in funding from international donors such as the UK, but the emergence of a new refugee crisis from Ukraine will draw more money and support away from the Middle East and towards Eastern Europe. There are sadly countless examples in history of refugees being forgotten once the conflict they were fleeing drops from public interest, often having miserable consequences for the refugees and the countries hosting them. 

Drained military resources

Beyond a loss of attention, the geopolitics of Syria’s war could be significantly impacted by the fallout from the Russia-Ukraine war. At the most extreme, if this leads to Putin’s fall in Moscow, it could radically alter Russia’s presence in Syria. Yet, even less dramatic consequences could have an impact. A long, gruelling war that drains Russia’s military resources, while western sanctions cripple its economy, might force Putin to pull money and military forces from Syria. An alternative scenario might be for an embattled Putin to double down on Syria, drawing Assad’s regime even closer into his network of client states. 

Neither of these outcomes is good for Assad. Any Russian military or economic pullback would weaken him, possibly fatally if it emboldens his dormant opponents. Assad also won’t want to be sucked into a “Putin-sphere” that’s isolated from the rest of the world.

Damascus has been desperately trying to reintegrate into its region. It is already badly sanctioned by western governments, and the last thing it needs is further punishment for its proximity to Putin. A besieged Putin might come to view Assad as he does Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko: indebted to him and obligated to help in his hour of need, whether through statements of support or by sending military aid.

Putin and Assad’s other ally, Iran, will also watch closely how events in Ukraine will impact Syria. Less beholden to Moscow than Damascus, it is unlikely Tehran will feel obligated to stand by Putin, although its leadership instinctively blamed the US for the Ukraine crisis rather than Russia. Despite a few wrangles with Russia over the (very few) spoils of Syria’s civil war, and Moscow permitting Israel to launch frequent attacks on Iranian positions, Tehran broadly benefits from the status quo in Syria. Any change to Russia’s position there – which Iran played a major role in engineering – will not be welcomed. 

Israel’s balancing act

Israel has also become comfortable with the status quo. Though it is alarmed by the numerous Iranian and Hezbollah forces in Syria as a result of the war, Russia’s presence alleviates this. Its close ties to Moscow have given the Israeli army a free hand to strike deep into Syria.

The Israeli government has thus walked a fine line since the Ukraine crisis began. It is close to the US, Ukraine, and Russia, and has been sure to condemn Putin’s aggression in a relatively muted way, conscious that an angry Moscow could prevent its Syria raids. At the same time, Israel probably doesn’t want the conflict to prompt Putin’s departure from Syria, as this would leave Iran and Hezbollah unchecked and increase the chances of direct clashes.

Like Israel, Turkey has approached the Ukraine crisis cautiously, having close military, diplomatic, and economic ties with both sides. Both Moscow and Kyiv, as well as its western allies, are courting Ankara, given its control of the Dardanelles.

Turkey could use this favourable position to squeeze greater concessions from either Russia or the US in Syria, where it has clashed with both. Ankara has long wanted to expand the areas of northern Syria that its proxies control, and could conceivably tie its position on the Ukraine crisis with either Moscow or Washington depending on whether it captures Manbij or Kobane. 

But Erdogan may choose to hold his cards close. His immediate concern is Turkey’s struggling economy and a related decline in his popularity. He is probably more worried about how the war will impact oil and gas prices and the fate of vital gas and wheat supplies from Russia, than about taking advantage of the crisis to boost his position in Syria – for now.   

Of course, it remains early days in the Russia-Ukraine war, and it is hard to forecast how great a shadow it will cast over Syria or elsewhere. But given the conflict’s global nature and the number of key players in Syria impacted by this new war, it seems unlikely it will avoid the fallout.   

Syria: Joining China’s Belt and Road will not bring in billions for Assad

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 4 February 2022

In January, Syria signed up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), raising hopes that Beijing will provide its war-weary economy with much-needed investment.

The UN estimates that Bashar al-Assad’s Syria will need $400bn to rebuild after a decade of conflict – but he has struggled to find anywhere near that sum. Assad’s allies Russia and Iran lack the funds, western governments refuse to work with a dictator they accuse of war crimes ,and Gulf investors are wary given Syria’s continued instability. So, might China now finally be coming to Assad’s aid? It is unlikely.

This BRI invitation is primarily a political rather than an economic move and won’t initiate a wave of Chinese investment.

China’s current embrace of Assad is unsurprising. Throughout the civil war, it rejected western claims that the Syrian president had lost his legitimacy and joined Russia in vetoing multiple UN resolutions that threatened him. As well as insisting on Syria’s sovereignty – an argument China has repeatedly made elsewhere, partly to ensure that it too has a free hand with its own population – Beijing believed Assad was the best chance for stability.

