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. 

Syria: Is withdrawal Biden’s next move?

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 23 September 2021

America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has made its Kurdish allies in eastern Syria nervous. The White House was quick to reassure the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that it would not initiate a similar pull-out from Syria, but can US President Joe Biden be trusted?

After all, the Trump administration gave similar assurances before abruptly withdrawing over half its forces in 2019 and greenlighting a Turkish invasion.

More recently, Washington was muted when several SDF fighters were killed in Turkish attacks in August. Biden’s Kabul withdrawal, in which he prioritised saving “American lives” over his allies, will only heighten fears among the SDF that they too will be soon be abandoned.

So how likely is Biden to pull out? The signs are not good for the SDF. By withdrawing from Afghanistan, and also with the recent Aukus alliance, Biden has indicated clearly that great power competition, particularly the containment of China, is his primary foreign concern. This means ending involvement in the “forever war” legacies of the “war on terror” like Afghanistan and, possibly, Syria.

Related to this, Biden’s withdrawal suggests he has accelerated the move to fight Islamic terrorism “offshore”. He seems to accept that Taliban rule may see Afghanistan become a haven for jihadists once more. Yet rather than tackling this with troops, he prefers to strike from distance – already the practice in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Extending this approach to Syria, Biden might conclude he doesn’t need boots on the ground to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State (IS) group.

Softer line with Assad

Biden has never been much interested in Syria and, while he agreed to the anti-IS campaign, he opposed wider involvement in the conflict when he was vice president under Barack Obama. There are already hints that he might take a softer line with Bashar al-Assad, recently exempting an Egypt-Jordan-Syria-Lebanon gas deal from the US’s Caesar sanctions. Keeping US troops in eastern Syria to deprive Assad of oil may no longer be the strong motivator it once was.

Yet there are reasons for the SDF to be hopeful. Firstly, Biden was defiant on Afghanistan, but he will be wary of attracting more negative press by abandoning another ally so soon. This alone suggests that even were Biden keen to leave Syria, he may hold off until the post-Kabul criticism has died down.

Secondly, the operation in Syria is far less costly than the one in Afghanistan. While in 2018 the US still had 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, dropping to 4,000 before the withdrawal, it only has 900 supporting the SDF. Added to this, Syria is less of a live theatre now that IS’s caliphate has largely been destroyed, so American casualties remain low and Biden faces less domestic pressure to withdraw.

Then there is the international dimension. Key regional allies – especially Israel and Saudi Arabia – want the US to remain in eastern Syria to guard against Iran moving in. That said, another ally, Turkey, is eager for the US to leave so it can stamp down on the SDF unimpeded, believing its strongest faction, the PYD, to be Kurdish nationalist terrorists. Biden cannot please all of his allies, but there is certainly no regional consensus pressuring him to leave.

For the time being, then, even if Biden might prefer to get out, there is little internal or external impetus for a sudden withdrawal. However, that could change. In particular, the dynamics between Turkey and Russia in Syria are significant, and events in Afghanistan could yet have reverberations there.

Russian strategy

One of Russia’s long-term goals is to get eastern Syria back in Assad’s hands, which would give Damascus’s beleaguered economy access to oilfields it badly needs. But unlike rebel-held Idlib, which Assad and Moscow seem intent on capturing militarily, Russia’s strategy in the east seems to be persuasion. Ideally, it wants the SDF to accept a settlement with Assad and ask the Americans to leave.

This is not so far-fetched. The PYD had a good relationship with both Assad and Russia before Syria’s civil war and there is a faction that sees the SDF’s future under the protection of Damascus and Moscow rather than Washington. Indeed, when Trump permitted Turkey to invade in 2019, the SDF immediately looked to Moscow, which brokered a ceasefire in exchange for Russian and Assad troops gaining positions in SDF-held territory.  

Turkey’s activities are also helping Russia to nudge the SDF into swapping sides. Ankara increasingly sees the PYD as its number one concern in Syria, with defeating Assad and defending the rebels slipping down the priority list. As it struggles to moderate the extremist Idlib rebels, and Russian air strikes frustrate Ankara there, the frontline with the SDF further east is one of the few areas of Turkish success.

Consequently, it has stepped up attacks on SDF positions, either with drones or using its proxy Syrian rebel allies. Every time it does, and Washington fails to respond, it adds more evidence to Moscow’s claim that only Russia can protect the SDF from Turkey. Ankara might actually be open to some kind of eventual Assad-SDF-Russia deal, as long as it means ultimately disarming or neutralising the PYD.

Both Moscow and Ankara will feel that the US pull-out from Afghanistan has increased their chances of getting what they want.

For Turkey, it suggests a lack of interest and staying power that, at the least, might see Washington tolerate Ankara’s raids on SDF positions, and at best see the US cut and run.

For Vladimir Putin, Biden has given him the gift of doubt to sow in the SDF leaders’ minds. Even if the White House has no plans to immediately leave eastern Syria, and faces little pressure to do so, both Russia and Turkey will try to exploit the fallout from Afghanistan to further their goals, which might ultimately hasten an American departure anyway.

Global Britain fails to make its mark in the Middle East

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 18 August 2021

The UK’s 2021 Integrated Review made the case for post-Brexit Britain’s leadership in the world. In its foreword, Boris Johnson wrote of his optimism in the UK’s, “ability to seize the opportunities ahead”, particularly now that it could diverge in some areas from the EU.

However, despite the review promising “thriving relationships in the Middle East”, the region has actually seen very limited interest from London post-Brexit.

Despite having spent considerable energy and resources on the region in recent decades, and its historical ties as a colonial power, the Middle East and North Africa seem low down the list of Global Britain’s priorities. More often than not, UK policy reacts to events in the region, largely in line with and echoing statements made by its western allies in the US and EU.

At times this makes sense. The West is less influential in the Middle East than it once was and, since leaving the EU, the UK is less influential within the western bloc, so staying broadly aligned on key strategic issues makes sense. 

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still opportunities for Britain to stand out and use its newfound “independence” to carve out a unique position for itself in the region while still supporting allies’ broader strategic goals. Such opportunities do present themselves, but Britain rarely seems interested in “seizing” them, in the way Johnson urged. 

