Over ten years ago, most Arab countries in the Middle East cut ties with the Syrian government during the civil war and supported armed groups dedicated to the overthrow of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Meanwhile, Iran was Assad’s key backer.
But now, in the Spring of 2023 a big shift is underway. Saudi Arabia and Iran are taking steps towards rapprochement and Arab governments throughout the region are re-opening embassies in Damascus and re-establishing diplomatic relations with Syria.
Joining me to explain what is driving this regional re-alignment is Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the Mackey Chair. We kick off discussing how the outbreak of the Syrian civil war impacted regional diplomacy and why now we are seeing such profound changes in the the geopolitics of the Middle East.
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Transcript edited for clarity
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:01:03] Can you briefly explain how the Syria civil war impacted regional geopolitics? How did countries in the region align when Syria began to dissolve into civil war?
Joshua Landis [00:03:17] Well, Syria is right smack dab in the middle of the Middle East, so it had a big effect on everybody. The countries aligned largely by those that were pro-U.S. and pro-Iran and Russia. That aligned along a Sunni-Shiite divide. The Gulf countries, and particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, lined up against Assad, hoping to overthrow him because he’s an ally of Iran, a Shiite power. Assad himself is an Alawite, which is an offshoot of Shiism. So that’s the way things really lined up. Iraq, which is led by Shiites now, was pro-Assad and Hezbollah in the south of Lebanon, a very powerful militia that grew up after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and after the Iran revolution in ’79 supported a Shiite militia backed by Iran, and was instrumental in supporting Assad throughout the civil war. So the region really split in two, and it was Shiites versus Sunnis. It was America and an American built coalition, which was called by Secretary of State Clinton ‘The friends of Syria”, against Russia and Iran and resistance powers China, so forth, that backed Assad.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:04:48] That was basically the status quo for ten years after the Syria civil war erupted. Yet in recent weeks and months, that seems to be shifting pretty profoundly. Why is it we are seeing now countries that were previously dedicated to overthrowing the Assad regime are now taking steps to normalize relations with Syria?
Joshua Landis [00:05:19] Well, they’re taking steps because Assad has won. Really, that divide, we say it’s a status quo for ten years, but that’s not quite true. During the first year of the uprising. Assad was very brutal trying to put down this Syrian uprising that was quite widespread and came on the back of the Arab Spring — the Syrians who were opposed to Assad were trying to jump on the back of the Arab Spring. But rather rapidly, America got squeamish about its support for Assad. Already in 2011, when it started, Obama came out and said that Assad needed to go. That really put a lot of wind in the sails of the opposition. They began to arm. They had been arming already, but they began to double down thinking that America would support them. America did support them, not militarily at first, only later. But other powers: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar jumped in and financed the opposition, began to pour arms in.
[00:06:24] But America got squeamish because rather rapidly you begin to see important militias, some connected to Al-Qaeda and later ISIS grow up. So already, by the end of 2012, Americans had some deep misgivings about the opposition and began to say, “We don’t want to destroy the Syrian army.” The Deputy Director of the CIA at the time gave a long interview on CBS in 2013 saying, “We don’t want to destroy the Syrian army because the opposition is full of these extremists and they’re likely to take Damascus. Therefore, what we want to do is continue to fund the opposition, weaken the Syrian army in the hopes that the Syrian army will come to America, come to us to negotiate, at which point we’ll say get rid of Assad. So we’ll get rid of Assad, but will preserve the Syrian army and then rebuild it so it can destroy Al-Qaeda and other extremists. That was America’s plan by 2013. America thought it could separate Assad from the Syrian army and get the Syrian army to cough up Assad.
[00:07:38] The trouble is the top 40 generals in the Syrian army are Alawites. They share the same religion as Assad and they are facing Sunni opposition, and increasingly Sunni fundamentalist opposition, and had that Sunni fundamentalist opposition won, they were going to ethnically cleanse the Shiites and the Alawites. And the Christians feared that they would be swept out with them. So many of the minorities joined with Assad and fought like the dickens in order to stay in control and it turned into a very bloody, horrible war. But it was divided along those sectarian ethnic lines.
