OpinionMiddle East

Can moderate Sunni states pry Assad from Iran?

Abstract promises will never suffice; only an unprecedented return, which would have to include Russian consent, could possibly pry Damascus away from Iran and dislodge the Islamic republic from Syria.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Tehran on Feb 25, 2019. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Tehran on Feb 25, 2019. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Neta Bar
Neta Bar

After years of shunning Bashar Assad as his despotic regime fought for its survival throughout Syria’s bloody civil war, Sunni Arab countries have recently launched a campaign to court the Syrian ruler, with the aim of driving a wedge between his government and the Iranian axis.

As part of this effort, Jordan lifted its nearly 10-year boycott of Syria, a move that seemed unimaginable a few years ago. On Wednesday, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed met with Assad at his presidential palace in Damascus.

While the Biden administration fumed over Abu Dhabi’s de-facto recognition of a regime outcast by Washington, the UAE insists this diplomatic campaign is conducive to regional stability. Egypt, too, has recently reached out to the Syrian regime. It appears, therefore, that the region’s moderate Sunni countries are ready to engage in dialogue with Damascus, and that their precondition for doing so could very well be minimizing or entirely removing the Iranian presence from the war-torn country.

A further indication of this new direction came when Saudi news outlets reported on Wednesday a growing rift between the Assad regime and Iran. According to the reports, Assad was involved in the removal of Iranian Quds Force commander Jawad Ghafari from the country.

Al Arabiya quoted a “knowledgeable source” as saying Assad and other senior Syrian officials had expressed outrage regarding the “over-activity” of pro-Iranian militias in the country, likely relating to their military action against the United States and Israel, and that Ghafari’s actions represented a breach of Syrian sovereignty.

The source inside the Syrian regime also told the Al Hadath daily that Ghafari had admitted to stationing weapons and personnel in areas explicitly designated as off-limits by the regime—information that takes on meaning amid the backdrop of recent airstrikes in the country attributed to Israel.

The source also told the Saudi newspapers that Ghafari had approved a series of military attacks against the United States and Israel without the approval of the regime in Damascus. Additionally, the source revealed, the Syrians were incensed because Ghafari had also circumvented Syrian mechanisms to create a black market that competed against the Syrian economy, exploiting the country’s natural resources and its economic crisis for personal gain while evading tax payments to the Syrian state.

It is difficult to verify these claims—which are obviously emanating from the halls of power in Riyadh—due to the clandestine nature of Iran’s involvement in Syria and the Assad regime’s apprehensions over revealing the discord with its longstanding ally.

However, in recent months Syria does seem to have grown increasingly wary of Iran’s activities in the country’s south and east, which are out of control and risk enmeshing the regime—fatigued by years of war and struggling to cope with American sanctions—in more battles it doesn’t want.

With that, it’s still hard to believe the Assad regime would ever sever its alliance with Iran—which saved it from oblivion at the hands of Sunni rebels—for abstract promises. Even now, after the regime has achieved military victory in most of the country, the military and material aid Iran provides is still critical to the regime’s continued survival. Only an unprecedented return, which would have to include Russian consent, could possibly pry Damascus away and dislodge Iran from Syria.

Neta Bar is a foreign news editor at Israel Hayom.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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