Recent examples are Tunisia and Lebanon. Tunisia was shaken in July when its president, Kais Saied, invoked emergency powers and sacked the prime minister, prompting accusations of a coup. The situation remains unresolved and the fate of Tunisia’s fragile democracy hangs in the balance. 

Yet Britain, which the Integrated Review said would be promoting democratic values, upholding human rights and helping to shape the new world order, using active diplomacy, has been relatively silent. Neither Johnson nor Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has commented on events in Tunisia, while the Foreign Office released a short, timid statementurging all sides to respect  “democracy, transparency, human rights, and free speech”.

If anything, this is even meeker than comments made by allies, with the US urging Tunisia to “return to the democratic path”, while the EUurged parliamentary government to be restored, though neither set any deadlines or punishments were Saied to refuse.

Democratic credentials

The space was there for Britain to be more active. With Britain not especially close to the Tunisian government or a key trade partner, it could have afforded to be more robust in its concern over Saied’s move. This need not mean condemning him completely, an unwise move given the complexities of the Tunisian case, but pressing more firmly for a timetable to restore parliamentary government would have allowed London to show its democratic credentials above and beyond its allies.

Likewise offering incentives for doing so in the form of aid, notably much-needed Covid vaccinations, might have been another way of emphasising Global Britain’s values. Instead, the UK looks disinterested at best and disingenuous at worst when it comes to supporting democracy.

Similarly, in Lebanon, more could have been done. One of the Middle East’s other fragile democracies has been suffering an economic and political crisis for years, but Britain and other western governments have offered only limited support. Raab at least has spoken about this recently, listing at a conference on Lebanon the aid the UK provided after the 2020 Beirut explosion. Yet while recognising that a political solution is the only way forward, and urging reform from Lebanon’s corrupt political elite, the UK and its western allies have done little beyond words. 

Again, there is an opportunity for Britain to lead. In July, the EU finally placed sanctions on culpable individuals in Lebanon and there’s no reason why the UK could not similarly place its new “Magnitsky” measures on the same people.

Arguably, if it really wanted to lead in Lebanon it would have done this earlier. While France is currently the leading western state trying to help break the Lebanon impasse, its efforts are still relatively limited and there is scope for Britain to play a greater role if it was so inclined.

And yet increased British efforts in either Tunisia or Lebanon seem highly unlikely. For all the Integrated Review’s talk of wanting to help shape the new world order and promote democratic values, it is clear that the Middle East and North Africa is not the intended focus of this rhetoric.

Post-Brexit Britain has more limited capacity and bandwidth for foreign policy and most energy is instead being focused on Europe (carving out a post-Brexit relationship) and South East Asia, where London seeks to expand its presence.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the UK has spent a disproportionate amount of attention on the Middle East in recent years, gaining little and often doing more harm than good. That said, stepping back is not the same as stepping out, and more modest engagement in the region should not mean jettisoning diplomatic innovation and seizing apt opportunities.

Crises such as those in Lebanon and Tunisia, less well reported than more high-profile cases in the Middle East but important security and governance concerns, actually provide chances for Britain to show its value as a newly “independent” actor.

Likewise, there is scope to enhance Britain’s relationship with other less high-profile Middle Eastern allies, such as Jordan and Oman. However, despite Johnson’s confident boasts, few such opportunities are currently being seized. 

Syria war: While other states jockey for influence, the EU pays

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 21 July 2021

If someone were to ask who the most important external power in Syria is right now, most would probably say Russia, which intervened militarily in 2015 to save the floundering regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Some might also point to Iran, which backed the embattled president by sending money, weapons and armed fighters; Turkey, which supported anti-Assad rebels and has occupied parts of northern Syria; or the US, which led the international anti-Islamic-State campaign in eastern Syria and continues to back the Kurdish-led post-IS administration.

Few, however, would point to the European Union. Yet, the EU is a major stakeholder in the conflict, and has been heavily involved from the beginning. Brussels placed targeted sanctions on Assad regime figures as early as May 2011in response to the president’s violent crackdown on protests, which sparked the war.

Likewise, the leading EU powers of France, Germany and, at the time, the UK, joined former US President Barack Obama in calling for Assad to “step aside” a few months later. The economic sanctions regime they initiated, including banning imports of Syrian oil, had a far greater impact than Washington’s, as the EU was Syria’s biggest trade partner. This, in turn, contributed to Assad’s increasing economic dependence on Moscow and Tehran. Indeed, until the harsh US Caesar sanctions were introduced in 2019, European sanctions hit Syria’s economy hardest.

Coalition against IS

As well as sanctioning Assad, the EU sponsored his opponents, with France and the UK especially active in providing non-lethal aid to rebel fighters and oppositionists. London and Paris also joined Washington in air strikes against Assad’s forces in 2018, and had been prepared to do so in 2013, before the UK parliament vetoed any involvement. All EU members, moreover, joined the global coalition against IS, with many sending combat forces into eastern Syria.

At the same time, EU members have been significantly impacted by the effects of the conflict, with more than two dozen terrorist attacks linked to IS in EU states since 2013, killing hundreds of people.

EU members, particularly Germany and Sweden, have received more than a million Syrian refugees, while Brussels continues to spend considerably on the consequences of the war, being the largest donor of aid. Of the €5.3bn ($6.2bn) in aid money pledged to Syria by the international community in 2021, €3.7bn came from the EU (€1.12bn from the European Commission and €2.6bn from member states). 

In total, it is estimated the EU has spent €24.9bn ($29.32bn) on aid since 2011. With fears that Syria could erupt into conflict once more, or collapse into a failed state on its doorstep – sending further refugees or terrorists its way – this aid is unlikely to dry up anytime soon.

Clearly, the EU has a lot at stake in Syria, and it has expended much energy and money on the conflict. Yet, its influence is negligible compared to others, for two primary reasons.

Structural weaknesses

Firstly, the EU’s own structural weaknesses make it difficult for it to lead on any foreign issue. Uniting 27 (previously 28) members on a single strategy towards Syria has been challenging. Several states objected to sanctions in 2011, while today, at least five members are hoping to improve relations with Assad, despite Brussels’ official line of no reconciliation without political concessions.