[00:08:18] America backed away from the opposition and didn’t give them ground to air missiles, wouldn’t allow them to destroy Assad’s air force, which was Russian planes, and then when Russia decided to enter in in 2015 and support Assad — they didn’t do anything to oppose Russia. And they could have. They could have given missiles that would shot all these Russian airplanes out of the sky the way we’ve done in Ukraine. There are almost no Russian airplanes flying over Ukraine airspace because they’ll get shot down. So America could have done all that. Had Syria produced a Zelensky, America could have taken down Assad in no time, but it didn’t produce this Zelensky. It produced an ISIS and Al Qaeda, along with many other well minded Syrians and liberals — but they weren’t fighting on the battlefield. So Washington really gave up. That’s what’s influenced this decision on the part of many of the Arab states to reengage today because they feel like Assad has won. “He’s going to be sitting there in the heart of the Arab world and he’s going to be making trouble for us. So we have to negotiate with him.”
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:09:24] So today, for the reasons you just described, there’s basically three, generally speaking, de facto authorities in what used to be the full territory of Syria. Assad and the Syrian government controls most of it. Then in the north, you have the U.S. backed Kurdish militias and then the Turkish backed militias as well, controlling other parts. But you’re saying this has basically been the status quo for a while?
Joshua Landis [00:09:51] Yes.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:09:52] Regional powers have noted that there’s nothing much going to move the status quo. We’re going to have to deal with the region and Syria as it exists, and that means dealing with Assad. So what have been some of the key issues that you see governments like Saudi Arabia, which is seemingly now leading this rapprochement, are engaging with Syria on? Are you seeing any direct talks yet between the Saudis and the Syrian government?
Joshua Landis [00:10:25] You’re absolutely right, Syria is in three big chunks. In the northeast, there’s an American chunk, which is about 30% of Syria and has most of its oil and gas, very vital resources. In the northwest is Turkey, with about 10%, maybe a little bit more. Syria has the rest, it has most of the population.
[00:10:46] So it’s in these three parts and it’s extraordinarily poor. Syrians are suffering like mad. Most Syrians don’t get more than about an hour of electricity a day. That means they can’t have refrigerators or so forth. Even those that have generators can’t buy enough oil and gas because the government is broke to move them, so they really are in a terrible situation. The winter was just horrible because schools couldn’t run, they couldn’t heat the classrooms. It’s a bad situation. The earthquake really was a catalyst for this because so many people were killed and it highlighted the terrible conditions. I think Arab governments thought there was a humanitarian aspect to it.
[00:11:31] But there also was this realization that this has been the way it is for now over three years, four years since the end of ISIS, really beginning of 2019. The battlelines have been drawn and it’s been that way for five years. They thought Assad is going to live. He’s in his mid-fifties. He could be there for another 25 years. We can’t just not deal with the situation because of its refugees. The issues that you’re talking about are big drug trade, because Assad has no trade. So he’s allowed — encouraged, perhaps, we don’t know — encouraged regime figures to make all of these amphetamines and so forth, and to pump them out of Syria because he has nothing to lose. And he has everything to gain. Some people say it’s worth $5 billion. We have no clue.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:12:22] I saw a statistic that the amphetamine that you’re referring to, Captagon — which is very popular in the Middle East, I hadn’t heard of it — that the Captagon trade in Syria is combined worth more than all other Syrian exports at this point. If that specific statistic is not true, nonetheless, it’s a huge money machine for Syria. And there are suggestions that the Assad regime is controlling that trade.
Joshua Landis [00:12:53] Yes, it’s controlling it. The government budget for Syria this year is about $3.5 billion. That’s 16 to 18 million Syrians inside the government controlled area. We’re not sure how many are there because there hasn’t been a census for a long time since the war. So it’s a major moneymaker for the government and all the surrounding countries, particularly Jordan. But Saudi Arabia, which is a big destination for this drug, would like to stop it.
[00:13:21] There are refugees. Everybody’s sort of groaning under the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon — in particular —, a million plus, Jordan, a million plus, and Turkey with 4 million. So all those countries would like Syria to be able to reconstruct and develop an economy and have some kind of security so that people could go back home. As it is now, it’s under crushing sanctions imposed by the international community, mostly by Europe and the United States, which mean that anybody who does business there can be sanctioned. A recent bank — in fact, the bank that I work with —, Wells Fargo, just had to pay $100 million fine for allowing its software to be used in Europe by companies that were exporting and importing before 2015 to Syria. So it can be very onerous to companies if they get across that border. It’s definitely not worth it for them to do any business.
[00:14:17] So Syria has is suffering and Syrian’s economy is at a standstill. There are no jobs. There’s a lot of banditry and corruption and the bad stuff happening. So I think countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan hat have been particularly pushing it, — the UAE has been pushing it very har — think, you know, nothing is going to change. Everybody’s clucking their tongues at Assad. But also he’s not hurt by these sanctions, he’s living in his palace. He’s having a grand old time. But the Syrian people, these 16 million, are in a terrible shape and they are mostly innocent people. So what are we really accomplishing by these sanctions? We’re destroying the lives of 16 million people who are the future of Syria.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:15:02] Yeah it seems that countries in the region, those most impacted by the refugee crisis and the drug trade emanating from Syria have to do this, that engaging with Assad is the best way to pursue their own interests. Yet, of course, this runs afoul of U.S. policy. I’m wondering to what extent this emerging regional shift towards Assad can be linked to or is in some way related to the recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran brokered by China? Do you see a link between the two?
Joshua Landis [00:15:46] I do. Certainly for Saudi Arabia, the link is very obvious. And there has been momentum gathering for this kind of a bringing Syria out of the cold. But in Saudi Arabia MBS, Mohamed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, has really come up with a plan of growth — a liberalism, an opening in the Saudi economy. He wants to really make Saudi Arabia a copy of what’s happening in the United Arab Emirates, where a person that he looks up to — MBZ, Mohammed bin Zayed — has really developed an extraordinary economy that is booming. Tons of Russians who are now sanctioned in Russia are leaving Russia and going to settle in the UAE. Iraqis have gone there, Syrians have gone there, Palestinians before them. It’s an open economy. You can move there and get what’s called the “golden visa” for ten years. The schools are great, there are English language schools from one end of the place to the other. So you can send your kids to these international schools, which are really very good. The kids are becoming competitive in the world’s marketplace and the country is booming.
[00:16:56] I think Saudi Arabia looks at this and says, “This is where we need to move if we’re not going to just be a one horse town and totally dependent on oil and gas, which is going to run out some day.” So he’s trying to transform his country into this growth model. Whether he can do it or not, I don’t know. But that’s what his idea is.
[00:17:18] So if there’s a war between Iran and Israel, which is not unlikely, he doesn’t want to be caught in the middle. He doesn’t want to get into another war where Saudi Arabia is compromised and it scares business away and will trash his model for the future of Saudi Arabia. He wants to be out of that. And of course, with sanctions on Iran and no Iran nuclear deal, Israel is threatening to possibly bomb Iran. Even Biden has promised Israel that he will not let Iran make the bomb. So were Iran to push towards weaponizing this uranium that is purifying, what’s going to happen? It looks like there could be some kind of a strike on the Iranian nuclear facilities and then Saudi Arabia would be dragged in if it were part of an alliance.
[00:18:12] So it’s distanced itself, it’s listened to China, and it’s allowed China push Iran towards a reconciliation. It’s going for this reconciliation because it wants to reassure itself that if there’s a war between Israel and Iran, Saudi Arabia is not going to be in the middle of it. Iran in the past has threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz, which are right at the end of the Persian Gulf, where much Saudi oil has to get out through its ships. So were Iran to have that kind of retaliation for an Israeli strike, Saudi Arabia be stuck in the middle of this war.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:18:46] And in terms of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Syria and the Assad regime, it would seem that they just don’t want to be, therefore, on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war any longer. That’s one potential opportunity of conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia that they could take off the table if Saudi Arabia normalizes relations with Assad.
