After ten years of Syrian carnage, the Middle East is starting to welcome Assad back into its ranks. News of Jordanian-Syrian collaboration and the recent visit by the UAE Foreign Minister to Damascus shows how far Assad came from his near-complete Arab isolation only a few years ago.
The man who oversaw the destruction of one of the region’s most formidable traditional Arab powers proved to be the only Arab leader who could survive the Arab Spring in one of its core states. This is no doubt a result of a mix of his political cunning, the ineptness of the Syrian opposition and Jihadism. Still, we would be remiss not to mention admit that American failure and Russian-Iranian success are central to this story.
The UAE’s recent overture to the reintegration of the Syrian regime is a dramatic pivot from a central Arab power that long supported the Syrian opposition. This pivot marks a significant policy shift of the regional and global power structure. The UAE is a central player of an Arab bloc that includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
America can’t help but watch on the side with quite a bit of resentment and righteous indignation. Assad’s success came at the cost of turning a nation that once led Arab modernization into a country of martyrs, refugees, militiamen and prisoners. Assad’s success story is an ominous model for dictatorships around the region and the world of how far one can go while crushing his people and retaining his power. If Saddam were to demand an apology from beyond the grave, he would be justified.
But the Arab reconciliatory efforts toward Assad are not a return of the prodigal son to the authoritarian family, but rather a sign that Arab perceptions of American unreliability are no longer worries but solid assumptions on which Arab states are reconfiguring their regional strategies. No longer can the United States be counted on to contain Iran and its proxies. The attempt to restart a conversation with Assad and Putin is an attempt to explore the possibility of weaning his regime off Iran. Whether this is possible is another matter.
Retrospectively, the scenes of Americans fleeing Afghanistan were indeed a watershed moment. America’s credibility in its global partnerships no longer carries weight, and it seems, neither does American rationality. The events in Afghanistan showed that US policymakers, for some mysterious reason, do not calculate the costs of ending current security commitment and single-mindedly obsessed the costs of keeping them.
This is a whole new perception of the United States as a country that is neither sensitive to the needs of its partners nor the costs associated with inaction or reaction. This exact perception is likely to be the reason Iran is conducting itself the way it does, stalling for time, playing American officials, and providing nothing. The lack of any credible American threat, the will to threaten, to pressure, or to use force, and the Biden administration’s obsession with going to back a “deal better than no deal” gives Iranian all the leverage and, except for the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and rebuked by the Biden administration, leaves no pressure nor constraints on her action. This means Arab normalization with Assad was a strategic concession to reality.
Not only do our partners perceive American action and inaction in such ways, but so do America’s rivals. The perception of American decline is also accompanied by the rise of power and capabilities to America’s opponents. For both Russia and Iran, Syria was an exceptionally productive arena to hone the military edge, learn how to incorporate modern tech, experiment with new combat systems, gain combat experience and project power. This should also be extended to Hezbollah, whose Syria-front fighters must be by now hardened and proficient in drone warfare.
It is incredibly doubtful how Assad could disentangle himself from the Axis of Resistance with Hezbollah and Iranian forces heavily operating from his territory, but Iran takes notes. Iran and Russia would go to great lengths to partner with America’s opponents and undermine American values, partnerships, credibility and influence anywhere they could. Whether Arabs succeed with Assad or not, Russia wins and America loses.
What does this mean for Israel? Israel today finds itself in the middle of a primordial soup of an unclear Middle Eastern order. Israel has strong relations with both Russia and the UAE, and perhaps soon Saudi Arabia. Still, Israel remains America’s most important ally in the region and is facing the most severe existential threat, perhaps since its founding, from the rise of Iran. If the new Arab gambit in Syria succeeds – and it’s a big if – this will likely open the door to a potential arrangement with Syria.
This puts Israel at the fault line between the old and the new. The new could mean more autocracies depending on America’s ability to revise its foreign policy and convince the rest of the world that it has a vision.
Saudi-Iranian Negotiations Will Not Lead to Regional Rapprochement
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