In the first of a three-part series, Agha Hussein investigates efforts by wealthy Gulf Arab countries to ply post-war Syria away from Iran by investing heavily in its reconstruction.
Since the dawn of the 2011 Syrian civil war, many aspects of the country’s political culture have been in flux. Yet a single doctrine has remained steadfast throughout that evolution: that Israel is Syria’s primary foe. Even the country’s constitution declares Syria the “beating heart of Arabism, the forefront of confrontation with the Zionist [Israel] enemy.”
This culture dates back to Syria’s independence as a country and helped hasten its strategic-military alignment with Iran and Hezbollah in the 1980s as they faced down growing Israeli aggression. This Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis was dubbed the Resistance Axis (Mouqawamah in Arabic) by its supporters, with anti-Zionism serving as its central and most unifying ideology.
In the decade since the onset of the Syrian war, much has changed concerning the alignments of foreign states in the complex Syria theater. Iran and Hezbollah are still the strategic military allies that helped President Bashar al Assad retain power against foreign-backed rebels, many of whom were violent extremists actively supported by Israel and the Cooperation Council for the Arab States (GCC), an alliance of wealthy oil-producing Gulf Arab states backed by the U.S.
For numerous reasons, this accentuates the struggle by foreign powers to secure some sort of influence in Syria following the effective ‘victory’ of the government over the rebels. This struggle is poised, in many ways, to challenge Syria’s avowed status as a frontline Arab state standing against Israel and could very well reshuffle its long-held traditional alliances. In this three-part series, MintPress News will explore the shifting alliances that are underway in Syria and the struggle for influence among rival nations in Syria’s post-war reconstruction era.
GCC money versus the “Resistance Axis”
The GCC has lost hope in a military solution to oust Syria’s government. Now, they have shifted gears to economic and diplomatic avenues, hoping to convince the United States to lift sanctions on Syria in order to be able to use their sizable financial resources to secure influence in the country through investment in its economy. The U.S. would, needless to say, not oblige the GCC out of goodwill toward Syria, who its sanctions and militarism have greatly harmed, but for the strategic interest of greater Syrian economic reliance on the GCC as a means of countering Iranian influence.
Syria’s ties with Iran and status as a conduit for Iranian supplies to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon are central to its anti-Israel posture.
The GCC’s focus on Syria’s reconstruction, therefore, comes with a major caveat in the form of its close strategic ties with Israel, which are based almost entirely on shared opposition to Iran’s regional influence. Syria, in its damaged and considerably fractured state, cannot rationally say no to investments from its wealthy Gulf Arab neighbors. Regardless of Syria’s promises to Iranian companies to give them priority for post-war reconstruction projects, GCC states such as the UAE can pitch irresistible offers from their public and private sectors to Syria that Iran, crippled by U.S. sanctions, cannot hope to match.
Syria cannot simply ignore the inevitability of GCC ‘lobbying’ to accommodate Israeli demands for one-sided concessions, which will inevitably include ridding itself of any and all Iranian or Hezbollah presence in the country. The removal of Iranian bases and personnel is a longstanding Israeli demand that the GCC would not hesitate to encourage Syria to accept, while pitching its Arab League partners as a ‘replacement’ for Iran. Larger and more difficult concessions to Israel would not be out of the question either, such as officially accepting Israel’s occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights.
The GCC leverage for enacting such a major shift will, of course, be economic and financial.
With Gulf Arab States taking an active role in the country, Syria’s Internal divisions will inevitably grow. The country’s sizable pro-Resistance camp will face an emerging chorus of voices that, while honoring Iran’s wartime assistance to Syria, will advocate that Iran be replaced with the GCC as Syria’s main regional ally.
Syrian businessmen and bureaucrats with whom the GCC seeks to partner to rebuild Syria will be targeted for cultivation into a domestic counterweight to Syria’s traditionally powerful military-intelligence apparatus, which, understandably, values the decades-old Iranian role in containing, successfully thus far, Israeli expansion toward its eastern and northern borders.