The more powerful players in Paris, Berlin and, previously, London, have largely been able to cajole the more sceptical members to agree on a united line. But holding this coalition together limits how assertive and activist the union can be.

Secondly, the EU lacks the military capacity needed to significantly increase its influence in Syria. The early years of the war were largely fought between Syrians backed financially by outside players, and this might have been an opportunity for the EU to up its influence. But once Iran, Russia, Turkey and the US began sending their own forces, plus foreign allies in the case of Iran, the conflict shifted to one requiring a military presence to garner influence.

With Brussels lacking its own military and the members with the largest militaries unwilling to deploy them, it would have been tough to implement a more interventionist policy, even if the EU had been able to agree on one.

With these obstacles unlikely to change, the EU looks set to be in the paradoxical role of bankrolling Syrian aid, while simultaneously having very little influence over the conflict. Most members remain committed to maintaining sanctions and refusing accommodation, in line with the US.

While the EU could theoretically amplify its influence by diverging from Washington and opening a dialogue with Damascus, such a rupture with the White House would be too costly for too little gain, and thus seems unlikely. Instead, Brussels will continue as it has: paying for the consequences of the war, limiting the spillover at home, and hoping someone else will ultimately sort out a mess it actually bears quite a bit of responsibility for causing.

What’s ‘New’ about the ‘New Middle East’?

By Christopher Phillips, SEPAD, 16th Jun 2021

The late Fred Halliday, Professor of the International Relations of the Middle East at the LSE, remarked in 2005 that, “Everyone can remember one or two, probably more, occasions on which the region’s politics, all of it indeed, had been ‘transformed’ forever by some new event, be this a disaster, war or revolution” (Halliday 2005, 6). He noted how, seemingly once a decade, seismic events would rock the foundations of Middle Eastern geopolitics, whether it be 9/11, the 1991 Gulf War, the Iranian Revolution, the Six Day war or the Suez Crisis. Yet he urged caution. For all the dramatic upheavals in the states directly impacted, for most Middle Easterners, the political, economic and social structures of the region remained the same. 

Though Halliday sadly died before the Arab Uprisings, he would likely have applied the same warnings to the events of 2011 and their consequences. A decade after the stunning revolutions and counterrevolutions that swept across the Arab world in the early 2010s, it is all too tempting for international relations analysts to frame this as yet another ‘great turning point’ that has transformed the region and created a ‘New Middle East’ (Valbjorn and Hinnebusch, 2019). Yet, how much has actually changed? Some states are stronger, some are weaker, but the basics of the region’s geopolitics remain as they were before 2011: a collection of independent states, mostly autocratic, competing and aligning with each other and external actors to further their interests. While some living in states like Syria, Yemen and Libya have seen dramatic transformations, for most the political, economic and social structures remain the same and are likely to continue to be so for decades to come.

Of course, Halliday was no reductionist and, indeed, argued that, “Nothing is inevitably transmitted from one generation to another,” (Halliday 2005, 16). Change and continuity are constantly interacting in the geopolitics of the Middle East, as they are elsewhere, and one of our roles as scholars is to identify when changes do and don’t take place and why. While this brief article can’t comprehensively cover all the areas of change that did occur as a result of the uprising, it seeks to identify four broad themes or shifts that have been catalyzed by the fallout from 2011.

The End of Unipolarity

The first shift was the end of unipolarity and undisputed American hegemony over the Middle East. Even before the Arab Uprisings, the dominance of the US in the Middle East was waning, but the consequences of 2011 accelerated the process, combining with American domestic factors and global shifts. Globally, the rise of China and the increased activism of Russia, notably in the Middle East, has prompted the end of the post-Cold War ‘unipolar moment’, even if it may not yet have ushered in a clearly multi-polar world (Layne 2012). Domestically in the US, war fatigue after Iraq and Afghanistan has prompted three successive presidents, Obama, Trump and Biden, to be reticent to intervene heavily and ‘no boots on the ground’ has seemingly become mantra.

Regionally, after the disaster of Iraq, the US seems to slowly be recognizing the limits of its capabilities in the Middle East. Washington is still willing to wade into conflicts, as it did in Libya and against ISIS. It also has key interests that it prioritizes, such as Iran’s nuclear capabilities, the defence of Israel and its array of Gulf bases. But its reluctance to get seriously involved in post-Arab Uprising conflicts such as Syria, Libya (after 2012) and Yemen, its acquiescence to a return to dictatorship in Egypt and its seeming acceptance of regional and global powers like Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia taking the lead in arenas it once dominated suggests the Middle East’s short-lived ‘Pax Americana’ is over.

A related second shift was the increased activism of regional powers in what was perceived as a vacuum following American retreat. Iran had already benefitted from the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime after 2003, furthering its regional influence in Iraq and beyond. The post-2011 decade has provided further opportunities for Tehran to expand: deepening its physical role in Iraq and Syria, and boosting its ties to Hezbollah and the Houthis in Lebanon and Yemen (Juneau 2016). Iran’s great rival Saudi Arabia has responded by upping its direct involvement in regional affairs, abandoning its historically reserve. In an attempt to ward off Iran as well as its other regional enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, since 2011 Riyadh has intervened directly in Yemen, initiated the Qatar blockade, sponsored a coup in Egypt and backed rebels in Syria’s civil war.

Alongside these old rivals, the post-2011 era has seen new regional actors emerge while traditional powers have diminished. Syria has been consumed by conflict, as has Iraq, and neither seem likely to return to their once-prominent regional role. Egypt, historically a leading Arab power, is similarly less active beyond its immediate neighborhood after a decade of disruption. In contrast Turkey, once peripheral and preferring to face west, has emerged as a major actor. Not only has it militarily intervened in Syria, Iraq and Libya, it has promoted itself as the lead regional sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood, bringing it into conflict with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The latter has also become a surprisingly active player for such a small state, intervening in Yemen, the horn of Africa, Egypt, Libya and backing the Qatar blockade. Qatar itself was also temporarily more active, though has been chastened by the blockade and appears less ambitious than in the early 2010s.

