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Syria Today – Arab World Under Spotlight After Return of Assad; AANES Welcomes Refugees from Lebanon

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.
Syria Today – Arab World Under Spotlight After Return of Assad; AANES Welcomes Refugees from Lebanon

Syrian President Bashar Assad made a significant return to the international stage by attending an Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia after more than a decade of expulsion. At the same time, the Kurdish-led AANES said it welcomed seven families of Syrian refugees who left Lebanon, where a campaign against refugees is ongoing. 

Regional and international media is still putting this move under analysis. In an article entitled, “Bloody red carpet: Assad Returns to International Stage with Arab League Welcome,” American conservative Fox News focused on Assad’s reintegration into the Arab League as part of a collective effort led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to bring Syria back into regional diplomacy. 

The Network quoted experts as saying that the Arab League’s decision to welcome Assad back into its fold represents a significant development in the ongoing dynamics of the Syrian conflict and regional diplomacy, the Network added. The differing positions within the U.S. government regarding Syria policy have contributed to a loss of leverage for the United States in influencing the outcome of the conflict.

Benefits above Values 

The decent Japanese media outlet Japan News accused the Arab government of putting their benefits above values. 

The Network reported that a strong feeling that something is amiss with this “rehabilitation” of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has violently repressed his people, is inescapable.

The crown prince stated at the conference that Saudi Arabia would “not allow our region to turn into a field of conflicts,” but it is the Assad regime that has created the quagmire of a conflict.

Behind this, the report added, is probably the significant decline in U.S. influence in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has long attached importance to security cooperation with the United States. But in recent years, becoming increasingly distrustful of the U.S. tilt toward the Indo-Pacific region and criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights situation, Riyadh has begun distancing itself from Washington.

There is no doubt that the power game involving China and Russia will further complicate the regional situation. There are concerns about a situation in which strong-arm politics will spread and the overall state of the Middle East will become more fluid, it added.

It concluded that the Middle East is an important region for Japan, which depends on it for 90% of crude oil imports. Should the region become destabilized, that would affect the lives of the Japanese people. The Japanese government needs to deepen dialogue with Saudi Arabia and other nations in the Middle East and encourage them to promote the easing of tensions in the region while keeping a close eye on the situation there.

Lack of US strategy leaves power vacuum

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post argues that the United States lacks a coherent strategy to manage its own remaining, quite large interests in the region. Even if the long-term American goal is simply to erase the region from the maps of US military and economic planners, departing in a haphazard and piecemeal way is a recipe for increasing chaos that will negatively impact American interests while damaging the region in ways with likely global effects, and not simply local.  

Beijing has capitalized on the power vacuum left by the United States, most recently by brokering an agreement in Beijing between Riyadh and Tehran. The enmity between those two capitals is based mostly on Iran’s perception of Saudi Arabia being an agent of the American order in the Middle East.

Absent that order, why should there be enmity? While the Iranians have reneged on agreements many times in the past, Chinese guarantees introduced a new level of confidence for the Saudis. At the same time, the Chinese clearly lack the American ability to back up their commitments with force. 

Saudi Arabia’s reestablishment of diplomatic ties with Syria does not mean the Kingdom condones the crimes committed in that country, any more than it is now aligning itself with either Teheran or with Beijing. Instead, Saudi Arabia realizes that absent a coherent US-backed security architecture in the region, senselessly making pariahs of regional actors – whoever they are – makes little strategic sense.  

US allies, according to the Israeli newspaper,  are not pivoting away from America. Instead, they are pursuing their own national interests. Nothing illustrates the new realities of the Middle East better than the Saudi Kingdom hosting both Vladimir Zelensky and Bashar al-Assad in the same room in Jeddah. Both the opportunities and the dangers of a region that is being left to manage its own problems and rivalries, without superpower guarantees and guidance, could not be more clear.

Strong signal to US

Reuters reiterated that Saudi Arabia is sending a strong message to its old ally, the United States. 

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) is asserting his influence and reminding the United States of his regional power by spearheading the readmission of Syria to the Arab League, Reuters reports. Despite U.S. disapproval, MbS warmly greeted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Arab summit, showcasing his growing role on the world stage. Shunned by Western states following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, MbS has now emerged as a figure that the U.S. cannot ignore, though they must engage with him transactionally. Frustrated with U.S. promises and scolding, MbS is forging ties with other global powers and reshaping relationships with shared adversaries.

MBS’ confidence was evident as he offered to mediate between Ukraine and Russia during the summit and demonstrated his ability to engage with other countries independently of the U.S. Although Saudi Arabia still depends on the U.S. for military support and weapons, MBS is pursuing his own regional policy with less deference to Washington’s views. This move is seen as a signal to the U.S. that Saudi Arabia is reshaping its relationships without relying heavily on their involvement.