Indeed, without Iran and Hezbollah’s military successes against Israel, both during its occupation of Lebanon and in the 2006 July War, Syria would find containing Israel difficult, if not impossible.
In short, the stage is set for Syria to face a dilemma vis a vis its proud status as frontline Arab stalwart against Israel that it has never before had to face.
Turkey as Syria’s new enemy number one?
Exacerbating Syria’s dilemma is a potential ‘soft spot’ within the country’s political and strategic culture that the GCC is well-poised to exploit in its goal of ‘rehabilitating’ Syria into its fold in a way compatible with the GCC-Israel alliance: shared enmity toward Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood entity that it fosters.
Syrian resentment of Turkey is considerable as it was initially one of the main supporters of the anti-government rebels, especially the Muslim Brotherhood-based groups among them. Syria regards the Brotherhood, much like the GCC and its anti-Turkish allies elsewhere in the region, as little more than terrorists.
This shared disdain for all things Muslim Brotherhood will likely be exploited by the GCC, who will use the opportunity to push Syria into changing its posture from being on the ‘forefront of confrontation with the Zionist enemy’ to the forefront of confrontation with Turkey.
The strategy, much to Israel’s delight, appears to already be in the works. It explains the GCC’s extremely warm embrace of Assad. An embrace that has seen the UAE hail Assad’s ‘wise leadership’ amidst general rhetoric from the GCC and its allies in Egypt framing Syria-GCC rapprochement as Syria’s ‘return’ to what they pitch as the ‘Arab world.’
Notwithstanding the obvious dubious nature of this framing given the central role Israel plays in this version of the ‘Arab world’, which opposes Iran whose main allies are also Arab, it is being forcefully pursued with the new enemy portrayed not as Israel, but as Turkey. Iran has, of course, been a ‘threat to Arabs’ according to the GCC since far prior to the current condemnations of Turkey.
This new found disdain for Turkey can be seen in Libya, where the GCC and Egypt are supporting an Israel-armed and propelled anti-Muslim Brotherhood warlord in the form of General Khalifa Haftar in the Libyan Civil War. Haftar, since 2014, has fought against the Brotherhood-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, backed militarily by Turkey and officially recognized by the United Nations.
Egypt, for its part, is playing a leading role in Syria’s ‘return to the ‘Arab world’. It convened an Arab League meeting in October 2019 to condemn the erstwhile Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria against its Kurdish adversaries and spearheaded threats to boycott and sanction Turkey. Egypt’s parliament also made a point to emphasize support to Syria’s military as a matter of Arab unity.
The anti-Turkish aspect of this bloc has also assumed cultural dimensions, seen in anti-Ottoman Empire state-blessed media projects in Egypt and the GCC and even the revision of history textbooks to project the Ottomans as occupiers of the Arab world.
With Syria being pushed to reorient its foreign policy around opposition to Turkey in favor of cooling relations with Israel, the ideological basis of its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah will weaken.
‘Containing’ Iran: setting the stage for a cold war in Syria
In practical terms, persuading Syria to replace Turkey with Israel as its primary adversary, and Iran with the GCC as its primary ally will require some sort of leverage over the Syrian military. Even setting aside the question of how long it would take to successfully ‘influence’ the Syrian Arab Army to scale back cooperation with Iran, other factors present insurmountable hurdles to this idea.
Iran and Hezbollah both boast a military infrastructure that is very well-entrenched in Syria. The battle by the GCC to downsize Iranian influence in the country, and to ultimately reduce its ability to utilize Syria as a launching ground for rocket and missile reprisals on Israel should the U.S. every directly attack Iran, will likely be prolonged and inconclusive.
The Syrian military, following years of a grueling war, is unlikely to agree to steps to curb Iranian strategic depth in Syria knowing its status as a weapon against Israel, a country that does not compromise on its ambitions in Syria. Even if this were not the case, the task itself would be extremely difficult due to how entrenched Iran already is in Syria, especially in its east, where Iran has established bases which include the particularly large Imam Ali compound straddling the Syria-Iraq border.