Failing states and non-state actors

A third significant shift was the growth of failing states in the Middle East in which these regional players could compete for influence. In the decades prior to 2011, most Middle Eastern states were strong in the Weberian sense that governments had a monopoly on the use of violence and secure borders. There were a few exceptions to this: Lebanon, Yemen and, from 2003, Iraq, and those spaces became arenas for competition between regional rivals. The disruptions of 2011 added several more states to that list: Syria, Libya and, for a while, Egypt and Bahrain. The 2010s also saw these competing powers willing to plot against and disrupt rival governments not even experiencing civil conflict. Saudi Arabia, for example, successfully helped overthrow an elected Egyptian government (with the UAE), was linked to failed coups plots in Jordan and Qatar and attempted to terminate a premiership in Lebanon (al-Rasheed, 2021). 

Rivalries between actors have seen new arenas of competition emerge, expanding beyond the Middle East. Russian-Turkish competition has been extended to Libya and Azerbaijan. The Horn of Africa similarly has seen a host of new bases built in the last decade by Turkey, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The rivalry between Turkey and the UAE has also extended to Cyprus, where the Emirates allied with Greece, Israel and Egypt to try to pressure Ankara away from contested gas fields.

Linked to the growth of failing states has been a fourth shift, the growth of non-state actors. Again, this is not new and non-state actors have historically emerged in arenas such as Lebanon and Iraq where the state has been weak. Therefore, the growth in the number of weak states alongside an increase in the regional and international actors willing to sponsor them has seen a corresponding growth in non-state actors. These range from transnational forces like ISIS or Kurdish groups like the PKK, PYD and allies, to highly localized militia based around particular warlords. Some national groups like Hezbollah and the Free Syrian Army have become transnational actors as their sponsors, Iran and Turkey respectively, have deployed them abroad. 

A feature of this shift that again began before 2011 but was amplified by it is the preponderance of non-state actors based on identity politics. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen have been dominated by groups attaching varying degrees of importance to Sunni and Shia Islam, while the Kurdish regions of Syria, Iraq and Turkey continue to be dominated by Kurdish nationalists. Ideology continues to have importance for some groups, and sometimes it overlaps: such as the Kurdish-leftist PYD and PKK, or Shia-Populists like Hezbollah or the Houthis.

Instability to come

These four shifts combine to present a geopolitical picture that looks quite different in the 2020s than at the beginning of the decade, before the uprisings. There are more unstable states, more non-state actors (local, national and trans-national) operating within them, and more regional and international powers willing to intervene in these arenas, either through sponsoring domestic players or deploying their own militaries.

With the United States’ influence on the wane and neither China nor Russia seemingly interested or able to replicate its previously hegemonic position, it seems unlikely this instability will be ended by an outside force. Similarly, with power distributed fairly evenly across a range of regional rivals – notably Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, the UAE and Egypt – it also seems unlikely a regional actor or bloc will emerge to dominate and stabilize. In fact, the opposite seems more likely, whereby competition between these regional and international continues and expands, interacting with local and national disputes. If anything, these structural shifts make it probable that previously stable arenas are sucked into the instability.

Of course, as Halliday would point out, this is not ‘new’. Regional competition in multiple arenas has been a feature of Middle Eastern geopolitics since at least the end of the Ottoman Empire, if not before. However, while the methods may seem familiar to the past, the sheer volume and scale is something different. The number of weak states, non-state actors, regional and international powers involved is a significant change, and one that points to further geopolitical instability in the coming years.

How do you solve a problem like Assad?

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 24 May 2021

Western leaders face a problem: what to do about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? Despite their condemnation of his brutality during the decade-long Syrian civil war, including calling for his departure, imposing economic sanctions and militarily backing his opponents, the Syrian dictator remains in power.

His continued survival has exposed the hollowness of western condemnation, with leaders unwilling throughout the conflict to match rhetoric with sufficient action to topple Assad’s regime.

But the Assad problem isn’t going away. With Russian and Iranian support, he has recaptured two-thirds of Syria, ruling reconquered areas harshly while continuing to attack the regions still in enemy hands. 

Moreover, Syria’s economy and state continue to crumble under the weight of sanctions, neighbouring Lebanon’s financial crisis, the legacy of war and deep corruption. Syria is on a fast track to becoming a failed state on Europe’s doorstep.

So what to do? In Washington, a collection of politicians, think-tankers and exiled Syrian opposition figures are urging the Biden administration to pursue policies ultimately aimed at regime change in Damascus. At a recent House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee meeting, for example, the Institute for the Study of War’s Jennifer Cafarella insisted that Assad’s removal remained “an important long-term goal”.

But much as they might desire it, regime change is not a likely outcome, and the various methods advocated by such hawks to achieve it are unrealistic. 

Economic sanctions

One option is direct military intervention, but this has been off the table since former US President Barack Obama called off a proposed strike on Assad in September 2013, and most DC activists are loath to revive the idea.

Another preferred alternative by some is to keep piling on economic sanctions, such as the harsh Caesar Act. The hope is that destitution will prompt either an internal coup, possibly backed by a frustrated Russia, or a loyalist uprising. Yet, loyalists and regime insiders have had 10 years of war to overthrow Assad and have not done it, whether out of fear, belief or self-preservation.

While there is growing criticism of the regime among loyalists, grumbling is not the same as open revolt or a coup. Assad has shown in the last decade the brutality he’s willing to mete out to rebels, and it is quite a leap to expect those who have stood by him through the last 10 years to be willing to risk everything now.

Moreover, sanctions elsewhere have repeatedly been shown to diminish the chance of internal revolt and increase the grip of a ruling regime, with people even more dependent on it for the meagre resources available.

A final option suggested by some – to negotiate Assad’s departure via his patron, Russia – is also fanciful. The hope is that Moscow could be persuaded to jettison Assad in exchange for guarantees of its position in Syria, but this idea was proposed by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier in the war and dismissed by Moscow. Why would Russian President Vladimir Putin agree to it now? He currently benefits from Assad’s rule and, whatever American hawks may promise, there is no guarantee that a successor would replicate this relationship.

In contrast to Obama during the Arab Spring, Putin promoted himself as a leader who stands by his embattled allies, so abandoning Assad under western pressure would undermine this. Putin may be happy to give western leaders the impression that he’s open to a transition without Assad in order to persuade them to drop sanctions, but he is unwilling to actually do it.

