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Arab initiative offers best chance for Syria in years 

The Saudi-brokered meeting and Jordanian road map could boost the long stalled Syrian political process; Turkey is still key to settlement; Assad also has his cards to play. 
Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad (left) meets with Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan in Jeddah on April 12, 2023.

Arab diplomacy makes comeback in Syria 

Saudi Arabia convened a meeting of Arab foreign ministers today to discuss a Jordanian proposal for ending Syria’s isolation.

The initiative, building on a recent surge of diplomacy since a devastating earthquake in February, restores a leading role for Arab countries in resolving the Syrian political conflict and alleviating its humanitarian crisis. 

The UN-brokered political transition process has been stalemated for years, co-opted by Russia, Turkey and Iran, the so-called "Astana Group."

The absence of the West and the Arab League as a counterweight to the Astana parties has benefited Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his backers in Tehran and Moscow.

A dead-end political process has also been a nightmare for the Syrian people, who have continued to suffer under both Assad’s rule and an endless stream of sanctions which have not dented Assad’s hold on power, while compounding Syrians’ misery. 

The Saudi-initiated meeting today brings together the foreign ministers of the six GCC states, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan hosted his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, on Wednesday to discuss the “necessary steps” to end Syria’s isolation. Prior to their meeting, Farhan spoke with UN Syria Envoy Geir Pedersen about advancing the political process. 

The kingdom has picked up the charge on Syria as part of a broader diplomatic agenda to settle regional accounts, evidenced by the rapprochement with Iran and hopeful signs on the Yemen conflict, including a long-awaited prisoner swap today. 

Saudi efforts are complemented by a major Jordanian initiative on Syria. Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi has been circulating a road map for the political, economic, humanitarian and security aspects of the conflict, including the return of Syrian refugees, as Beatrice Farhat reports. Safadi discussed the proposal with Assad in February, and has been focused on getting US and Western buy-in as well. 

The UAE and Oman have also taken a prominent role in bringing Syria back into the Arab fold, including hosting visits by Assad earlier this year. 

According to the UN High Commission on Refugees, 5.5 million Syrians are living in neighboring countries and 6.8 million are displaced in Syria, more than two-thirds of whom are women and children. 

Following the Farhan-Mekdad meeting this week, Syria busted a shipment of captagon in the northeast town of Qamishli

One of the key US and Arab demands has been that Syria crackdown on the trade in captagon, as addictive stimulant. US Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf said at an Al-Monitor event last month that the Syrian government is directly involved in the multi-billion-dollar captagon trade.

US wants ‘real steps’ to improve conditions for Syrian people 

The Biden Administration had mostly relegated Syria to the back burner, leaving a vacuum into which the Arab states have stepped. 

 A bipartisan Syria policy letter this month, signed by approximately 40 former senior officials and experts, alarmed by the pace of normalization, called for a new approach to Syria policy.

Syria watchers Hasan Ismaek and Joshua Landis have argued the opposite — that the US should support normalization, which they see as inevitable, including by working with and through regional partners, to improve conditions for Syrians.

The Biden Administration can’t publicly back normalization with Assad, but appears to have settled into supporting a regional effort that involves some give and get with Assad. Elizabeth Hagedorn got the scoop last week that, for the US, “real steps to improve the situation for the people in Syria should be front and center” in any engagement with the regime. These steps include cracking down on the captagon trade, improved humanitarian access, expanded border crossings, political progress, as well as accountability for human rights violations, the release of those arbitrarily detained, and an accounting for the missing. 

Arab diplomacy has back to the future feel 

The Arab League, which suspended Syria’s membership following the government’s brutal crackdown on widespread popular protests in 2011, is expected to take up Syria’s readmission at a summit in Saudi Arabia in May. 

Initial UN diplomacy on Syria was fully coordinated with the Arab League. The first two Syria envoys, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi, were joint appointments of the UN and the League.

This coordination ended after Brahimi stepped down in 2014. No doubt that Arab divisions on Syria policy contributed to the split, but whatever the reasons, it foreshadowed a drift that opened more space for Iran and Russia to further cement their ties with Damascus and co-opt the UN negotiations, as the US and the West also stepped back. 

Not all Arab countries are on board with engagement with Syria. Qatar, for example, remains a holdout and skeptic on the normalization process, as the Wall Street Journal reported this week

The Saudi and Jordanian approach, however, may help thread the needle, especially in Washington. Both suffer no illusions about Assad, and their approach to date has been conditioned on reciprocal steps to resolve outstanding political and humanitarian issues that matter to the US. 

The current UN approach urgently needs a makeover. An Arab League role, backed by the US and the West, including at the Security Council, might give Pedersen’s diplomacy a welcome assist and boost.

Assad, of course, has his own cards to play, and more of them, because of the renewed diplomacy. He is no easy mark, inclined to give little, and sees himself as a winner, not loser, in the conflict. An Arab diplomat relayed to me a recent conversation with a Syrian counterpart who said, “We haven’t forgotten who was behind the efforts to depose Assad.” Arab diplomats know that Assad approaches them with a sense of vindication, not gratitude. 

Turkey says ‘road map’ key to resolution 

The Syrian endgame also ultimately depends on Turkey. 

Russia has for years sought to mediate between Damascus and Ankara, but talks have stalled over Assad’s insistence that Turkey withdraw all its forces and proxies from Syrian territory.  

Iran also is seeking to insert itself into the diplomatic process, as Ezgi Akin reports, further complicating the negotiations. 

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said this week that a road map should include political reconciliation between the armed opposition groups backed by Turkey and Damascus; cooperation against the Syrian Kurdish groups controlling northeast Syria; and the return of 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey. 

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is downplaying a drone strike in Iraqi Kurdistan on April 7 that landed near a convoy containing US troops and the top commander of Syria’s Kurdish-led forces in the fight against the Islamic State, Jared Szuba reports

Initial reports have blamed the strike on Turkey, and both Ankara and Washington probably want to avoid a diplomatic showdown over the incident. 

Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder said Thursday that the strike “was not a near miss,” taking place “more than 100 meters from the convoy.” 

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) commander-in-chief Mazlum Kobane and Ilham Ahmed, head of the Syrian Democratic Council, a top governing body in Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria, were in the convoy, which was en route to the Sulaimaniaya airport. 

Turkey considers the SDF, which has been a vital US partner against Islamic State, as linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which both Washington and Ankara have designated as a terrorist group. 

Amberin Zaman got the first exclusive interview with Kobane following the strike, which has heightened tensions between Iraq and Turkey, and between the two leading Iraqi Kurdish political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, as she explains here.

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