Lebanon deal: Beginning of the end of Syria's isolation?
Last Sunday, the Syrian defense minister, General Ali Ayoub, went to meet his counterpart, General Yousef Heunieti, in Jordan to discuss security on their shared borders. It was the first meeting at that level in a decade and marks a significant turnaround in Jordanian attitudes to its war-torn, dictatorial neighbor.
At the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Jordan supported anti-government protesters who wanted to bring down the authoritarian regime led by Bashar Assad. Back then, Jordan's King Abdullah II was the first Arab leader to call on Assad to step down peacefully. However, over the 10 years since the first peaceful anti-government demonstrations that led Syria into a vicious and increasingly complex civil war, attitudes have changed.
The defense ministers' meetings in Jordan follows on from other talks held earlier this month that were also described as a "diplomatic breakthrough" for the Syrian government.
On September 8, energy ministers from Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt came together in the Jordanian capital, Amman. They agreed that Lebanon, which is dealing with a severe political and financial crisis that has resulted in an almost total power outage, would import Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity via Syria.
Countering Iranian influence
The plan is supported by Jordan's government and the US ambassador to Lebanon, Dorothy Shea. The latter sees the Jordanian imports as a way of countering Iranian influence in Lebanon.
On August 19, the leader of the Lebanese group Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said its ally, Iran, was sending fuel shipments to help Lebanon weather its power crisis. On the same day, Shea announced that the US was talking to Egypt and Jordan about different solutions to the Lebanese power crisis.
Some of what are known as the Caesar Act sanctions — named after the Syrian military photographer who defected with 53,000 photographs documenting torture and murder by the Assad government — could be amended to deal with the fuel transports, Shea said.
Taken altogether, the high-level meetings and the sanctions relief are being seen by some as yet another sign that the brutal Assad government is undergoing something of a diplomatic rehabilitation. But is it really?
"I think calling it 'diplomatic rehabilitation' goes a bit too far," Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW. However, he conceded, "a kind of regional re-integration has been going on for a while now."
Since 2011, Syria has been suspended from the Arab League. However, in December 2018, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain re-opened embassies in the Syrian capital, Damascus. In October last year, Oman reappointed its ambassador to Syria and in April this year, Syrian and Iraqi energy ministers met to discuss cooperation. This May, Saudi Arabia apparently held talks about re-opening its embassy too.
"By and large, governments in the region have accepted that Assad has survived and that he's going to stay [in power] for some time," Barnes-Dacey explained. "So it's in their own interests to normalize ties with Syria. There are economic and energy issues that play to everyone's advantage," he said.
Barnes-Dacey pointed out that Syria and Jordan, which is itself in difficult economic straits, previously did significant cross-border trade with one another.
This also has to do with the US using a softer touch in the Middle East under President Joe Biden. "The Biden administration is not going to invest in placing the Assad regime under significant pressure," Barnes-Dacey confirmed. "The result is regional actors recalibrating."
"Whether the proposed energy deal leads to a diplomatic rehabilitation of Syria depends very much on which side of the table you sit," said Guy Burton, an international affairs professor at the Brussels School of Governance, whose work focuses on the Middle East. "The Syrian regime itself will certainly use it as such. Some of its Arab neighbors may also welcome it, like Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf states, who see it as a way of blunting Iranian influence."
But it is important to remember that gas and electricity will only be passing through Syria, added Karam Shaar, an independent consultant on Syria's political economy and a senior lecturer on Middle East politics at Massey University in New Zealand. Only this transaction will get a special waiver from the US. "The company that operates the pipeline will remain sanctioned," he said.
The so-called Arab Gas Pipeline designed to bring gas from Egypt is already operational, said Shaar, who published a research paper on Syria's electricity sector in August. The power network between Syria and Jordan — it is near Daraa, where serious fighting recently took place — is damaged but could be fixed within a few months for less than $4 million (€3.4 million), he added.
Postwar, not post-conflict
For Shaar, who is himself Syrian, the Jordan-Syria rapprochement is justified in one way at least: "It will benefit the Lebanese people, and it will even benefit the Syrian people because the gas and electricity will need to be used inside the country."
Where he sees it as unjustified is "if this is part of a greater scheme to normalize relations with the Assad regime."
"There is a danger that the more Assad's position is normalized, this could have repercussions for refugees," added Burton. Both Lebanon and Jordan host high numbers of Syrian refugees and have called for them to return home.
"Although the situation in Syria is post-war, it is not yet post-conflict," Burton continued. There is a lack of peace or justice there, which supports the case to continue to isolate the Assad regime, he said.
The problem, Burton concluded, is that this view is one mostly held by the US and Europeans. "By contrast, [for other countries] like Russia and Iran and maybe now some of the Arab states, such issues are much less important. For them, order and stability are most important," Burton said. "And they're likely to be happy with whoever can deliver this, including Assad himself."