Risks of accommodation

In all likelihood, then, western-prompted regime change remains a fantasy. This leaves two equally unwelcome options. The first is to continue the status quo: keep Assad isolated and sanctioned, while trying to mitigate the fallout of his rule as much as possible. This includes supporting opposition-held enclaves and humanitarian activities where possible, including for Syria’s many refugees.

The problem is that this will most likely not prevent Syria’s gradual decline and even collapse. Syria could end up like Iraq in the 1990s: strangled by sanctions from the outside and brutal rulers from the inside. State institutions are hollowed out by both, leading to chaos if the government does eventually fall. For western leaders hoping to stem flows of refugees and extremists, as well as to alleviate Syrians’ suffering, this is not desirable.

But the other option is even less palatable: some kind of accommodation with Assad. This would seemingly reward his violence backed by Russia and Iran, emboldening them and autocrats elsewhere. It would also make a mockery of the humanitarian and liberal principles western governments say they strive to promote. 

Yet, others have argued that this is the practical, realistic course of action. Having failed to topple Assad, it makes more sense to allow the Syrian economy and state to recover, rather than to squeeze it to the point of collapse. Optimists might say it is more likely that loyalists would overthrow Assad if trade was reopened, as they would be less dependent on the regime.

A more pessimistic take is that Assad and his cronies would benefit the most from any dropping of sanctions, but at least that might make Syria more stable and less inclined to disrupt the region as they protect their gains. Of course, this also carries the risk that Assad profits from the reopening, and continues to disrupt the region and brutalise his people, who don’t rise up – but this time, western leaders would be culpable for accommodating him.

For this reason, it seems highly unlikely that any western leader will risk normalisation. Indeed, the G7 recently reiterated its opposition to Assad, declaring the presidential elections scheduled for 26 May as illegitimate and opposing any normalisation. This leaves the status quo as the most likely approach, with Assad’s state continuing to crumble, but not likely to fall any time soon.

Will the Arab League welcome back Assad?

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 15 March 2021

Syria has been excluded from the Arab League for nearly a decade, but that may be about to change. Last week, the United Arab Emiratescalled for the war-torn country to be restored to the organisation it helped found in 1945, echoing similar calls by Iraq in January.

Some of the League’s agencies have already restarted operations in Damascus. This seems a long way from November 2011, when an unprecedented 18 out of 22 Arab League members voted to suspend President Bashar al-Assad amid his brutal crackdown that began the Syrian civil war. Yet Assad has survived, and events elsewhere have prompted a rethink by the Arab states that once opposed him.

It might seem odd that Assad would even want to rejoin the League, given that it is largely powerless and the majority of its members condemned him. Yet, a return to the Arab fold would bring benefits. At home, the Assad regime has long relied on Arab nationalist rhetoric, and returning to the League might bolster its legitimacy among some loyalists. Abroad, a return would help break Assad’s postwar international isolation, opening the way for other reconciliations.

Most importantly, Assad and his Russian allies believe restoration to the Arab League could open the door to much-needed reconstruction funds from the Gulf, which the floundering Syrian economy desperately needs. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the talk of restoring Assad has come as part of a diplomacy drive by Russia in the Gulf.

So what has prompted the shift in position from Arab League members? Assad was never completely isolated, with neighbours Lebanon and Iraq refusing to vote for the 2011 suspension. As fellow friends of Iran, relations remained close throughout the civil war.

Another early outlier was Algeria. It reluctantly approved the suspension, but never cut ties with Damascus. A military-led regime that fought its own long civil war with Islamists, Algiers has long had sympathies with Assad and has frequently argued to end his Arab isolation. This position has not wavered, despite a recent change in leadership after popular protests.

Shifting stances

In contrast, two significant players have changed their stance. After Egypt’s 2011 revolution and the election of a Muslim Brotherhood government, the state was a vocal Assad critic. However, the military regime that toppled it in a coup in 2013 has been closer to Damascus, seeing Assad as a fellow autocrat struggling against Islamist “terrorism”.

The UAE has also become more accommodating. While it was never that adamantly against Syria, permitting regime members – including Assad’s immediate family – to use the Emirates as a safe haven, it has become a leading advocate for reconciliation, even reopening its Syria embassy in late 2018.

Like Egypt, the UAE is staunchly anti-Muslim Brotherhood, a group that was well-represented among Syria’s opposition. Moreover, both Cairo and Abu Dhabi are keen to contain the growing regional role of Turkey, itself a strong supporter of the Brotherhood, and are wary of its advances into northern Syria. Arab League reconciliation with Assad would help to outflank Ankara.

On the other side of the debate are Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are most reluctant to welcome Syria’s Arab League return. Doha is the most forthright, aligned with Turkey in its continued condemnation of Assad. Yet, while in 2011 it was a major player in the Arab League, leading the charge to suspend Syria and even threatening Algeria if it didn’t conform, today it is more marginal.

Though the blockade by its Gulf neighbours was recently lifted, Doha remains weaker than in 2011 and, were the other Arab states to vote to readmit Assad, it would struggle to prevent it.

Saudi caution

Saudi Arabia is a more significant obstacle, but also more ambivalent. Like its allies Egypt and the UAE, it is fearful of both Turkish expansion and the Muslim Brotherhood, and has flirted with the idea of reconciling with Assad. It approved close ally Bahrain’s reopening of its Syria embassy in 2018, which at the time many believed was a trial balloon for Riyadh to do the same.

Likewise, last year, it quietly allowed Syrian trucks loaded with goods to pass into Saudi Arabia, a shift from its wartime restrictions, indicating a possible thaw. This was strengthened at a recent Russian-Saudi press conference, when both countries’ foreign ministers spoke of Syria’s return to “the Arab family”.

And yet, Riyadh remains cautious. More than the UAE and Egypt, it is wary of its rival Iran’s enhanced presence in Syria. While reconciliation with Damascus could allow it to dilute Tehran’s role somewhat, this would still only be marginal and could ultimately reward its enemy.