It helped that Chinese Islamists had travelled to rebel-held Syria to fight alongside anti-Assad forces, and Beijing was happy to support Damascus’s efforts to eliminate them. Unlike Russia and Iran, China kept its distance from the fighting, but there was little question it was in Assad’s camp.

With Assad long stating his admiration for the “Chinese model” of economic development, it was logical that Damascus hoped to transform this nominal wartime backing into post-conflict investment. In September 2017, Damascus named China, alongside Russia and Iran, as “friendly governments” that would be given priority for reconstruction projects.

Cautious investor

Beijing did show some interest. Over 1,000 Chinese companies attended the First Trade Fair on Syrian Reconstruction Projects in Beijing, pledging $2bn worth of investment, while a further 200 attended the 2018 Damascus International Trade Fair. There has also been some limited investment in the Syrian automotive sector, while Beijing agreed to send $16bn worth of aid, including 150,000 Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine doses.

However, China is a cautious investor and Syria is not an attractive proposition. Though Assad’s position in Damascus looks secure, he has not extended his control over the whole country and there remains the risk of renewed fighting as well as sporadic terror attacks.

There is a limited consumer market, given that most Syrians have been impoverished by the war and post-war hyperinflation, while the deep corruption of the Assad regime means a lot of investment will be skimmed off. In addition, the US’s Caesar sanctions, which punish any company that deals with Assad, are a deterrent.

Importantly, despite limited oil and gas deposits, Syria lacks the wealth of key raw materials that has seen China risk investing in unstable places elsewhere. Syria’s entry into the BRI has changed none of these deterrents and while the memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed sets out an intention for eventual investment, it will not produce the sudden injection of funds Assad badly needs.

So why has it been signed now? For China, there is a geostrategic logic. This public embrace of Assad sends a signal to three important actors.

Firstly, to the United States, which has upped its confrontation with China under President Joe Biden. Bringing Assad into the BRI highlights how ineffective the US and its allies have been at isolating post-war Damascus, underlining the sense of ebbing US global power.

Secondly, to Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, who want Syria’s isolation broken. This is a relatively easy way for Beijing to earn goodwill from both, with Iran in particular already an important BRI partner.

Finally, to other Middle Eastern powers, such as Israel and the Gulf states. Another Middle Eastern state entering the BRI indicates the deepening role of China and the need for regional powers to further their already considerable cooperation with Beijing – much to the chagrin of Biden.

The economic side of things is not insignificant for China, of course. Syria is strategically located with a sizeable Mediterranean coast and, should it ever stabilise sufficiently, could prove an attractive partner for China. But this is a potential long-term bonus for Beijing, rather than the immediate driver of the MOU. 

Indirect economic benefits

And what of Assad? He is surely aware of the unlikelihood of significant Chinese reconstruction funds in the short term. But again, politics is an important driver. Joining the BRI serves a domestic agenda, holding out hope, however forlorn, of major Chinese investment for an impoverished population struggling in a crippled economy.

It also reinforces the ruling regime’s narrative that the rest of the non-western world is accepting Assad, strengthening his claims to legitimacy. Internationally, too, Damascus hopes that alignment with China will encourage other non-western nations, and even some rebellious European ones, to re-engage with Syria.

There may also be some indirect economic benefits. While China may not stump up the cash needed, its nominal presence in Syria signals to others that Damascus is one step closer to stabilising. This might prompt Gulf players to tentatively invest, reigniting pre-war networks to get in before Beijing. 

While huge sums from Beijing are unlikely, joining the BRI might still facilitate a limited increase in Gulf investment and some funds from China. If it comes alongside further normalisation from Middle Eastern states, non-western Chinese allies and even some European states, it is clearly of benefit to Assad.

This may not mean his economy gets the hundreds of billions that it needs to recover, but it helps prop up the beleaguered dictatorship for a bit longer. 

How Boris Johnson sabotaged the notion of ‘Global Britain’

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 24 December 2021

It is increasingly clear that “Global Britain” is a hollow slogan, and the UK government has few intentions of enhancing London’s place in the world.

An integrated review launched this past March offered a blueprint for how post-Brexit Britain might amplify its global influence, touting its position as a “global leader in diplomacy and development” and a “world leader in climate action”. Yet, whether intentionally or not, many of these lofty plans are being shelved, ignored, or sabotaged. 

The review boasts that the UK, a “soft power superpower”, is the 3rd-ranked soft power in the world, and links this to the wide reach of two institutions: the BBC and the British Council.

Yet, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has repeatedly expressed its desire to cut funding to the former. And this week, it reportedly offered a key education contract to a private contractor, seriously damaging the finances of the latter.

