An Egyptian plan for Syria: ‘Arab forces’ on the border and Iran out

The Cradle, March 8, 2023 — Arab states pursuing reconciliation with Syria aim to achieve what was unachievable during the war: Breaking Syria’s alliances and placing Arab troops on Syrian soil.

After the devastating earthquake that shook Syria and Turkiye on 6 February, Damascus has found itself at the center of unprecedented regional diplomatic activity. Egypt and Jordan’s foreign ministers and a senior Arab parliamentary delegation dropped in for visits, while unconfirmed reports say Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat also made an appearance in the Syrian capital.

This sudden spate of “earthquake diplomacy” initiatives coincides with increasing chatter in Arab capitals about the possibility of Syria attending its first Arab League Summit – since 2011 – in Riyadh later this month.

But it was not, as many assumed, the seismic faults that forced a change in Arab policies towards Syria. Rather, it was the state’s geopolitical position within an accelerated regional competition for hegemony that caused the rush to Damascus.

Through their policies of rapprochement with the government of President Bashar al-Assad, Arab countries seek to distance Syria from Iran and undo the regional chaos caused by the Arab uprisings over the past decade. This is a policy adopted in Cairo and Abu Dhabi, the two Arab states that boast the strongest relations with Israel – Iran’s biggest regional adversary.

Cairo Initiative: An Arab plan to reconcile with Syria

The news is that there is now an Arab reconciliation plan on the table, based on a “truncated” initiative that Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry carried with him to Damascus. The Cradle was briefed on the outlines of this plan, which proposes restoring relations between Syria and Arab states to pre-2011 levels, returning Syria to the League of Arab States, and negotiating the deployment of joint “Arab forces” on the Syrian-Iraqi border.

In the shadows of this initiative, the UAE – West Asia’s main driver of normalization with Israel – is trying to advance its own “secret clause;” prodding Syria and Israel into peace talks for the first time since their collapse in 2010. It’s a far-fetched goal, to be sure: Israel bombs Syria weekly, for starters.

The Cairo plan may have already achieved one of its three main aims. An Egyptian politician who has intimate knowledge of the recent Arab-Syrian meetings, and who asked to remain anonymous, denied any Arab dissent on Syria. He confirms, in fact, that Saudi Arabia is now coordinating with the UAE, Egypt, and Oman in a mechanism to end the 2011 suspension of Syria’s membership in the Arab League.

He points to Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud’s remarks at the Munich Security Conference last February, which demonstrate a marked shift from the early years of the Syrian war. During that period of immense inter-Arab discord, several regional states, including Saudi Arabia, backed armed militias to unseat the Assad-led government.

‘Realism’ governs the new approach to Syria

In Munich, Al Saud said that “there is a consensus growing in the Arab world that the status quo is not workable;” that “maximalist goals” for a political solution would be dropped; and that a new approach was “being formulated” to address the issue of Syrian refugees in neighboring states.

In fact, it is “realism” that has begun to govern the Arab approach to the Syrian situation: this includes setting aside demands for “regime change” and acknowledging their failure to achieve that goal. This also applies to the recent Turkish policy of rapprochement with Damascus.

The Egyptian source tells The Cradle that the Cairo initiative – supported by the UAE and “coordinated” with Riyadh – is based on preserving the “unity and sovereignty of the Syrian territories,” and “returning to the field situation as it was before 2011.”

While Damascus did not object to the Cairo initiative in principle, it has indicated that it will move forward incrementally – “in parallel” with those sitting across the negotiating table. This must begin with the cessation of Arab funding of armed groups, particularly those militants linked to Al-Qaeda and proscribed on various terrorist lists.

He confirms that there is a “balanced Arab commitment” to halt the funding of Syria’s armed opposition. Moreover, Turkiye has expressed its separate willingness to provide “security guarantees in Idlib,” the remaining stronghold of extremist militias in Syria.

The Egyptian political source also reveals that “discussing Syria’s return to the Arab League is behind us.” That, of course, suggests that all Arab states are now in agreement on this issue – in stark contrast to the dissent that cast a cloud over the previous summit meeting in Algiers last November.

“The talks now revolve around political clauses accompanying this return [to the Arab League], including discussing the deployment of Arab forces in the Syrian Jazira region, all the way to the Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi border triangle, and including the decision to establish this force in the closing statement of the the next Arab summit in Riyadh,” he reveals in detail.