The other major roadblock is the United States and its Caesar sanctions regime, which punishes any business or individual who deals with sanctioned Syrians. In calling for Assad’s return to the Arab League, the UAE acknowledged that these sanctions “make the matter difficult”. The unknown for Abu Dhabi and the other Arab states is how zealous the new Biden administration will be in maintaining these Trump-era sanctions – even though they originated in Congress, not the White House.

Geopolitical alliances

With attention on the Covid-19 pandemic at home, and with US President Joe Biden’s regional priorities seemingly on Iran, not Syria, it is possible that the UAE and others may find a way to gradually reintegrate Assad without provoking opposition from Washington. This will certainly be the UAE’s, Russia’s and Assad’s hope.

But whether or not Syria is returned to the Arab League, one thing is clear: it will not likely have anything to do with a change in Assad’s behaviour. All members seem driven by events outside of Syria: how embracing Assad or keeping him isolated will impact their wider geopolitical alliances and rivalries.

Realpolitik, rather than principle, will ultimately determine Assad’s Arab League fate.   

Russia is a broker, not a peacemaker between Israel and Syria

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye 2 March 2021

series of Russian-mediated deals between Syria and Israel have recently caught the attention of analysts.

In December, Israeli and Syrian security chiefs reportedly met at Russia’s Syrian Khmeimim airbase, while Russian forces this month excavated a Palestinian cemetery in Damascus with the aim of recovering and repatriating the remains of several Israelis.

Also this month, Moscow brokered a deal that saw Damascus return an Israeli civilian in exchange for prisoners held in Israeli jails and, secretly, $1.2m worth of Russia’s coronavirus vaccines

For two states technically at war, such regular contacts have been rare, prompting some to speculate that this might mark a more concerted Russian effort to mediate a peace deal. With Israel recently normalising ties with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, could Syria, desperate for an end to international sanctions after a decade of civil war, be next on the list?

Fanciful schemes

The Times’ Roger Boyes posits that, however improbably, Putin may cast himself as a Middle Eastern peacemaker by engineering Iran’s ejection from Syria in exchange for Israel’s return of the occupied Golan Heights. But such schemes seem fanciful and misread the more likely Israeli, Syrian and Russian motives.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reasons are probably more domestic than geostrategic. He faces yet another general election in March and likes to play the international statesman to boost his electoral appeal. Securing the return of a citizen and the remains of former soldiers, something particularly valued in Israel, could boost his popularity – and he has been keen to underline his “personal connections” with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This public closeness to Putin might also have other causes. Relations with the new Biden administration in the US are already strained, given Netanyahu’s closeness to former President Donald Trump and strained ties with former President Barack Obama. President Joe Biden conspicuously waited a monthafter his inauguration to call the Israeli leader. Publicly declaring Putin a friend and thanking him for his mediation sends a message to the White House that if it is going to be distant, there are other suitors.

Yet, this is still a long way from Israel accepting a Russian-mediated peace with Syria. Firstly, Israel must question whether Moscow could deliver such a peace. Israel would likely want the removal of all Iranian-allied forces, including Hezbollah, from Syria and Lebanon, which Moscow lacks the resources (and will) to achieve.

Secondly, it is questionable as to whether Israel really wants such a deal. The Golan has considerable strategic and economic value and, if anything, Israel is embedding itself deeper there, with the Trump administration recently recognising the annexation – something Biden has yet to rescind.

While Iran’s presence in Syria (and Lebanon) is threatening, it is something Israel has thus far contained via regular air strikes. While Netanyahu will continue to lobby Putin publicly to limit or even remove Iran’s presence in Syria, he likely prefers the status quo to losing the Golan.

Symbolic importance

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also has little interest in a peace deal. While the Golan retains symbolic importance for his regime – his father, Hafez, was defence minister when it was captured – it is not worth the valuable alliance with Iran, which saved the embattled regime in the early years of the civil war.

While Russia is now the dominant external player in Syria, Assad still gains from Iran and its allied militias; in some areas, they are the dominant military force, while Assad also likes to play Tehran and Moscow off one another to get his way.

In addition, it is not clear as to whether peace with Israel would solve any of Damascus’ problems. It desperately needs money and investment, but a Russian-brokered Israeli peace would not unlock international funds the way a US-led one would, while the international community is unlikely to ignore Assad’s civil war brutality just because he reconciles with Netanyahu.

Politically, a peace deal with Israel would also be risky. Even if the Golan were returned, the Assad regime has long portrayed itself as a champion of Palestinian rights, which would be betrayed in any such peace, potentially prompting domestic unrest.

Assad’s acquiescence to the recent deals appears more the result of Russian pressure. While freeing Syrians from prison gives the regime something, digging up graves to recover Israeli soldiers is humiliating, especially if it includes Eli Cohen, the notorious spy publicly hanged in 1965 to nationalist fanfare.

The inclusion of much-needed Covid-19 vaccines might have sweetened the deal, but it still seems Damascus has been strong-armed by Moscow – and yet, Assad is not Putin’s puppet. Russia has been repeatedly frustrated by Assad’s stubbornness and unwillingness to make even minor concessions throughout the civil war.

It is possible that Assad’s acceptance of these deals is intended to placate Putin, while still refusing to budge on weightier issues, notably Syria’s stalled constitutional committee negotiations in Geneva.

Regional profile

So what of Russia’s motives? Rather than being a first step towards Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations, these deals represent continuity with Putin’s strategy towards the Levant since Russia directly entered the Syria conflict in 2015. Moscow positions itself as the region’s indispensable broker: the one external power that has relations with all the major players – Israel, Syria, Iran and even Hezbollah.

This has allowed it to boost its regional profile and influence at the expense of its retreating rival, the US. In any future clashes between Israel and Hezbollah, Iranian or Syrian forces in either Lebanon or Syria, the mediator will now likely be Russia, not the US.

Importantly, this has come at relatively little cost to Putin. Military hardware has been poured into Syria, but with only limited losses – as Iranian and Syrian troops do the brunt of the fighting – and most costs have been recouped or surpassed by consequent arms deals with other Middle Eastern militaries impressed with Russian kit. Indeed, even the recent Israel deal saw Netanyahu pay Russia for Syria’s Covid-19 vaccinations.

