Recent diplomatic visits between Syrian officials and Arab leaders highlight regional efforts to reintegrate President Bashar al-Assad’s regime into the region’s fold. After more than a decade, the Arab League readmitted Syria on May 7, 2023, calling the decision a step into finding a resolution for the Syrian crisis. The emerging diplomatic effort accelerated following the February 6 earthquakes, and the recent China-brokered Saudi-Iran diplomatic deal further pushed Riyadh towards reconciliation with Assad’s government. This growing rapprochement between Syria and other Arab countries suggests a shift in regional dynamics that could affect the long-standing conflict in Syria.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE), which works to set trends in the Middle East, has been a major driver of Arab efforts to bring Syria in from the cold. In December 2018, the Emiratis reopened their diplomatic mission in Damascus. By November 2021, the UAE’s chief diplomat visited Assad, which came four months before Syria’s leader came to Abu Dhabi and Dubai for his first visit to a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state since the Syrian crisis erupted in 2011. During these years other Arab states such as Bahrain, Jordan, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia have been moving away from their anti-Assad positions and restoring their diplomatic relations with Damascus. Meanwhile, other Arab states which never backed the Syrian opposition such as Algeria and Oman have been welcoming this overall trend toward reintegrating Assad’s regime into the region’s diplomatic fold.
In the case of Türkiye, there has been a gradual movement of toward normalizing relations with Assad that arguably began in 2017 after Ankara essentially abandoned its push for regime change in Damascus and focused on countering Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-linked militias in Syria. However, starting in late 2022, Türkiye and Syria accelerated their move toward normalization with high-ranking officials from both countries meeting in Moscow. And in yet another sign of progress, Moscow hosted four way talks with officials from Iran, Türkiye, and the Assad regime late last month to discuss rebuilding relations between Ankara and Damascus.
Iran’s Interests in Syria’s Reintegration
The Islamic Republic of Iran welcomes the rehabilitation of the Syrian regime. Throughout the Syrian crisis, Iran was the leading regional actor helping Assad’s government crush the uprising and stay in power. Iran is likely pleased to see that Arab states like the UAE, which previously supported anti-Assad forces like the Free Syrian Army (FSA), are now warming up to Damascus. As Iran’s most important Arab ally, Tehran also wins geopolitically if the Assad regime continues to receive a newfound degree of international recognition.
Iran is also thrilled with Türkiye’s potential reconciliation with the Syrian regime. As emphasized by Dr. Hamidreza Azizi, an expert on geopolitics and security in the Middle East at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, the Islamic Republic’s interests in Türkiye’s reconciliation with Syria are mainly twofold. First, a rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus would significantly decrease the chances of Türkiye engaging in another military campaign in Syria, which like previous Turkish operations against the People’s Defense Units (YPG) on Syrian soil harmed Tehran’s interests in the Levant. Second, Türkiye would improve the Syrian government’s international legitimacy, and its own, in the event of the normalization of relations.
Iran’s Influence on Türkiye-Syria Normalization
The potential reconciliation between Ankara and Damascus is very important to Iran, and Tehran seeks to influence the Türkiye-Syria normalization track and terms. But the ways in which any reconciliation between Ankara and Damascus plays out matter to Iran. While Syria-Türkiye normalization has “been in the cards for some time, the Iranians wanted it to happen on terms that are more beneficial to the Assad regime and to Iran’s regional interests than Türkiye,” the Middle East Institute’s Iran Program Director Alex Vatanka told the Gulf International Forum. Presumably, such terms entail the Syrian government making essentially no concessions to the opposition which Ankara has backed in various capacities since 2011/12.
Dr. Azizi explained, “Iran was not happy with the fact that it was initially excluded from the talks and the initiatives to help Damascus and Ankara initiate normalization. The talks were basically mediated by Russia, and then at some point there was some speculations or news that the UAE was also going to join. So, Iran, as one of the two main allies of the Assad regime, being excluded from the process was something that Iran wouldn’t accept. As we saw at the peak of the discussions regarding normalization, Iran’s foreign minister traveled to Syria, and then the process stopped. So, to my understanding, Iran obstructed the initial initiative for normalization until the parties accepted Iran to be on board.”
Türkiye’s ‘Balanced Strategy’
Türkiye is maintaining a sense of balance between Iran, Russia, and its NATO allies, according to Dr. Murat Aslan, a researcher at the SETA Foundation and a faculty member at Hasan Kalyoncu University. “As Iran seeks to influence the Türkiye-Syria normalization track, Ankara seeks to maintain a balance between Tehran, Moscow, Damascus, and Türkiye’s NATO allies. With the Iranians working to counter the US and Israel in Syria, Türkiye is pursuing a balanced strategy,” explained Dr. Aslan. “Türkiye does not want to be an instrument of Iran or her competing actors but observes her interests.”
Furthermore, the domestic politics of Türkiye cannot be ignored in the context of potential reconciliation with Syria. It is impossible to ignore Türkiye’s domestic politics, which Syria realizes it can leverage to its advantage. Damascus does not want to take any steps that could reward President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before this year’s presidential election in Türkiye. Especially given that some polls show opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu is leading against Erdogan by more than ten percentage points. Kilicdaroglu is part of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has for years advocated normalizing relations with Syria. According to experts, the Syrian regime would prefer a victory for the CHP over the AKP, as the former has long advocated for normalizing relations with Syria.
While the recent diplomatic visits between Syrian officials and Arab leaders, and the potential reconciliation between Ankara and Damascus have been significant developments, there are still obstacles to achieve official normalization. Suffice to say, while diplomatic engagement between Damascus and Ankara has been somewhat invigorated by recent events, Damascus will likely wait to see the results of the Turkish elections this month before moving toward official normalization. Nonetheless, if Kilicdaroglu wins and Ankara agrees to withdraw all its forces from Syria and resume diplomatic relations with Damascus, following more than a decade of a de facto Turkish-Syrian war, Tehran would be most pleased.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.