Repeated Israeli airstrikes over the years against what it terms as Iranian targets have done little to prevent the growth of Iranian facilities on the ground and Iran is still very capable of sending supplies through Syria to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Sanctions on Iran have similarly done little to uproot it from the territory of its Syrian ally.
Iran, despite the tense situation in the Levant, seems to be pulling forward with its long-term goal of direct land access to the Mediterranean Sea. Such access means reduced reliance on shipping for exports (and weapons) passing through maritime routes heavily militarized by Iran’s foes, such as the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Egyptian Suez Canal.
Iran, who extended a $6 billion credit line to Damascus during the war and sanctions period, also leased the Latakia Mediterranean Port from Damascus in early 2019 in order to consolidate its foothold in Syria. Scheduled to be operational by October 2020, the agreement grants Iran control of a harbor and numerous warehouses. Little stands in the way of Iran turning the port into a de facto military facility should it so choose or for using it to ship weapons aboard cargo vessels.
According to Asharq al Awsat, citing anti-Assad sources, Baniyas Port south of Latakia is also being utilized by Iran as a military base and to allegedly receive sanctioned Iranian tankers bringing fuel aid to Syria.
As described in an April 2019 article for The Iranian, the lease represented a signal of support by Damascus for its Iranian ally and acceptance of its foothold in Syria. It also set the grounds for increased Israeli attacks, given Israel’s steadfast opposition to Iran’s overall agenda of closely inter-connecting itself with Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon in order to strengthen the Resistance Axis.
Recent developments in the Middle East, however, indicate that the predicted Israeli escalation with Iran in Syria as a reprisal to the lease may not materialize and a ‘Cold War’ dynamic may instead be chosen to curb Iran.
The January 3 assassination of renowned Iranian General Qassem Soleimani by a U.S. missile strike in Baghdad and the subsequent Iranian ballistic missile strike upon a U.S. airbase in Iraq, caused major stirs within the Israeli-GCC camp.
The GCC reacted by immediately showing their absolute opposition to a direct U.S. war with Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likewise openly ‘backed off’ following the missile strike, recognizing the immense damage to Israel that an all-out U.S.-Iran war would invite. Israel’s Iron Dome anti-air missile defense systems are increasingly incapable of even dealing with Palestinian rockets let alone ballistic and cruise missiles from Iran and Hezbollah.
Israel and the GCC would therefore likely find it prudent to pursue their anti-Iran goals through the GCC’s long-term neo-Arab project underway in Syria. This would allow the GCC to ‘lobby’ Syria more overtly to place Turkey above Israel as its primary enemy and gradually ‘coax’ it out of its Resistance mindset and toward seeing Iranian strategic depth in Syria as having lost its necessity.
Alongside the agriculture land on the Iraqi border in Syria’s Deir Ezzor Governorate, where the Imam Ali compound is located, Iran also secured agreements for a Syria-Iran joint chamber of commerce and a joint bank. The entry of an Iranian GSM Cellular telephone network to Syria is also being discussed and would help Iran and its allies on the ground communicate with less fear of wiretapping by rival intelligence agencies.
All in all, dislodging such Iran’s firm presence would require a massive, drawn-out effort driven by several countries in tandem with one another, countries whose governments are often at loggerheads and whose goals otherwise seldom converge. That coordination would also have to be uninhibited by other geopolitical setbacks and conflicts beyond Syria.
Feature photo | In Damascus, Syrians wave Iranian, Russian and Syrian flags during a protest against U.S. airstrikes in Damascus, April 14, 2018. Omar Sanadiki | Reuters
Agha Hussain is an independent researcher based in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. He specialized in Middle Eastern affairs and history and is an editorial contributor to Eurasia Future, Regional Rapport and other news outlets. Read more of his work on his personal blog.