Syria’s Readmission to the Arab Fold will Benefit Iran
Readmitting Syria to the Arab League is a strategic mistake.
On paper, the logic behind such a move appears sound. For the better part of the last decade, most of the Arab world – particularly the pro-western bloc led by Saudi Arabia – hoped that Syria’s uprising would dislodge Bashar al-Assad’s regime. As the dust has now begun to settle on that conflict, it is now apparent that those hopes were misplaced.
In short, Assad won. Reality presented the Arab world with two choices: to either permanently boycott Bashar al-Assad and allow Iran’s dominance over Syria to continue growing, or to lure this particular fly away from Tehran with honey – begrudgingly reestablish ties with him to create a counter to the unchecked Iranian influence in Syria and halt Damascus’ drift into the Iranian orbit.
But appearances can be deceiving. And so is this logic, which is founded on the faulty premise that there remains such a thing as an independent Syrian regime and Bashar al-Assad to woo back from Tehran. Assad can now be effectively considered the glorified Mayor of Damascus, ruling even that fiefdom at Iran’s pleasure.
No matter how much Arab backing he has, Assad cannot ask Iran to leave his country willingly. Ensuring Syria does not proverbially fall into enemy hands is an existential matter for Tehran, with high-ranking Iranian officials expressing that view while describing Syria as Iran’s “35th Province,” to emphasize the point that they view anti-Iranian activity in Syria as if it were a domestic disturbance. And the Iranians simply don’t trust Assad to be able to hold the country without their presence and control.
Additionally, Iran has invested too much blood, treasure, and political capital in Syria to ever leave the country without a fight. Nor can Assad forcibly eject them, his Syrian Arab Army having been decimated, both by defections during the civil war and due to fighting. As far back as 2016, Hezbollah and Iran’s other proxy militias had borne the brunt of fighting opposition forces and assumed control on the ground, with the Syrian Arab Army assuming a symbolic and secondary role.
That is why this effort to cajole Assad back into the Arab fold – begun by the UAE, but now enthusiastically led by Saudi Arabia – is unlikely to succeed. There’s little left of an independent Syria with which to work. Nor can Arab intervention in Syria remedy that shortcoming since that intervention is unlikely to be as deep or as intrusive in the country’s internal affairs as Iran’s.
Recalling a 2021 conversation between the author and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on the matter: “We don’t get involved in a country’s internal affairs.” But Iran does.
The Gulf States are, effectively, leading the Arab world into replicating their old approach to Syria’s neighbor, Lebanon, which has also failed to produce any results even though Iran’s influence – through its proxy Hezbollah – is more diluted in Beirut than in Damascus owing to the Byzantine nature of Lebanese politics. If anything, Hezbollah exploited the stability provided by the Gulf’s assistance to Beirut to grow inside Lebanon – and Iran can be expected to do the same in Syria, particularly if reconstruction aid manages to enter the country.
Assad himself is likely acutely aware of this situation and is unlikely to attempt to break away from Iran or undermine its interests willingly. Tehran’s history in dealing with rebellious subordinates is certain to deter him. Assad risks being liquidated for stepping out of line – with Tehran either blaming his death on Israel, like Hezbollah did with Rafik Hariri’s, and claiming that the perfidious Zionists eliminated him for failing to offer enough concessions. Or they could opt for the route their Houthi proxies chose with Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh and declare him a traitor and deserving of death.
Nor can Assad or the Arab state rely on Russia to aid in eroding Iran’s influence in Syria. Since, as noted, Iran will not leave the country willingly, that would require Moscow to relitigate the entire Syrian Civil War – but this time, against an adversary, Iran, more formidable than the Syrian opposition. Moscow would have to embark upon this task even though its interests in Syria – Assad’s survival, Russia’s armed presence in Syria, and maintaining the country as a client state – have been secured against its indispensable ally in the war in Ukraine, where its army is increasingly bogged down.
Assad’s victory in the Syrian Civil War must not be his ticket to readmission into the family of civilized nations, including the Arab world. He achieved his victory by mercilessly slaughtering hundreds of thousands of his people, and reestablishing ties with him will not alleviate the suffering of those Syrians who remain under his regime. The ultimate benefit will accrue not only to him, but to the power that controls him and keeps him in the presidential palace – the Islamic Republic of Iran.