So why would Moscow want to change this and push for a permanent Syrian-Israeli peace? Such a peace would end its role as mediator, as Iran and Hezbollah would be ejected, and it would probably destroy Russia’s alliance with Tehran. It would also be costly, as Russia would have to ensure the compliance of both sides, which could mean deploying troops to hunt down any resistant pro-Iranian elements.

Moreover, if the peace was really successful, it might lead to Syria’s eventual international rehabilitation, lessening its dependence on Russia. All of this seems a lot to pay for little gain.

Mediating the current chaos serves Putin’s agenda far better than seeking to engineer and maintain a difficult peace, so Russia will likely remain the Levant’s broker, not its peacemaker, for the foreseeable future. 

The Arab Spring’s foreign spoilers

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye 4 January 2021

Much analysis has been written to mark the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the Arab Spring.

Understandably, many have focused on the domestic reasons why, with the exception of Tunisia, hopes of democratic transformation were dashed in most states that witnessed protests, ushering in instead instability, renewed dictatorship and civil war. Yet, the external reasons for the Arab Spring’s failures should not be dismissed or marginalised.

From the very beginning, foreign powers, whether regional or international, interacted with domestic forces and played a major role in determining the fate of the popular uprisings that swept the region. While the Arab Spring’s first popular uprising, in Tunisia, took regional and international powers by surprise, they were far less passive about the copycat protests that erupted across the Arab world in its wake.

The United States, at the time led by Barack Obama’s administration, which didn’t want to be caught on “the wrong side of history,” was a prominent player. In Egypt, it was only once Obama had turned on his ally, President Hosni Mubarak, that the protests translated into regime change. It was Obama’s message to the Egyptian military, via Defence Secretary Robert Gates, that Mubarak must resign that prompted his removal. 

Similarly, Obama’s decision to back British and French plans for Nato to intervene militarily under the pretext of preventing Muammar Gaddafi from crushing protesters ultimately led to the fall and death of the Libyan dictator. Yet, for all these seemingly positive moves, the US did as much to contribute to the uprisings’ failure.

On 14 March 2011, when the Bahraini government crushed its nascent protest movement with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Washington remained silent. With Bahrain home to the US Fifth Fleet, and the Obama administration keen to retain Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s backing for the Libya campaign, the White House indicated that sometimes geopolitical priorities trumped its support for democratic protesters.

Likewise, when the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was toppled in a 2013 coup,again backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the US did nothing to defend the elected government, eventually endorsing the new dictatorship established by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Some have argued that US activity, or inactivity, also worsened the fates of uprisings in Syria and Libya. In Syria, Obama called for President Bashar al-Assad to stand down when he brutally crushed protesters, and eventually sent weapons and money to the armed rebels that tried to overthrow him.

But Obama’s efforts were half-hearted, and he didn’t follow up with direct intervention, even after Assad crossed his “red line” of using chemical weapons. This all helped to fuel a civil war by aiding the rebels enough to fight, but not enough to win. In Libya, the US’ relative retreat after Gaddafi was defeated, offering very limited institutional and state-building support to the new democratic government, contributed to its collapse into civil conflict.

et, the US was far from the only injurious international power. Russia and China repeatedly intervened at the UN Security Council to veto numerous attempts to punish Assad for his repression in Syria. Moscow was determined to prevent the collapse of the Baath regime in Damascus, providing weapons and money to shore up Assad’s depleted forces before intervening directly in 2015 with its air force and special forces to turn the tide of the war.

Since then, President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions in the Middle East have widened, but again he has primarily been supporting autocrats, such as the rebel Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, who seeks to overthrow the weak UN-backed government.

Regional players were also far from benevolent. Long before Putin’s intervention in Syria, it was Iran that led the charge to keep Assad in power. As soon as protests broke out, Tehran sought to undermine them by offering Assad money and weapons, fighters and commanders from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah, and Shia militia from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to supplement Assad’s fading military.

While Syria was Iran’s primary focus, it also supported the Houthis in Yemen. And in Iraq, US-Iran tensions have undermined the peaceful protest movement there.

Despite being fierce rivals, Riyadh was even more reactionary than Tehran. While it helped broker the exit of Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012 and backed anti-Assad forces in Syria, Saudi Arabia broadly sought to stifle the Arab uprisings.

Fearing the 2011 protests might come home, King Abdullah spent lavishly in the early months: not only $37bn on welfare measures domestically, but a further $21bn in neighbouring Bahrain, Oman and Jordan to help their embattled rulers buy off dissidents.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia bankrolled the Egyptian military’s 2013 coup, alongside the UAE, contributing to the collapse of the democratic experiment there. Moreover, in sending in its own troops to Bahrain in 2011 and Yemen in 2015, it showed a willingness to go beyond its traditional chequebook diplomacy to ensure the Arab uprisings turned in its favour. Riyadh thus greatly contributed to the ongoing civil war in Yemen and the return of autocracy to Bahrain and Egypt. 

Qatar and Turkey were two other regional powers that have impacted the Arab uprisings’ outcomes in an ambiguous way.

On the one hand, Qatar was one of the early supporters of the Arab uprisings. Al-Jazeera channel played a key role in reporting on protests and providing a platform to inspire activists across the Arab world. Doha urged Nato to intervene in Libya to save protesters from Gaddafi, backed the anti-Assad rebels in Syria and gave generous grants to the newly elected regimes in Tripoli and Cairo. 

In Egypt, Doha’s unconditional backing for the Muslim Brotherhood government may have contributed to its uncompromising stance, increasing the military’s appetite for a coup.

Turkey’s involvement was also mixed. When the Arab Spring began, Turkey was often heralded as a potential model for the new democracies expected to emerge, particularly the mildly Islamist ruling AK Party. Though slower to endorse the protesters than its ally Qatar, Ankara eventually became a prominent supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, several rebel groups in Syria, and the new government in Tripoli. 

Yet, as with Qatar, this did little ultimately to prevent the return of dictatorship in Cairo and contributed to the weakness and disunity of the Syrian opposition. Moreover, as Turkey itself became more authoritarian following the 2013 Gezi Park protests and a failed coup by the military in 2016, Ankara’s commitment to democratic forces abroad also waned.

Moreover, while it continues to defend some regions of Syria, notably Idlib, from Assad attacks, it arguably contributed to Syrian regime’s overall victory in the conflict by making deals with Russia and Iran that allowed Damascus to retake several key rebel areas.

