(January 6, 2019 / JNS) In two months, Syria will mark the eight-year anniversary of what was initially and mistakenly called the Arab Spring and became the massacre of more than half-a-million people and displacement of millions more. What’s ironic is that the camp seeking rapprochement with Syrian President Bashar Assad, the victorious butcher, is already growing by the day.
Indeed, in around two months, Arab leaders will gather in Tunisia to discuss re-welcoming Syria into the Arab League, which revoked its membership status in November 2011 after Assad began violently suppressing insurgent forces. Now, however, most Arab states support a reversal of the decision, which Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit, from Egypt, has already described as “too hasty.”
The process could, perhaps, be delayed because a unanimous decision is required and a small handful of Arab countries still oppose the initiative, but the Arab world hasn’t exactly waited for a formal decision to re-embrace Assad. The president of Sudan rushed to visit Damascus, several Gulf states have already reopened their respective embassies, and Tunisia has renewed direct flights to the Syrian capital.
The border crossing between Jordan and Syria also reopened the moment the Syrian army, with the help of Hezbollah and the Russians drove the rebels from the area—and a Jordanian parliamentarian delegation visited Assad and returned home with a “message of friendship” from the Syrian president to King Abdullah. Jordan, which is sheltering more than a million Syrian refugees, is desperate for them to return home.
Inside Syria, Kurdish forces, which played a central part in defeating Islamic State and sustained considerable losses in the process, shouldn’t have waited for U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recall American forces to understand that their dream of establishing a Western-backed autonomy in northern Syria, to which they had clung for eight years, is all but gone. The removal of the American “umbrella” and concerns of a Turkish blitz have already led them to withdraw their forces from the strategic northern city of Manbij and retreat east of the Euphrates River. Talks between the Kurds and Assad—and an agreement with the Syrian army that it would replace the Kurdish forces in Manjib to prevent a Turkish invasion—preceded the retreat. Similar to the past, the Kurds are returning to the protection of the Damascus regime.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has said on dozens of occasions that Syria would never be stable with Assad still in power, has understood the ramifications and is halting his planned assault, essentially falling in line with the new-old reality.
The return of the Arab world and the Kurds to Assad’s arms isn’t the direct result of Trump’s decision to withdraw his 2,000 troops from Syria. The American decision was merely a symbolic affirmation of the White House’s foreign-policy approach, which it incidentally shares with the Obama administration: shift away from the Middle East; avoid military involvement in a region with nothing but “sand and death,” in Trump’s words; and realize that under the circumstances created in Syria that the United States has virtually no chance of influencing developments.
The Arab world, the Kurds, Turkey, Iran and all the rest now understand that America never had any intention of toppling Assad’s regime (aside from that one momentary outburst of anger in which Trump ordered his then-Defense Secretary James Mattis to kill Assad for using chemical weapons, which Mattis summarily blocked). Hence, the conclusion reached by almost every player involved in the fighting in Syria to fall in line with the victor, Assad, and enter dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is the real master in Syria.
Jerusalem’s implicit acceptance of Assad’s return to the Golan Heights also embodies the hope that the “old regime” will restore the quiet and stability along the border that preceded the rebel uprising in Syria. But Assad of January 2019 is a weak leader who owes his survival to the Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah. There’s only a very slim chance of ordering the latter two to leave his country, while the high probability of an Israeli-Iranian conflict on Syrian soil is perhaps the most significant new factor in the old-new environment unfolding in Syria.
Oded Granot is a journalist and international commentator on the Middle East.