Cautious optimism on Syria

The Camp David summit, which brought together president Obama and his Arab allies in the Persian Gulf, ended with face-saving statements about mutual confidence, unequivocal iron-clad commitments and a strong determination to deter and confront any potential future aggression from Iran. Such words fell short of what the new Saudi King — noticeable for his absence from the summit — had expected. Actions always speak louder than words and the kind of action that Riyadh wanted was a new security architecture between Washington and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) in the form of a formal pact or defense agreement. Another interesting dimension of the summit communique was the more modest tone on Syria. Gone are the days when Washington would loudly state that quotAssad must go.quot Such futile pronouncements, devoid of credibility, have now been replaced by more nuanced statements affirming that quotAssad has no legitimacy and no role in Syria’s future.quot The irony is that despite inaction and passivity in Washington, there is noticeable movement on the ground in Syria, mainly thanks to a new working relationship between Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. These three countries are now the key backers of the rebels in northern Syria. Their commitment to put their differences aside since the beginning of the Syrian revolution is becoming more consequential than any new development in Washington where the priorities of the Obama administration are still the same: The war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and nuclear diplomacy with Tehran. It is no secret that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have had serious disagreements over who to support in the Syrian opposition in the last three years. Combined with Turkey’s own priorities in northern Syria, such quarrels between external patrons were debilitating for the Sunni Syrian opposition. Now that there is a new alliance between Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey the dynamics are rapidly changing with major gains on the battlefield. Saudi, Qatari and Turkish cooperation is widely reported as the main reason why a group of Syrian rebels have now access to new weapons across the Turkish border. A new Sunni group which has some links but also some differences with Jabhat Al Nusra (al-Nusra Front) has made significant gains over the past two months in Idlib province and other parts in northwestern Syria. The new Turkish-Saudi partnership on Syria has reportedly been brokered by the emir of Qatar, who has close ties with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His mediation between Ankara and Riyadh proved successful in creating a rapprochement. The decision by the new Saudi monarch, King Salman, to move his country toward closer cooperation with Qatar, after years of enmity during the reign of his predecessor, King Abdullah, proved a major turning point in forging this new trilateral alliance. The key question is whether all these new dynamics will amount to regime change in Damascus. There is no doubt that the Syrian army is still loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. But it is also clear that soldiers are exhausted after four years of fighting. They seem to be facing increasingly greater difficulties holding contested grounds. The ultimate game changer will prove to be Washington’s willingness to get involved. Whether the Obama administration will finally give a green light to a no-fly zone along the Turkey-Syria border depends on how nuclear talks with Iran will go in the next few weeks. Obama may have much more flexibility in Syria if Iranian nuclear talks fail to produce a concrete agreement. Such a scenario could pave the road to the establishment of a safe haven in northern Syria, backed by U.S. air power. If all goes well, Saudi, Turkish and Qatari support for Syrian rebels — and the new US-trained Syrian forces — could tip the balance against both Assad and ISIL. The Syrian civil war has taught us to be very careful about expectations but there seems to be room for some cautious optimism for the first time in a long while.

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman