Analysis: Returning to the status quo

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 4 Apr 2023

A supposed détente between Middle Eastern foes is taking shape, suggesting the region is going back to normal.

Returning to the status quo
Wang Yi (c), China s top foreign policy official, with Ali Shamkhani (r), the secretary of Iran s Security Council, and Musaad bin Mohamed Al-Aiban, Saudi Arabia s minister of state, in Beijing after signing the Saudi-Iran agreement last month


Saudi Arabia and Syria are near an agreement to restore diplomatic ties in the latest sign that the regime of Bashar Al-Assad could be re-integrated into the rest of the region.

Saudi Arabia has also agreed to resume diplomatic ties with Iran, ending a volatile rivalry between the two Muslim nations that has been one of the great Middle Eastern geopolitical fault lines for decades.

Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s top security official, held high-level talks in the UAE to advance bilateral relations days after the surprise reconciliation between Tehran and Riyadh.

Egypt and Syria have also agreed to strengthen cooperation during the first official visit by Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad to Cairo in more than a decade.

Talks between Egypt and Turkey on mending relationships that have been strained for much of a decade have also been making significant progress.

These landmark diplomatic developments seem to be ushering in rapprochements that many believe could have the potential to transform the Middle East and establish a new normal among its regional heavyweights.

But whether they can end complex and multifaceted regional conflicts, realign old foes, and replace current divides with a new Middle Eastern order remains to be seen.

Several Arab governments have reached out to Syria after a devastating earthquake in February helped to set the stage for a momentous diplomatic comeback 12 years after the Al-Assad regime was excluded from the Arab League over its failure to end the crackdown on protests in the country.

Damascus and Riyadh are reportedly now preparing to reopen their embassies after the Eid Al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan in the second half of April.

The decision to re-establish relations was the result of talks in Saudi Arabia with senior Syrian intelligence officials. The Saudi-Syrian reconciliation was reportedly mediated by Russia during negotiations in Moscow.   

Al-Assad visited the UAE on 19 March, his second trip to the oil-rich emirate that is emerging as a senior partner and one of the bigger and more influential regional powers.

The trip came after Abu Dhabi reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018, arguing that the Arab countries needed to bring the Al-Assad regime in from the cold, in order to resolve the Syrian conflict.

Oman rolled out the red carpet for Al-Assad when he made a state visit to the Gulf nation on 20 February, reinforcing his return to the Arab fold.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri and Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi flew to Damascus in late February in the first visits by high-ranking officials of the two countries to Syria since 2011.

Cairo and Amman said their ministers had flown to Damascus in order to extend a message of solidarity to the Syrian people after the devastating earthquake in February that killed or wounded thousands of people in northwestern Syria.

The Arab countries have been divided over the issue of the return of Syria to the Arab League following its suspension in 2011 after the brutal repression of peaceful protests in the country spiralled into a complex Civil War.

Syria’s readmission to the 22-member group will probably come when the Arab leaders meet at a summit scheduled to be held in the Saudi capital Riyadh on 19 May, cementing Al-Assad’s rehabilitation.

Meanwhile, Turkey is seeking to mend fences with Egypt and Syria following its rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf nations, and Israel, a departure from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policy of pursuing a regional leadership role.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu paid a short visit to Cairo on 18 March for talks with Shoukri in an attempt to fix Turkey’s relations with Egypt, strained because of disagreements over a host of regional issues and Ankara’s hosting of exiled Muslim Brotherhood activists.

Ankara hopes an Egyptian-Turkish summit meeting could take place in the next few weeks ahead of Turkey’s general and presidential elections in May, with the meeting being used by Erdogan to boost his dwindling popularity.

The Turkish and Egyptian leaders had the opportunity to shake hands at the opening of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in 2022, though this was not a chance encounter and appeared to be a carefully choreographed photo opportunity to help in the change of course.

News has also been circulating in recent weeks that Erdogan is seeking a rapprochement with Al-Assad as part of his bid to rest Turkey’s regional strategies and normalise its relationships with neighbouring countries.

However, with the region’s turbulent history and its bitter reality in mind, questions remain about whether all the Middle Eastern powers will be interested in restoring ties and at what price.

Resuming normal relations and engaging in dialogue and negotiation are the best solution to ending crises and making peace. But the Middle East’s conflicts are so entangled, protracted, and complex that it is unlikely that they can be solved through handshakes, diplomatic niceties, or even détente alone.

At the heart of the current challenges that face a genuine rapprochement taking place are long-standing conflicts and divergent interests and priorities among the regional powers.

In Syria, for example, the most-pressing issue is separating Syria from Iranian influence and pushing Al-Assad to engage in serious negotiations with the Syrian opposition in order to reach a political solution to the conflict in the country.

While disengagement with Iran remains unlikely, the resolution of Syria’s political conflict will need to see the lifting of Western sanctions on the regime in order to ensure the safe return of refugees and start Syria’s rebuilding.

As for Iran, growing engagement with the Islamic Republic may help to avoid further escalation, but it may not be the harbinger of ending the historic struggle for regional dominance.

In addition to mitigating the risk of a broader regional conflict, the Iranian-Saudi détente should help to make Iran change course in countries like Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.

Iran has been deeply involved in Iraqi politics since the fall of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. Tehran is the main regional backer of the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah, which has managed to subdue its opponents in Lebanon. Syria is of particular concern as Al-Assad remains reliant on Iran’s military support.

On the other side of the equation, ending the rupture between Iran and Saudi Arabia will require the two regional powerhouses to end their backing of rival sides in Yemen’s eight-year Civil War.

On Egypt and Turkey, changing the dynamics in their bilateral relations from Cairo’s point of view can only come after Ankara shows signs of respecting its interests in Libya and in the maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Russian-backed Turkey’s reconciliation process with Syria that started in December could be more complicated as the two sworn enemies remain embattled over Ankara’s support for Al-Assad’s opponents, the presence of Turkish troops in Syria, and the management of the Kurdish enclave in the north of the country.

These ongoing differences highlight the limits of the rapprochements between the Middle East’s arch-rivals and underscore the complexity of regional conflicts.

Properly understood, the current search for détente in the region reflects impatience and fatigue among the key Middle Eastern powers and their waning appetite for confrontation.

They can only hope that their adversaries are also now exhausted by the conflicts and also want things to go back to normal.

However, with no end in sight to the region’s multiple conflicts, a diplomatic trajectory might be the only answer for the Iranians, Saudis, Turks and others in their bid to leave conflict behind.

But normalising relationships between old rivals without addressing the core issues behind the regional tensions will risk their remaking the status quo ante, which was behind the sharp decline in the regional order.

This leaves the issue of power shifts in the Middle East and will test its stability as new alignments are being formed. It is not yet clear if the rise of new regional powers is a mere fleeting fashion or is part of an important trend.

As for the great-power competition in the Middle East, the emerging reconciliation deals, which are either brokered or backed by Beijing and Moscow, could mark the rise of China and Russia and leave the US on the sidelines.

The region would then certainly witness the revival of some of the worst aspects of traditional global geopolitics: great-power competition and a renewed cold war that could derail the return to the new normal.

A primary lesson from the history of the Middle East is one that experts and practitioners alike have long noted: that traditional rituals of dispute resolution do not always solve the region’s acute problems.

They only put them to sleep.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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