Joshua Landis [00:19:11] Yes, it’s a danger. But also you want Syria to be a growth factor for the region so that there’s not turmoil, instability, perhaps more fundamentalism coming out of Syria or further civil war. You want to fix that? You want to cauterize Syria. So at least it’s not an open sore in the middle of the Middle East. Hopefully you turn it into some kind of growth thing where it can grow its way out of this and became a transit hub for Saudi oil and gas and for regional transit and entrepot, which is what it was becoming before the Civil War. So rather than have it be a black hole in the middle, that’s creating instability, you want to fix it as much as you can.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:55] So it seems that one key inflection point coming in the next few weeks is a meeting of the Arab League in which it could potentially vote to re install the Syrian government as a member of the Arab League, which was kicked out of at the start of the civil war. First, do you see that as a likely outcome?
Joshua Landis [00:20:19] Well, that’s on everybody’s lips. Saudi Arabia is dangling this in front of Syria and Assad, the possibility of coming in for the meeting of the Arab League and possibly being readmitted to the Arab League. Qatar, however, has said that they’re not going to reconcile with Assad under any circumstances. You need a unanimous vote to return Syria to the Arab League so Qatar could stand in the way. But even so, Saudi Arabia is toying with the idea of inviting Syria anyway, perhaps as an honorary visiting. Whatever the point is, this is an inducement to Assad to start negotiating seriously and making some concessions to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has said that they want a political solution to the civil war, which means some kind of offering to the opposition for reconciliation. So there are a number of things on the on the table. We don’t know what’s going on. We know that Syrian intelligence has been going to Saudi Arabia, Saudis have been going to Syria. There has been a back and forth of visits. This is true for the UAE, where Assad went just a few weeks ago. So the negotiations are going on. Assad is also talking to the Turks with the Russians and Iranians involved. So he’s talking on a number of fronts. The Arabs are trying to come up with a group, ask a common agenda that they can present to Assad in order to raise their leverage. That’s why I said, you know, America should join with Saudi Arabia. It should be sitting at the table instead of sitting on the sidelines and just clucking its tongue at the Saudis — get in there and try to shape the ask and try to achieve some American interests because America can’t stay in Syria forever.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:22:18] I did want to ask you, what has been the U.S. response thus far to this growing regional trend towards normalization? You have at least three key U.S. allies: Jordan, UAE and Saudi Arabia, all very seemingly proactively wanting to normalize relations with the Assad regime. How has the U.S. responded? And also, it seems that this rapprochement, if it exists, is happening in the context of increased hostilities in Syria; today, there was another bomb lobbed from somewhere at a U.S. base in northwest Syria.
Joshua Landis [00:22:59] I think America is a little bit divided on this. They’re trying not to get out too far ahead. The undersecretary of state bar relief a few weeks ago said, “Well, if the Arab countries are going to negotiate with Assad, they better ask for some good stuff, get something for it.” So exactly what she said. Others in the U.S. government have said, “We’re not going to do this. We don’t approve of it and we don’t approve of our Arab allies negotiating with him either.” There have been congressional meetings. There is going to be a congressional hearing next week on Assad’s crimes, it’s a very rather right wing thing, people are going to speak at it. So it’s being put together, I presume, by people who are trying to block any kind of American softness on this and to put forward a congressional statement.
[00:23:48] I think that the Biden administration is at sixes and sevens about this. They don’t know quite how to deal with Saudi Arabia since this démarche with China and Iran. They don’t want to be anti-peace. They do want to be anti-Assad. But I think there are many people in the administration who realize the sanctions aren’t working and they’re not good. They’re not good for America, perhaps, and they’re not good for Syrians, because it just paints us into a corner as the bad guys who are hurting people. And now we try to refocus and say,”No, this is punishing Assad, punishing Assad.” Trouble is, Assad is very wealthy and he can survive this. He can let his people starve. And that’s that’s the problem.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:24:32] So in the coming weeks, we’ll have, of course, that Arab League meeting, which will be a kind of key moment in which we’ll see the extent to which other Arab governments are willing to kind of bring Assad back from the cold. Are there other key trends or inflection points or meetings or moments that you’ll be looking towards in the coming weeks and months that will suggest to you what this trajectory towards normalization looks like?