The Johnson government seems intent on sabotaging the very assets it needs to retain and improve Britain’s soft power reach.

American academic Joseph Nye, who developed the notion of soft power, argued that as well as coercing states to do what you want with “hard power” instruments – such as military threats or financial rewards – governments can “attract”’ foreign powers to want the same things as them.

Having policies, culture, and values that foreign governments and their populations admire gives governments “soft power” that can aid a country’s international agenda.

Crafting a global image

The UK has historically punched above its weight in terms of global soft power. British culture, education, language, and, to an extent, values have been admired globally by an array of different governments and peoples. Importantly, this has helped balance against London’s unpopular foreign policies, such as the 2003 Iraq invasion, allowing a positive image of Britain to survive political misadventures.

Yet, this image-making is not accidental. Just as US governments encouraged Hollywood movies to spread a positive image of the US beyond its borders during the Cold War, for decades, UK governments have invested in soft power instruments. But many of these are now under threat. 

The British Council is one such major soft power asset. It has more than 100 offices around the world, offering educational and cultural programmes to help build a positive image of Britain abroad. It is not alone; most major international players have their own equivalents, such as Germany’s Goethe Institut, France’s Alliance Francaise, and China’s Confucius Institute

Yet, the government has dealt a double blow to the Council. First, it cut the budget. When the Foreign Office had its budget slashed, it called on the British Council, which it partly funds, to cut its costs too, leading to 20 offices and 20 percent of its staff being lost. Second, Johnson has reportedly opted to outsource oversight of Britain’s new Turing student exchange scheme, historically run by the British Council, creating an even bigger hole in its finances.

If more cuts and closures follow, the British Council’s influence could well be outstripped by rival Chinese, German or French educational and cultural institutions. 

Increasing pressure

Hobbling the British Council is not an anomaly, however, and the Johnson government seems determined to slash at other key soft power institutions. The Foreign Office, one of whose key purposes is to promote Britain’s interests and image abroad, is cutting its staff by 20 percent. The BBC, which the integrated review called the world’s “most trusted broadcaster” – reaching 468 million people every week – is braced for budget cuts, under pressure from a government keen to weaken it. 

Aid, one of the most visible soft power tools to promote a state as compassionate and attractive, has famously been cut from 0.7 percent to 0.5 percent of gross national income. Even the UK’s university sector, a soft power institution that attracts foreigners to the UK to study and (hopefully) disseminate their positive experience upon returning home, is suffering from the government’s Brexit policies, with the prospect that it could be excluded from key European funding.

Alongside these budget cuts, the government’s own policies are further undermining Britain’s soft power. The disastrous withdrawal from Kabul is being slowly dissected by the UK establishment; it is increasingly clear that London abandoned some Afghan allies to the Taliban, and much of this was down to government incompetence. Closer to home, the hostility towards immigrants and seeming nonchalance towards tragic drownings in the channel further damages British prestige.

Likewise, it is weakened by the ongoing fallout of Brexit, including petty squabbling with France and the EU, as well as the suggestion that London might break international law over the Northern Ireland protocol.     

Added together, Johnson’s Britain looks a long way from being a “soft power superpower”. Indeed, his government’s actions look likely to diminish Britain’s global attractiveness, not enhance it. Yet, this need not be a bad thing. Arguably, the UK today is a global middle power, and “right-sizing” its soft power institutions to align with its equally diminished military and economic reach might be the best way for Britain to build a sustainable foreign policy within its limited means. 

However, that is not the “Global Britain” that Johnson promised during and since the Brexit campaign. If he and his government are serious about using soft power to amplify London’s global role, they need to accept it won’t come cheap. To get serious about soft power requires not just talking it up, but stopping the cuts and bad headlines, alongside major investment.

Will detente with Jordan bring Assad back into the Arab fold?

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 8 November 2021

Jordan and Syria are officially friends again. After a decade of hostilities, prompted by King Abdullah II backing President Bashar al-Assad’s enemies in the Syrian civil war, the estranged neighbours recently announced a raft of measures to normalise relations.

The border will fully reopen to trade, and flights between the capitals will resume, as will security and water cooperation. Assad and Abdullah even spoke on the telephone for the first time in a decade. The king has also lobbied his ally, US President Joe Biden, to ease pressure on Damascus – quite the departure from a few years ago, when Jordan hosted American-armed Syrian rebels.

Yet, this reconciliation is unsurprising. Detente serves both leaders’ domestic and international agendas, and the warming of ties is driven primarily by pragmatism. This conforms to the historical pattern of Jordanian-Syrian ties. They may fluctuate between enmity and friendship every few years – often due to global and regional politics – but given the importance of these neighbours to each other, realism invariably triumphs and amends are made.

