Several Arab capitals have relayed messages to Syrian ruler Bashar Al-Assad in the last week, demanding he engage more constructively with the UN-sponsored political settlement mechanism, in the hope that doing so will help push attempts to re-integrate Syria in the Arab League.
According to an informed Egyptian official, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq are among the countries that have been seeking, “in cooperation with some other Arab states”, to secure Syria’s return to the Arab League.
The aim of the attempts, the source says, is to allow Arab countries more direct involvement in managing the Syrian crisis.
Earlier this week an Arab League (AL) ministerial meeting condemned Turkey’s military incursion and called for an immediate halt. The meeting also demanded an end of Syria’s isolation.
In 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, Arab countries expelled Syria from the AL in protest at atrocities committed by Al-Assad’s regime against protesters demanding democracy.
But, as the Egyptian official stressed, “so much has happened since then.
“Democracy protests in Syria long ago turned into a devastating civil war, bringing an acute humanitarian crisis and opening the doors to foreign intervention in Syria. And now we have a Turkish invasion that is making an already difficult situation more complicated, not just for Syria but for the entire region.”
On 9 October, with a seeming nod of approval from US President Donald Trump and less obvious nods from Russia and Iran, both of which maintain a military presence in Syria in support of Al-Assad, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered troops into northern Syria on the pretext of establishing a safe zone to allow for the return of the three million Syrian refugees Turkey has been hosting for over six years.
Dubbed Peace Spring, Turkey’s military incursion seeks to occupy a 35km deep corridor along the border, an area that for the last five years has been under the control of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish militia that has been supported and funded by the US.
The SDF had long worked alongside US troops to defeat Islamic State (IS) fighters who had taken advantage of the confusion caused by the civil war to infiltrate Syria. Last week SDF vented its fury over Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria, calling it a betrayal.
As it battled the Turkish invasion, which is being supported by some Syrian rebel groups loyal to Ankara, the SDF has attempted to consolidate its ranks and, at Moscow’s behest, has received support from Al-Assad’s army.
As the Turkish operation into northern Syria enters its second week, fighting is ongoing and there is no clear end in sight. Erdogan, meanwhile, has simply shrugged off international condemnation of the invasion.
“Erdogan knows that the US and Russia blocked the UN position from demanding an immediate end to the operation. I doubt he’s going to stop before securing his 35km corridor,” says a Cairo-based European diplomat.
He added that as a NATO member, Erdogan is calculating that Turkey will not have to worry about the suspension of arms sales, or economic sanctions, for long.
The invasion has already forced over 160,000 civilians to flee. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said this week de-escalation of the military operation is urgently needed to prevent any worsening of the humanitarian crisis.
“Erdogan sees the incursion as consolidating Turkey’s regional presence. It is already in Iraq and Libya, and now it is in Syria. Like Iran, Turkey is a non-Arab country that now has direct influence in Arab states,” says the European diplomat.
“Even more important for him is that the operation is a major blow to Kurds in both Turkey and in Syria.
“Syrian Kurds were hoping to gain a similar degree of self-rule as that secured by Iraqi Kurds following the fall of Saddam Hussein,” says Cherine Chams, an assistant professor of political science at Cairo University. “This is now off the table, at least for the foreseeable future.”
Chams argues that Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria will make things more difficult for Iraqi Kurds since IS fighters from northern Syria are likely to flee into northern Iraq.
The SDF had been successful in rounding up the vast majority of IS members in northern Syria. In recent days, though, there have been reports of terrorists escaping from prisons in the north of Syria.
The EU has warned the freeing of IS operatives — it is unclear whether they were released or escaped — could lead to an upsurge in IS activity.
This is not just an EU concern, says an Arab diplomat, but also worries Arab countries, especially Syria’s neighbours. Jordan has long feared a possible IS threat, while Egypt is engaged in battle with militant Islamists.
Chams says the risk of an IS upsurge should not be underestimated given that the group was never eliminated completely. The return of IS would have grave consequences, she warns. In Iraq the army “is in no shape to face up to a new IS threat”, meaning the Iraqi government would have to again turn to the Popular Mobilisation Forces (Hashid), just as it was planning to limit the power of the armed group.
As immediate neighbours of Syria, Jordan and Lebanon will have to steel themselves against any possible border infiltration by IS, and also face the prospect of an influx of refugees should fighting involving IS break out.
“Both Jordan and Lebanon have reached maximum capacity in terms of accommodating refugees. They cannot take in more,” says Chams.
Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria threatens to destabilise the entire Levant, argues Chams. It compounds Syria’s troubles by bringing another foreign force to its territory; it complicates the situation of neighbouring states that are already facing “domestic economic and political pressures” and exposes the Arabs’ failure to halt foreign intervention in their countries.
Cairo-based Arab and European diplomats also warn the invasion will inevitably slow down diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions between Iran and the US, and will further erode the already limited attention given to the Palestinian issue.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.