Lately we have been picking-up signals about Arab diplomatic engagement on some of the conflicts and disputes that have plagued the Middle East region in the past few years. This is, no doubt, a positive development. Finally, it seems that a realization has dawned that dialogue not confrontation is not only a more effective means to address political differences, but a better way to secure ones own interests, whether amongst Arabs or between Arabs and their neighbors.
Absent from what appears to be a mildly optimistic picture, however, is Syria. It is difficult to discern any visible Arab interest in playing an active collective role in achieving a political settlement in this crucial country. Now that the military conflict is winding down, it is all the more important for Arab countries to engage. This is the only way that they can play a role in influencing the settlement of the Syrian conflict, and in so doing play a major role in charting the course of the future of the region. Failure to do so, will not only leave Syria even more susceptible to the interests of non-Arab regional powers, but also further open the region to sustained and unwelcome external interventions. Recent history has amply demonstrated the heavy toll, material and human, of such interventions.
Henry Kissinger is reputed to have said, he who controls Syria controls the Middle East. It is in the strategic interest of all Arab countries, for Syria to survive as a nation state, reformed in a way that meets the aspirations of its people for a better life.
Whereas Arab countries tried to play a constructive role in the early stages of the conflict. This came to an abrupt end when the Arab peacekeeping mission was precipitately withdrawn in January 2012. As a consequence, regrettably and very rapidly Arab countries, both by action or inaction, have not made any significant or meaningful joint contribution to bringing about a political settlement. Policies pursued by different Arab countries, have in effect, undermined long-term Arab interests. They permitted regional powers to encroach on Syria. The prolongation of the conflict has allowed Iran to further entrench itself. Inaction has opened the door for Turkey to practically occupy parts of the country. Also both the US and RF have established military presence in the country.
That is not to say that Arab countries have not been totally absent from the scene. The problem is that they have never been able to take a common independent position. True they were visible and present in all international fora dealing with Syria, but they never collectively presented concrete substantive proposals for a political settlement. The future of Syria will ultimately be decided by the Syrians themselves. However, Syria being crucial for the future of the region, regional and international powers will always try to influence the course of events in the country.
In these circumstances, the questions is: Is it in the interest of the Arabs to sit on the sidelines and allow Syria to fend for itself against regional and international interests? More importantly for the Arabs: Can they secure their long-term interests by remaining inactive in the quest for a political settlement?
Arab states are, now once again, faced with two choices: Action or inaction. This time with the military conflict practically over, the course of action available is how to contribute, in a concrete manner, to the political settlement. On the other hand, inaction would further erode their influence in Syria and, undermine their capability in shaping the future of their region.
At this stage, the best course of action open for Arab countries is: How to engage the Syrian government and on what terms.
UNSCR 2254 represents the internationally agreed framework for a political settlement. All major international and regional powers are committed to its full implementation. Moreover, Damascus in spite of it’s view on the resolution, has been engaged in it’s implementation.
Although the long-awaited Constitutional Committee has finally been established, the political process as envisaged in UNSCR 2254 remains uncertain. That is largely due to GOS continued suspicion of the true intentions of both the US and some Europeans, the unrealistic positions of both the EU and the US about the terms of engaging Damascus, particularly on the issue of reconstruction, the difficult relationship between Iran and many Arab countries and, last but not least Arab passiveness.
Both the US and the EU have set strict conditions for financing reconstruction and normalizing relations with Damascus: The US removal of Iranian military presence and, the EU: When a political transition is firmly underway. Neither of these conditions can be implemented without engagement with Damascus. Arab countries may be in a position to help in this regard.
Without reconstruction there is no chance for stability in Syria, no chance foreign military intervention will come to an end. But more importantly, the Syrian people will continue to suffer from deprivation and misery. They will not be able to realize their aspirations for a better future. Syria will continue to be a tinderbox with regional implications.
To overcome this logjam, an Arab initiative may be required. While Arabs could have played a constructive role in ending the conflict at earlier stages, it is not too late to do so now. Clearly the conditions now are less favorable and provide less opportunities. But opportunities exist.
At this stage, the most promising entry point appears to be: How to engage Damascus on the implementation of UNSCR 2254 and accelerating the process of reconstruction. In this regard, they can act as an intermediary between GOS on the one hand, and on the other the EU and the US. The Arabs can offer to unfreeze the participation of Syria in Arab League activities (in essence the return of Syria to the Arab League), and at the same time mediate an international arrangement, in which they would play a major role in financing reconstruction. In return they can convince Damascus to be more forthcoming in the implementation of 2245. This would also create more favorable conditions for the Constitutional Committee to proceed.
Such an arrangement could be based on an incremental incentives-based approach – a progressive lifting of sanctions, gradual normalization of relations with Europe and staggered disbursement of reconstruction funds (Arab, European and UN )– in exchange Damascus would undertake confidence building steps (release of detainees, easing military conscription, facilitating return of the displaced, etc,.... ) and political and economic reforms. Areas not presently under the control of the government, such as Idlib and east of the Euphrates, would also benefit down the road.
Due to the scale of devastation in Syria, the amount of funds required for the reconstruction of Syria is colossal, estimated at $250 billion. Although Damascus insists it will not accept reconstruction assistance nor welcome investment from countries that have, in its view, fueled the military conflict in Syria, it will ultimately need funds from every possible source.
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