MBS’ position, Reuters adds,  was strengthened when Western economies turned to Saudi Arabia for assistance in stabilizing the oil market during the Ukraine conflict. This opened the door for a diplomatic offensive and increased his influence. The U.S. declaring MbS immune from prosecution for Khashoggi’s killing further solidified his standing. Additionally, China’s mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran signalled Riyadh’s ability to work with U.S. rivals and foes to protect its regional interests.

Despite disagreements and requests that have gone unmet, both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. may find it necessary to put aside their differences. Riyadh still sees the U.S. security umbrella as crucial for its defence, while Western states recognize the importance of dealing with Saudi Arabia’s influence in a volatile oil market. Thus, they continue to engage with MbS, who has solidified his position as the de facto ruler and future king of Saudi Arabia, the news agency concludes. 

Israel says it retaliated against shots fired from Syria at military drone

Israel retaliated against shots from fired Syria at a surveillance drone, the Israeli military said in a statement on Wednesday.

“IDF Machine Gun fire was directed towards the originating area of the shots in Syria,” a statement from the military said. “The drone successfully completed its mission and no damage was caused.”

Israel has for years been carrying out attacks against what it has described as Iran-linked targets in Syria, where Tehran’s influence has grown since it began supporting President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war that started in 2011.

How Assad and Zelenskyy became an Arab League balancing act

Ismaeel Naar wrote a column for the Jerusalem Post in which he discussed the surprise visit of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as the guest of honour. The writers believe that this surprise diverted some attention from the return of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to the organization. 

For the columnist, the Saudi hosts aimed to balance the presence of Al Assad, who has been isolated for 12 years, with Zelenskyy, a wartime leader with support in the West. This move attracted the focus of European and American media outlets. The Saudi government’s intention was to demonstrate its ability to mediate conflicts beyond the region before addressing regional issues.

While the term “rehabilitation” has been used to describe the Arab-led efforts to reintegrate Al Assad into the Arab fold, Saudi officials and commentators preferred the term “recalibration” during the summit. They emphasized the need to recalibrate relationships rather than rehabilitate Assad’s image, as his actions before and after the summit did not show sufficient remorse or restitution. The motivation to include the Syrian regime in the Arab fold has been ongoing, with Jordan and the UAE taking steps toward rapprochement in recent years.

Saudi Arabia, as the host and current president of the Arab League, expressed its desire to prevent conflicts in the region and move forward from the turbulent years since 2011. Saudi and Emirati officials have shown a pragmatic approach to de-escalation, acknowledging that setting pre-conditions and asking for pledges from Assad has been ineffective. Al Assad’s speech at the summit focused on sentiment and his return to the Arab world rather than concrete policy changes.

The return of Syria to the Arab League is seen as a part of a larger journey, not the final result. The press conference at the end of the summit highlighted the challenges that still exist in mutual dialogue. Reporters from Syrian state television monopolized the questioning, prompting a response from the Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit, who disagreed with the claim that the League had lost influence. The conference was cut short due to interruptions and a lack of decorum, demonstrating the need for further cooperation and understanding among Arab nations.

Syrian refugees reach Syria’s Raqqa from Lebanon

An official of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) said on Wednesday that seven families of Syrian refugees in Lebanon had reached AANES-held areas and settled in a camp north of Raqqa Governorate, northern Syria.

In 2022, Lebanon announced a plan to return 15,000 Syrian refugees to Syria. They deported the first batch in the Autumn of that same year and included over 100 families through three border crossings with Syria in Homs and Damascus.

Late in April, the AANES expressed its readiness to receive Syrian refugees in Lebanon after Lebanese authorities increasingly deported refugees.

Sheikhmos Ahmad, the co-chair of the IDPs and Refugees Affairs Office affiliated with the AANES, said that seven families of Syrian refugees in Lebanon reached AANES-held areas and settled in al-Hakomiya makeshift camp in north Raqqa.

The official added that the Camps and Humanitarian Affairs Office, affiliated with Raqqa’s Civil Council, will provide the needed support for refugees according to available resources. In case their numbers increase, the AANES will have to establish a specific camp for refugees returning from Lebanon.

The families that returned are originally from Tel Abyad, which is under the control of Turkish forces and Turkish-backed armed opposition factions, also known as the Syrian National Army (SNA), he noted.

Earlier, the AANES called on the UN to provide assistance and guarantees and to assume its responsibilities in opening a humanitarian corridor between Lebanon and AANES-held areas to facilitate the safe return of refugees.

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