These foreign governments, therefore, all contributed to the failure of the 2011 uprisings in most cases.

While their motives differed and they prioritised different arenas, all arguably had a net negative impact. Moreover, they are not yet done. The governments that intervened to try to shape the Arab uprisings to their advantage continue to interfere in the politics of the many states scarred by that experience, whether Syria, Yemen, Libya or elsewhere. 

With new uprisings emerging and activists successfully toppling governments in Sudan and Algeria, and attempting to in Lebanon and Iraq, foreign spoilers have circled once more to try to influence the outcome.

While these activists can learn much from the domestic mistakes that derailed the revolutionaries of 2011, they would do well to also consider how they might mitigate against the damaging foreign interference that greatly contributed to the Arab Spring’s failures. 

Why Syria will be low on Biden’s list of foreign policy priorities

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye 12 November 2020

What does Joe Biden’s election mean for US policy on Syria? The civil war has moved on in the four years since Biden has been out of power, but it remains an unresolved domestic and regional conflict that could give this new administration a headache.

US President Donald Trump has a mixed and inconsistent record in Syria. On the one hand, he abandoned former president Barack Obama’s policy of actively seeking the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, ending support for the armed opposition in 2017. On the other hand, he launched missile strikes on Assad’s forces after they used chemical weapons in 2017 and 2018, and approved the imposition of harsh Caesar sanctions

In eastern Syria, Trump continued Obama’s anti-Islamic State (IS) policy, backing Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters to destroy the so-called caliphate and killing its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But he then abandoned his former allies, allowing a 2019 Turkish attack on the Kurds after withdrawing most US ground troops, leaving only a skeleton force behind around eastern Syria’s oilfields. 

Trump similarly took up contradictory positions on the key external players in Syria. He was confrontational with one key Assad ally, Iran, yet accommodating with the other, Russia. He likewise seemed very willing to listen to requests by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sometimes even against the advice of US military leaders. Washington’s influence in Syria, already limited, was therefore diminished further by four years of Trump. 

Will Biden attempt to step up US involvement? It is worth recalling his role on Syria policy as Obama’s vice president. Unlike former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he was sceptical of deep involvement in Syria’s civil war. He was unenthusiastic about arming the opposition, fearing the radicals among them.

Biden, like most of Obama’s cabinet, had supported striking Assad in 2013 when chemical weapons were used – but after the president opted instead for negotiated disarmament, Biden backed him. Later, in 2016, the vice president lamented critics who said Obama had done too little against Assad, dismissing their recommendations as unrealistic and unfeasible. 

Domestic priorities

Biden’s recent statements also suggest that Syria will be low on his to-do list. With the defeat of IS, the war is no longer making regular headlines in the US, and Biden has already indicated that other areas will take precedence. 

Domestic affairs, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and related recession, occupy most of Biden’s attention, and foreign policy priorities will likely focus on multilateralism, the pivot to Asia, China and climate change. 

In the Middle East, Biden has pledged to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, provided that Tehran adheres to its stipulations, while his team has indicated a more critical stance towards Saudi Arabia. Managing difficult allies, such as Israel and Turkey, will also be in focus. 

While Biden has said more broadly that he wants to support fellow democracies globally, in the Middle East, his stated focus appears to be more on counterterrorism than regime change. Combined with his recent statements about ending “forever wars” and opposing increased US boots on the ground, this suggests Biden will not be rushing to increase Washington’s stake in the Syria conflict.

He is unlikely to step back, though. The veteran Democrat’s advisers have insisted he will maintain tough sanctions on Damascus, and the vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, has spoken out against Assad in the past. Though the sanctions are aimed at pressuring Assad into reaching a settlement, or at least pressing Moscow to push the Syrian president aside for someone who will, such efforts rarely achieve their goals

Maintaining pressure

Regarding Assad, Biden’s policies may look much like Trump’s: maintaining pressure financially, but without any serious military escalation or diplomatic investment that could actually force the Damascus regime to collapse or compromise.

In the east, Biden has said he would maintain the small contingent of US forces present to guard against any IS revival, while Harris was appalled at Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds in 2019. This could mean a revitalisation of the SDF-US alliance, but as Trump found, this would complicate efforts to improve ties with Turkey and may prove short-lived. 

Indeed, as under Obama, US policy towards Syria may find itself swayed by priorities elsewhere. Biden could use policies against Assad to pressure Iran on the nuclear deal, but may similarly ease off if Tehran is compliant. By the same token, Biden is far more hostile towards Russia than Trump, and he may use Syria policy to stand up to Moscow – although under Obama, anti-Putin actions tended to focus more on Europe.

Syria policy may also be shaped by the state of US relations with Israel and Turkey. If ties are warm with Israel, Syria may see continued Israeli raids on Iranian positions, while if they sour, Biden may urge such strikes to stop. Turkey’s ambitions to push the SDF from its border will likewise be partly conditioned by its ties to Washington, as has been the case in recent years.

Huge challenges

In sum, then, don’t expect major changes from Biden on Syria. He will likely approach the conflict with the same caution he did as vice president, and he is unlikely to step up US military involvement. That said, he has little incentive to step back from existing US policies: keeping some forces in the east and maintaining sanctions on Assad. 

With Biden’s priorities elsewhere, Syria policy is likely to dramatically alter only if there is a major headline-grabbing change on the ground, or if Washington’s other foreign priorities are impacted by it. Policy towards Iran, Turkey, Russia and Israel could all have reverberations in Syria – but at present, it seems unlikely Biden will expend political capital on the Syria conflict in isolation.

One final unknown is whether his predecessor will leave Syria alone during his remaining 10 weeks in office. While Trump is likely to focus on challenging the legitimacy of his election defeat, some have speculated that he may also use his last weeks in office to sabotage Biden. Syria could be one arena for this, perhaps with Trump fulfilling his promise to withdraw the last remaining troops from the east. This may seem unlikely, but Trump has shocked throughout his presidency. 

Even without any such final curveball, Biden faces huge challenges in rebuilding Washington’s global reputation. While Syria will almost certainly receive some attention in this, it is unlikely to be centre stage.