Jordan’s opposition to Assad was lukewarm at best. Unlike many Arab leaders, Abdullah never closed his embassy in Damascus, although staff numbers were cut. Jordan hosted the Military Operations Center, which facilitated the training and arming of moderate anti-Assad rebels, but it carefully controlled its border and did not allow rebels to come and go as they wished, unlike Turkey to Syria’s north. This contributed to the relative weakness of the southern rebels.

Similarly, Assad was careful in his hostility towards Jordan. Jordan was not as heavily criticised as some of Damascus’ other enemies, such as Turkey, IsraelSaudi Arabia and the US. Even at the height of Syria’s civil war, relations were not as strained as they might have been.

Political differences

It is likely that both governments were conscious of the two countries’ historical interdependence and wary of irreparably damaging the relationship. Historically, southern Syria has been more closely linked to northern Jordan than to northern Syria, being in the same Ottoman province.

Though British and French imperialists created separate countries, family and tribal ties straddled the border, particularly around the Hauran region. Indeed, early in Syria’s war, the first refugees were Hauranis crossing into Jordan to seek shelter with relatives. Such connections helped forge important trade links; southern Syria and northern Jordan are economically dependent on each other in different ways. In addition, Syria provides Jordan with access to the Mediterranean and overland routes to Europe, while Jordan offers Syria access to the Red Sea and overland routes to the Gulf.

Yet, despite this cultural and economic closeness, political differences have prompted tensions. Since 1963, Syria has been ruled by left-leaning, anti-western Baathist autocrats, seemingly the polar opposite of Jordan’s pro-western, capitalist Hashemite monarchy. They were on different sides of the Cold War and had different regional allies. In 1970, Syria even briefly invaded Jordan in support of Palestinian guerillas fighting a civil war with the Hashemites, while a decade later, Jordan was sponsoring Muslim Brotherhood militants trying to topple the Syrian Baathist regime.

In between these rounds of enmity came bouts of friendship, as the two states fought together against Israel in 1967 and 1973. Ties were then strained in the 1980s when they favoured opposite sides in the Iran-Iraq War, but warmed in the 1990s when both engaged with the Arab-Israeli peace process. They soured again in the mid-2000s when Jordan aligned with US attempts to diplomatically isolate Syria after its involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, but warmed again a few years later when this isolation failed

Throughout this stormy relationship, both governments have been willing to shift away from confrontation rapidly when their interests shifted. This has prompted the current reconciliation.

Influence over Damascus

For Jordan, it is clear that the campaign to oust Assad, to which it reluctantly signed up, has failed. Yet, unlike the other anti-Assad states that have lost interest, it is suffering the immediate effects of the conflict in the form of more than 650,000 Syrian refugees and a struggling economy.

Abdullah hopes that detente with Assad will open trade routes and create more stability in southern Syria, allowing some refugees to go home. By opening air links with Damascus and urging Washington to exempt Jordan from its harsh anti-Assad Caesar sanctions, which it recently did on a regional gas deal, Abdullah sees the financial benefits of Jordan becoming a conduit for outsiders dealing with Syria.

Moreover, geopolitically, Abdullah is adjusting to the shifting landscape. With Washington retreating, Jordan needs to find other ways of ensuring the peace and stability it craves, beyond relying on the former hegemon. Engaging Assad, it hopes, will allow it a degree of influence over Damascus, particularly on the presence of Iranian and Iran-aligned troops on its and Israel’s border, which could provoke an unwanted conflict.

Assad also clearly benefits. Full trade with Jordan and help bypassing the Caesar sanctions offer some reprieve to Syria’s flagging economy – although these measures are unlikely to have a transformative effect. More important are the geopolitical gains: Assad has not had to make any concessions to earn this rapprochement, so it serves to legitimise his cause.

Turbulent ties

Jordan is not alone in normalising ties with Syria, as Egypt also seeks to enhance links, and the UAE is leading a campaign to bring Damascus back into the Arab fold. Normalising relations with Jordan could be a stepping stone towards reconciliation with the wider Middle East, readmittance to the Arab League, and – Assad hopes, perhaps forlornly – much-needed reconstruction funds.

Detente, therefore, makes sense for now, but ties are more likely to be functional than friendly. The ideological differences between the regimes and a degree of mutual suspicion remain, as much as the deep structural reasons why they cannot stay estranged for too long.

It is highly likely that this current round of friendship will collapse into enmity whenever the next local or regional crisis pits Amman and Damascus against one another, but it is also likely that such hostilities will eventually subside, as they always do. Such is the cyclical nature of Jordan and Syria’s turbulent ties.