External challenges

The main obstacle to this initiative is the US troop deployment in al-Tanf (eastern Syria), al-Hasakah, and Deir Ezzor (northeast), where Washington maintains about 900 soldiers as part of a US-led coalition against ISIS in areas controlled by the predominantly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

And there are no indications that the United States intends to withdraw from these areas. On 4 March, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley visited northeastern Syria, where he announced that US forces and the SDF were making progress in ensuring an ISIS defeat. When asked if the mission in Syria was worth the risk, Milley linked it to the security of the United States and its allies, saying, “If you think this is important, the answer is yes.”

In the past few years, since the Syrian war began to wind down, Washington has systematically thwarted Arab efforts to improve relations with Syria. After the 6 February earthquake, the US State Department explicitly announced its refusal to “normalize relations with Damascus.” And an overwhelming majority of the US House of Representatives passed a bill on 27 February calling on President Joe Biden’s administration to continue imposing sanctions on Syria – despite the country’s worsening humanitarian crisis.

Even before the quake, Washington was working overtime to tighten the economic noose on Syria. Just months ago, in late 2022, Biden issued the “Captagon Act” imposing additional sanctions on Damascus, which was already reeling under the punishing effects of sweeping US Caesar Act sanctions.

In the past year, western and Arab media have spotlighted allegations that Syria smuggles Captagon to Arab countries in the Persian Gulf, particularly to Saudi Arabia. These charges were then used to justify and inhibit Arab states from re-establishing ties with Damascus. One of the “prices of normalization” with Syria, regional politicos demanded, would be information on the “Captagon factories” that export this drug to Saudi Arabia.

However, today, Arab sources confirm that “everything that was circulated in the media about the Arab countries’ demand for Damascus to stop smuggling Captagon was not on the table with the Syrian officials” during meetings this past month. In essence, Captagon was not even discussed.

“What was discussed,” says one source with information on the meeting agendas, “was a Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi mechanism – with an Arab cover – to control borders, similar to the Iraqi-Saudi border security agreement that was signed last February.”

In addition to the US military occupation that poses serious obstacles to any solutions in Syria, there is another barrier to overcome: the Turkish-backed terrorist militias that control most of Idlib governorate and the countryside of Aleppo. In this northern Syrian region, the Turkish-Russian guarantor will be the main engine for the return of “all areas to state control through a joint security-military mechanism,” according to the sources.

A quest to curb Iranian influence

The Arab states, which funded armed opposition groups and terrorist organizations against Syria do not conceal the fact that their olive branch to Damascus aims to distance it from its Iranian ally and the axis of resistance. At the very least, the US-allied Gulf states are seeking a role in Syria that would allow them to mitigate Iranian influence.

At the same time, Damascus has repeatedly denied these “inaccurate reports about Iranian military forces in Syria” and asserts that “the number of Iranian advisors in Syria does not exceed 100.” As for the auxiliary forces of the army, “the Syrian National Defense has begun to replace them, and it will be gradually integrated into the army,” reveals a Syrian journalist close to the government.

Damascus plans to untie the knots, one by one. Syrian officials insist on explaining “the reality of the Iranian presence and the presence of friendly forces of Hezbollah, away from the media’s obfuscation of the facts,” says the Syrian source. “The ‘friends’ entered at a Syrian request to fight the armed groups that have spread chaos and targeted legitimate institutions. When the funding and arming of these groups stops, they [our allies] will leave with gratitude, because there will be no need for them.”

Unattainable prerequisites 

He suggests that the success of the Cairo initiative depends on several conditions, none of which have been achieved yet. The most prominent of these is the dismantling of armed groups such as the Turkish-backed “Syrian National Army” and establishing the mechanism to integrate these forces into the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). This would include agreeing on the role of the hypothetical “Arab forces” proposed in the Cairo plan – on how they would communicate with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) opposition fighters and the Kurdish SDF forces to set up mechanisms that would fold them into the SAA as well.

The road to forming these “Arab forces” or agreeing on their operational mandate does not seem well paved, and this initiative is likely to face an uphill battle during actual field and technical discussions.

Deliberating this initiative does not necessarily mean Damascus will agree to it. The Syrian government clings to its existing alliances and refuses to make any concessions regarding negotiations with Israel. This hardened stance gained momentum after the Trump administration unilaterally recognized Tel Aviv’s sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights – in addition to the current right-wing Israeli government’s hellbent mission to liquidate the Palestinian cause.

“Damascus fought for 12 years and paid a heavy price, and it is not ready to make concessions to those who fought it,” says a source close to the government.

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