Joshua Landis [00:25:02] Yes, in several weeks there’s going to be elections in Turkey. Simultaneously, there’s this Turkish-Syrian dialog. Erdogan has said he was willing to meet with Assad. He wants to reconcile, but he has some very big asks as well. He owns 10% of Syrian territory, which he’s not about to leave any time soon. But Syria and Turkey have a lot to discuss because they have a common enemy in the United States — neither country wants the U.S. in this zone because the U.S. is arming the Kurds and encouraging Kurdish nationalism, if you will, and separatism. Neither of them want to see an independent autonomous Kurdish state in between Syria and Turkey.
[00:25:50] So they have this Kurdish problem that they both share and they want the Americans out, they are worried about terrorism — they define this a little bit differently from each other —, and they’re worried about refugees. So those are the three topics. Elections are going to be key because Kilicdaroglu, the opponent to Erdogan, has said Erdogan made a big mistake getting to the Syrian war, that he would withdraw from Syria and he would try to patch up relations with Assad. So I’m sure Assad is going back every night sleep, saying, “I hope he wins. I hope he wins.”But even so, he’s just had a meeting in Moscow with Erdogan. It didn’t go very well.
[00:26:33] The two sides are trying to play nice. But before the elections, Erdogan wants to show that he’s trying to fix this refugee problem, which is weighing on Turkey. But that’s going to be key to who wins that election. Because if we see momentum after the elections towards some reconciliation with Syria, it’s going to encourage the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs to jump on board and to move forward. That will cause the United States to become ever more isolated. If Saudi Arabia and Iran are talking about a truce in Yemen and there’s a Turkish growing understanding with Assad, then things are going to move forward and the United States will be the odd man out — holding on to a policy which everybody upstairs abandoned.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:27:26] Is there anything else you want to mention or a point you think deserves emphasis that you didn’t make?
Joshua Landis [00:27:31] I do. I would make one more point, which is America’s position today in Syria is tied up with trying to punish Iran and to try to push Iran out of Syria. That means in large part encouraging the Kurds, who helped us destroy ISIS. And Americans owe a debt to the Kurds. There’s no doubt about it. The problem with America’s position in Syria is that we only have a thousand troops, but there’s a lot of other contractors — one was killed and others were wounded the other day in one of these attacks on American base.
[00:28:09] But our debt to the Kurds doesn’t include creating a separate Kurdish state. We can’t do it. There are only 2 million Kurds in Syria. They’re fairly poor. They’re totally dependent on the United States for money, for protection, and particularly for our Air Force, which has a no fly zone over this 30% of Syria. But we can’t do that forever. And as America becomes more isolated there. It’s going to be a sitting duck because Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and particularly the Syrian forces are going to try to kill Americans and drive them out. We’re already seeing that happening. Almost every week there’s a rocket that goes towards an American base, America retaliates and kills a bunch of Syrians. But the whole region is trying to drive up the price on the Americans for their continued position there.
[00:29:04] And we cannot create a Kurdish state. It’s illegal to do so. The international community will not accept that. The international community looks at Assad as the rightful owner of Syria as the government. So America is in a losing position there and we’re going to withdraw at some time. President Biden has promised he would not do it — he’s already done Afghanistan and he’s got a black eye for doing that, so he doesn’t want to do it again. But the next administration or the administration after that will do it and better to prepare the Kurds for a withdrawal with a transition. There’s a deal to make between Assad and the Kurds. They both depend on each other, they dependended on each other in the past, and they can patch up their differences. It will be painful, but it’s possible. So that’s what I would add to this conversation.
[00:29:54] There are Americans who say we can just stay there indefinitely because it’s not very expensive for us to stay there. But what does that mean? Indefinitely. For what? To create an independent state for the Kurds? No, we’re not going to do it. We’re going to withdraw from Syria and the Kurds are going to be let down with a thump if we don’t prepare for it and help them come to terms — negotiate with the Saudis and the others because we have maximum leverage right now. As soon as others have made their deal with Assad, we’re going to be all alone and we would be much weaker for it.