By Insiya Raja, Spring Intern at the Arab and International Affairs Program at IFI
On July 13, 2021, the AUB Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI) hosted a webinar titled “Bashar al-Assad is (Re)Elected, and Now What?”. The session aimed to discuss the impact of the re-election of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria on May 26, 2021on the domestic, regional, and international levels.
In his opening words, Joseph Bahout, IFI’s Director, outlined some of the most important questions, challenges, and possibilities facing the Syrian Regime. He said that Syria may be entering a new phase of stabilization and consolidation for the regime, and this phase may mark an end to the big military operations in Syria. He acknowledged that some pockets of instability and war are likely to remain, and that the big questions still on the table are on the possibilities of a political solution and the dire economic situation of the country.
He invited Sami Khiyami, the former ambassador of Syria to London, to reflect on what he thinks this new phase might mean for Syria and the Syrians, both in terms of how they see his re-election and what their priorities are in the near future. Khiyami summarized the view of the Syrians as being primarily concerned with getting access to basic necessities, such as food. He also suggested that the current status quo does not actually change much because regional and international powers do not have enough incentive to interfere in Syria and play a role in finding a political solution.
In regard to different players, Syria is not a priority for the new Biden administration, Russia maintains an upper hand, and Europe remains patient in continuing to try to provide humanitarian assistance, he explained. As for Turkey, Ambassador Khiyami pointed out that they have an increasing desire to become a main player in the Arab region while Iranians are starting to question their involvement. He concluded that the economic normalization with the Gulf and the rest of the region are positive developments.
With Iran and Russia being often seen as the big winners of the conflict, the next two speakers reflected on how Syria’s politics and economy are viewed by Russia and Iran, and how they might deal with the regime they so far saved and backed.
Irina Zvyagelskaya, the chief research fellow at the Russian Academy of Science, explained Moscow’s view of al-Assad’s re-election as a guarantee for more stability within the country. Zvyagelskaya also highlighted that the most important issue for Syrians, especially minorities living there, is their identity, which depends on the perseverance of the state. Syrians continue to expect more Russian support, especially on the economic level. However, even though Russia will exert soft power, it is unlikely to change the status quo in Idlib, which will remain a problem for some time, she added.
Sayed Kazem Sajjadpour, a prominent Iranian academic, described the coming phase in Syria with three S’: Self-confidence, stability, and structural problems. The recent election gave al-Assad more self-confidence by symbolically and psychologically strengthening his rule and legitimacy. Syria is moving towards more stability with an increased focus on economic recovery and social rehabilitation. Finally, the structural problems in Syria today–sanctions, US and Turkish military occupation, and diplomatic challenges–persist. He pointed out that Iran’s position is then described by 3 C’s: Consistency, contribution, and co-operation. Since the beginning of the conflict, Iran has been consistent, clear, and strategically logical in its involvement and posture towards Syria. Sajjadpour added that the most important mistake was made by Turkey, Europe, and other actors when they attempted to broaden regional social engineering under the framework of human rights.
Natasha Hall, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies described the US stance in the region as a limited containment strategy most affected by three factors: Obama’s pivot to Asia, intervention in Libya, and Russian intervention in Syria. Hall explained that the goal of the US presence in Syria has been publicly defined by the Biden administration as fighting and preventing the re-emergence of ISIS. Even though the Biden administration is “leading with diplomacy,” it has shrunk its presence in the region all together. She added that Syria is a stress-test for US-Russian relations, and the administration has led with concessions to avoid conflict for now. Finally, Hall concluded that the humanitarian assistance and aid has vastly increased, and that it remains to be seen what the administration’s response would be to an uptick hostility from the Iranians or the regime.
Oytun Orhan, the Levant studies coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, presented the Turkish priorities and threat perceptions in Syria. He explained that the Syrian civil war evolved, and the Turkish priorities changed immensely with the rise of terror organizations in the border region to become focused on fighting terrorism. Preserving political unity and territorial unity in Syria is important to Turkey. The refugee issue and border security are other important issues. The Turkish expert said that despite changing priorities, Turkey remains committed to supporting the Syrian opposition, which it believes is essential for Syria’s future and that it will not retreat from Idlib. He concluded that Turkey will in time turn its attention to Northeast Syria because the YPG remains of huge concern to Turkey.
Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute, said that the GCC countries find themselves in a period of consolidation, retrenchment, and renewal. These countries have no presence on the ground or other proxiesand have indirect interests such as preventing ISIS re-emergence and preventing an Iranian military corridor running through Syria. Ibish went on to discuss the interests different GCC countries have in Syria. On one hand, UAE was the first to try to normalize relations with the Syrian regime, which however, got delayed by the previous American administration. For the UAE, the goal is to establish a coalition and purchase influence against Iran. Qatar, on the other hand, is against renewing relations with Syria but participated in a consultation process for reconstruction with Russia and Turkey that could serve as a potential for giving money to the region while bypassing Iran and Hezbollah. Additionally, Kuwait is holding back, avoiding controversy and is likely to re-establish ties with al-Assad when the re-establishment would result in least controversy within Kuwait, probably when Syria re-enters the Arab League. Finally, Saudi Arabia is using Bahrain’s normalizing relations with Syria as a test case and continues to send mixed messages about their stance.
Emma Beals, non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, explained that the EU has not changed its overarching commitment to provide humanitarian assistance in Syria. However, she noted that some of the European positions on the conflict, with incidences of terrorism and the influx of refugees, have hardened. Beals highlighted that al-Assad not only won the election, but he did so without any attempts to moderate his actions and this has made it even more clear that most Syrian refugees are not welcome. The status quo is unsustainable because living conditions continue to deteriorate. Additionally, the repatriation of refugees, or turning them to Lebanon, poses huge dilemmas. Europe will soon have to decide how it will react to the new US administration and whether it will pursue its interests in Syria through bilateral or other relations. It is also to be seen how long Europe’s patience will last.
When asked about UN Resolution 2254, Beals explained that progress has stalled. In the Geneva sphere, there are a lot of concerned statements, but no meaningful progress or solutions. For Europe, 2254 is not just a policy idea, but crucial to the resolution of the conflict. For her part, Zvyagelskaya pointed out another challenge with the Resolution, which is that al-Assad is more self-assured, he is not inclined to discuss changes in the constitution or the management and governance of Syria. From the Turkish point of view, Orhan believes that this resolution remains the best-case political solution and with the Astana process reaching its limits, Turkey may turn to the Geneva process. It also does not view NATO as a reliable partner. Ibish and Sayed both pointed out that the resolution will be determined by how it is interpreted.
Zvyagelskaya clarifies that Russia cannot deliver on everything, and the question of restoring Syria cannot be done by Russia alone. Iran is doing a lot, but it is still not enough, given that Syrians continue to suffer because other countries do not provide aid to those living in the regime-controlled territory. She also mentioned that Syria is not a bargaining chip for Russia.
As the US role recedes in the region, Ibish explained that Russia’s role is likely to expand - and that the UAE would look to Moscow to cement their own strategic interests. The UAE and Saudi Arabia will put their differences aside because their core interests remain the same, and even though they have varying threat perceptions of Turkey, in case of a conflict, they will coalesce as allies.
From his part Ambassador Khiami said in conclusion: “Change would require a wholesale change in mentality throughout the region”.
Rerun of the webinar.