World can start stabilizing Syria sans involving Assad

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

The Arab League announced on Sunday that it had readmitted Syria. Two days earlier, the US State Department’s regional spokesperson Hala Ghrait announced that the White House was against normalization with Bashar Assad as long as the regime refused to change its behavior. However, the Arab overture is far from normalization. At best, it can be described as conditional engagement.
So far, Assad has only shown rigidity. He thinks that the Arab Gulf states will just acknowledge him as the winner of Syria’s war and give him billions of dollars for reconstruction. Saudi Arabia issued a communique following last month’s visit to Damascus by Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, in which countering the trade in narcotics was highlighted. Shortly after this visit, and while the Syrian foreign minister was meeting with Arab counterparts in Amman, Jordan, the Saudi authorities busted a shipment of Captagon in Jeddah. If this means anything, it is that Assad has no control over what happens on the ground.
Even if he was unwilling to change his behavior, Assad would not have sent the shipment so soon. He would have waited until he got something from the deal. This episode shows that, in all likelihood, the step-by-step process linked to Assad’s readmission to the Arab League will not work. Even if he is willing, which is highly doubtful, he is incapable of fulfilling the basic conditions to stabilize Syria and secure the safe return of refugees. Hence, a parallel track should be adopted. The EU, which is most concerned about Syria because it does not want another wave of refugees heading toward its borders, should make a serious effort to stabilize the country – and this definitely does not mean talking to Assad. The international community should speak to Assad’s patrons, Russia and Iran. In order to do that effectively, the international community should work with Saudi Arabia. Europe, because of the sanctions, cannot talk to Russia, but Saudi Arabia can. And regarding Iran, Saudi Arabia is working on a rapprochement. Syria can be an area for cooperation.
The goals should be stabilizing the security situation, ensuring the safe return of refugees and jumpstarting the local economy so that people can sustain themselves. The low-hanging fruit is Deraa in the southwest. The Russians did try to establish local reconciliation in Deraa in order to stabilize the area, but it failed due to the regime reneging on all its commitments. In 2018, a deal was brokered between the regime and the opposition, driven by the Russians and approved by the Americans. The agreement consisted of the opposition forces reconciling with the regime and becoming a legion in the army named the 8th Brigade. It joined the 5th Corps, which is under Russian control, in return for the regime giving its fighters amnesty and reinstating those who were government employees to their jobs. The settlement included 12 points, but the regime did not commit to any of them.
Young men who had been given amnesty were stopped at a checkpoint on the way to Damascus and tortured and killed, with their bodies sent back to their families. So, the Russian effort failed because of Assad. Nevertheless, Russia has no choice in Syria but to back Assad as he is guaranteeing Moscow’s jurisdiction over its only naval base on the Mediterranean. Throughout history, Russia has waged wars to reach warm waters. Syria is Russia’s only foothold on the Mediterranean. Russia and Iran were banking on the international community accepting Assad and giving him funds for reconstruction, from which they would benefit. They are now realizing this is not the case and Assad is more likely to face the same destiny as Omar Bashir. The Caesar Act sanctions are unlikely to be removed and he is unlikely to be accepted by the international community. Hence, their hopes of a comprehensive solution are fading away.
A deal with Russia should be clinched by bypassing the regime. The deal should include international recognition of Moscow’s jurisdiction over the Tartus naval base. Though the international community is working on delegitimizing Russia and curbing its presence worldwide, it needs to make this compromise in order to get the Kremlin on board with ending the conflict. The agreement should also include the involvement of Russian companies in the redevelopment of Deraa, along with local councils and in the presence of international observers. Russia should then guarantee the safe return of those internally displaced people who are from Deraa but are currently in Idlib. Another deal should be struck regarding the areas around Lebanon, where the main actors are Iran and Hezbollah. Most of the refugees in Lebanon come from areas that are occupied by Hezbollah, such as Qalamoun, Qusayr, Harasta and Zabadani. Basically, Iran is in Syria to secure the “useful Syria,” which is a term to describe the land bridge that links Iraq to Lebanon and the Mediterranean. Iran has secured this, but at a high cost. Iranian forces are facing regular bombing raids from Israel and these strikes are likely to increase as Tel Aviv feels more insecure. This means their presence is not sustainable.
Internally, in Lebanon, there is a huge campaign against Syrian refugees. The public discourse is asking for their return to Syria. Hezbollah is worried about their presence in Lebanon. According to a Hezbollah source, 80,000 of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon are armed. This a ticking time bomb for the group because, if the refugees do ever use these arms, it will be mainly against those who drove them out of their homes in the first place. So, it is in Hezbollah’s interest to withdraw from the areas it occupies in Syria in order to facilitate the refugees’ return; but it would need to cover its back. It would not want any hostile armed group crossing from Syria and targeting them in Lebanon. Zabadani, for example, is a strategic point in Syria overlooking the Beqaa Valley, which is a stronghold of Hezbollah.
The withdrawal should be coupled with the deployment of a joint Islamic force, including Arab deterrence troops as well as Iranian ones. Israel is unlikely to strike any units that include Arab Gulf forces. On the other hand, Israel will be appeased, as the Iranian forces would be operating within a framework, keeping their hostile activities toward Israel under control. The international community should give legitimacy to such a force. These two deals would be a stepping stone to a more localized agreement across the country. They would also make Assad irrelevant in the eyes of his patrons. This is much better and more effective than clinching a deal with the brutal dictator, who will use any funds to reconstruct his regime.
Arab News