stratEGIC Monthly (March 2022):
Regional Initiatives for Regional Crises—Syria, Arab-Israeli bloc and Yemen
by Nikola Zukalová
March 2022 in Arab Gulf affairs brought three key initiatives to settle long-standing conflicts. These initiatives came ahead of three major events in Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions — the holy month of Ramadan, Easter and Passover — events that call for reflection. Perhaps the most significant of the three initiatives, which are related to Syria, the Arab-Israeli bloc and Yemen, lies in that for the most part they originated from the region, signalling the recognition that lasting solutions to regional conflicts cannot be imposed from abroad. To overcome impasses and embark on paths towards greater stability and prosperity, local actors are demonstrating enhanced agency and may now chart their own political and cultural futures. This is what the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and its members, seem to understand as they assume more active roles in regional and international politics.
Our second issue of the stratEGIC Monthly, a dispatch of three analyses of key issues that defined the Euro-Gulf space in March 2022, focuses on:
1. Syria: Bashar Al Assad’s visit to the UAE and the reasons why many Arab countries are increasingly looking to end Syria’s isolation;
2. Arab-Israeli bloc: The summit in Negev and the deepening and widening of the Abraham Accords to create an Arab-Israeli regional cooperation bloc;
3. Yemen: Ramadan ceasefire, consolidation of the anti-Houthi bloc at the GCC-sponsored intra-Yemeni peace talks in Riyadh and the prospects of ending the war.
1. Bashar Al Assad’s Visit to the UAE—Bringing Syria in from the Cold
The future of Syria and, crucially, how to treat President Bashar Al Assad remains an unresolved strategic issue in the region. When, in mid-March, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) hosted Al Assad — his first visit to an Arab country since the civil war began — Washington strongly criticised the move. The visit coincided with the 11th anniversary of the uprising and took place under the cloud of the renewed Russia-West confrontation. Disunity on the issue is ever-present in the Arab world, including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). For instance, when Syria was expelled from the Arab League in November 2011, Lebanon and Yemen opposed the decision and Iraq abstained. Some, like Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Mauritania and Oman, never severed diplomatic relations to Damascus. Egypt partially restored relations in 2013 and Tunisia in 2016, calling for Syria’s readmission ahead of Tunis-hosted Arab League summit in 2019. The GCC countries, with the sole exception of Oman — which exchanged high level visits with Syria during the war — had long resisted the idea of engaging with Assad. But, geopolitical shifts have led the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait to change course since 2018 and now only Saudi Arabia and Qatar continue to voice major reservations about Assad’s rehabilitation. The UAE may have been the first Arab stop for Assad but Abu Dhabi did not lead Syria’s reintegration.
The 10 year war has since wound-down and there is no alternative to the Al Assad regime. Assad, de facto, won the war—partially because the groups in the ‘opposition’ had no shared vision of post-Assad Syria but mostly due to the operational and logistical support provided by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. In exchange, Syria opens the door for Russia and Iran to access the East Mediterranean, its ports and hydrocarbon resources. In this way, Syria is now an important conduit linking the Gulf to the Levant and on to Europe. The residual impact of the war persists as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt host some six million Syrian refugees, many eager to return home. Smuggling of goods, including arms and drugs, via Syrian borders poses serious security issues for the neighbouring countries and the wider region. Given Syria’s role in regional economic and energy projects and connectivity, there is also a new set of interests that may be fulfilled by reaching out and rehabilitating Damascus. The UAE and Jordan — among other Arab states — have leaned into a more pragmatic approach towards Syria’s Assad regime, where — in the absence of an alternative — pressing security and economic considerations outweigh the wait-and-see approach. It is within this context that the UAE stressed Syria’s importance for Arab security during Assad’s visit.
Politically, a depleted and exhausted Syria poses no threat to the region or to the Gulf monarchies. Remaining absent from Syria risks further alienating it and losing it to external actors, such as Iran. Like most of the Arab world, the UAE does not want to see a new vacuum open in Syria—coping with post-Saddam Hussein Iraq is more than the Arab world can handle. The UAE understands that prolonged isolation in Arab politics can have dire internal effects, which can be contagious. Thus, the UAE was the first Arab country to restore relations with Egypt in 1987 after it was expelled for recognising Israel, amid tensions with Iran and, in 2008, it was among the first Arab states, after Syria and Jordan, to send a high level delegation to Iraq.
Yet, wider geopolitical realities, notably the Russia-Ukraine (+NATO) conflict, might impact the depth of a Syrian return to the Arab fold. Moscow wants Damascus to be rehabilitated so it can reap the fruits of its deep commitments in the country. The US (and Turkey) remains opposed largely due to the geopolitical importance Russia attaches to Syria. There is no blueprint for how to deal with a post-civil war presidency. For the most part, states determine their policies on the basis of what is best for them at that particular moment. The Arab embrace of Assad is likely to continue in order to overcome the stalemate and try to generate some positive repercussions for the region’s long-term stability and their own interests.
2. Negev Summit and Sharm El Sheikh—Building Arab-Israeli Regional Cooperation Bloc around the Abraham Accords
On 28 March 2022, the Foreign Ministers of Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco and the UAE, gathered for the first time in Israel to participate in a historic summit in the Negev desert with their Israeli and US counterparts, building on the success of the Abraham Accords and formalising the framework for cooperation. The Negev Summit was preceded by a tripartite summit of the leaders of Egypt, Israel and the UAE in Sharm El-Sheikh, which focused on the repercussions of the Russian war with Ukraine on energy and food prices and supplies as many countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) import much of their wheat and other food products from Ukraine and/or Russia. Should the economic situation worsen, many MENA countries would be at risk of hyperinflation, food-price spike, a sharp increase in the costs of living and the reflective social unrest. While the Ministers gathered in Israel, Jordan’s King Abdullah II travelled to the West Bank to meet Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas. The timing and high-level of the Jordanian visit — the King’s first to Ramallah in several years — suggests an assurance to the Palestinians of continued support. Additionally, the Negev Summit took place 20 years, to the day, since the adoption of the Arab Peace Initiative by the Arab League and the Arab and US officials in Negev highlighted the need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Negev Summit confirmed a new regional bloc built on the shared desire to transcend outdated, narrow views and exclusion to advance and push the region towards the future. That they invited the US is a testament to the continued importance of the US in regional affairs and an acknowledgment that the Biden team also sees the Abraham Accords as consistent with US interests. At the Negev Summit, the countries agreed to strengthen economic and security cooperation and expressed a clear desire to motivate more countries to join. There have been intense Arab-led efforts to boost cooperation with Iraq and Syria in recent years and to find solutions for the pressing crisis in Lebanon, although it is difficult to imagine any of them recognising Israel, yet cooperation on common issues could produce a limited engagement—a first step. Perhaps more importantly, the Negev Summit resulted in an agreement to transform it into an annual forum and establishing six working groups to deal with the most pressing regional issues — security, energy, tourism, health, education as well as food and water security. While many past initiatives and organisations have faded away or become obsolete, the architecture built around the Abraham Accords has the chance to succeed as it originated from the region and was not imposed by foreign actors. There is also a sense of urgency to take responsibility for solving regional issues amid a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape and growing security threats, including airborne attacks on critical infrastructure. Perhaps, the Negev Summit could serve as a launching pad for an organic regional security architecture that stabilises and taps into the power of unity.
3. Ramadan Ceasefire in Yemen and Intra-Yemeni Peace Talks in Riyadh—Preparing for the Future
The Saudi-led Coalition and Iran-backed Houthis have agreed to a two-month ceasefire brokered by the United Nations, beginning with the first day of the holy month of Ramadan, the first nationwide truce since 2016. The ceasefire includes some confidence-building steps as signs of goodwill to the Houthis, including an exchange of prisoners, the reopening of Sanaa airport — albeit for limited flights to Cairo and Amman — and allowing fuel vessels to dock at Hodeidah. Yemen’s critical humanitarian and economic situation is further exacerbated by the Ukraine war, particularly relating to food supplies, and the Gulf states have already vowed assistance to help rebuild Yemen’s economy. This comes despite that a few days earlier, on the seventh anniversary of the beginning of the Saudi-led intervention, and amid energy market slump caused by the Russia-Ukraine war, the Houthis attacked Aramco oil installations to increase pressure. Saudi Arabia released a statement saying it will not bear the responsibility for global oil shortages amid those attacks, reminding the US and Europe that their lack of support for Saudi security and actions against the Houthis will affect them as well.
The ceasefire announcement came as Riyadh was hosting intra-Yemeni talks sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to find a solution to the war. The Houthis refused to attend the summit in Riyadh but signalled it would be open to attend one elsewhere. Sweden, which hosted peace talks in 2018, could be one destination (Sweden’s Foreign Minister recently visited Saudi Arabia and offered mediation support), or either Oman or Kuwait could be more acceptable to all sides. Such peace talks should involve representatives of all parties (except Al Qaeda and the likes) and would be under UN auspices. The absence of the Houthis in Riyadh provided an opportunity to consolidate the anti-Houthi bloc which has fragmented over the years into clusters — often fighting each other — further complicating efforts to roll-back the Houthis. These clusters now agree on the need to change tactics, unify their ranks and strengthen the legitimate state institutions. The new Presidential Leadership Council to which Yemeni President Hadi delegated his powers should embody this shift. The eight-member body representing various parties to the conflict with diverging (and often opposing) goals, aims to represent a united politico-military front against the Houthis. It is yet to be seen how, and if, they will be able to overcome their differences and work together.
Meanwhile, reports emerged that the United Kingdom was considering designating the Houthis as a terrorist group after the UAE received support in the UNSC to term them as such in Resolution 2624 in late February. The US response to the recent ceasefire was to claim that the Houthis realised that they cannot win militarily, which seems to be an overly optimistic view considering the history and lofty goals of the group over the past decade. US policy on the Yemen has been inconsistent and largely driven by US domestic politics more than strategic thinking.
Regarding the political solution to the Yemeni war, it is useful to recall the words of civil war expert, Barbara Walter, who reminds us that ‘[t]he large majority of civil wars end in decisive military victories. They do not end in negotiated settlements.’ And that decisive military victories also usually imply longer periods of stability, while negotiated settlements often end up sliding into conflict. Consolidating the anti-Houthi bloc by resolving outstanding differences and obstacles among the various factions and ensuring their equal representation in the future state institutions is needed to ensure a decisive victory against the Houthis. The Riyadh talks may represent a first step in doing so.