As we saw last week the upcoming elections in Iraq has huge significance. Not only for Iraq itself, but for the whole Middle East. The main diplomatic breakthrough of Iraqi Prime Minister Muṣṭafā al-Kāẓimī’s effort came on the Baghdad Summit, and the machine that rearranges the realities of the last decade is already in motion.
One of the main decisions gained – at least silent – support was that Syria gets reintegrated to the Arab fold and can finally break out of the confinement Washington, Ankara, Tel Aviv and their Gulf allies closed it in the begging of the so called “Arab Spring”. Such statements came up sporadically in the last few years from various Arab governments. This time, however, there are very tangible indications that this is not a slogan anymore.
There were indications since the Trump left office that a number of Arab states, many of them being strong allies of Washington put solid pressure on the Americans to end the war on Syria. They have accepted the reality that the Syrian state survived the pressure and with its allies will soon regain much of its lost influence. Pressuring Washington to end the war means that they have realized this and are moving to be part of this rearrangement, rather then standing by idly.
Such a reconfiguration needs three things above all else. Diplomatic reconciliation, the end of the economic blockade and the end of the military occupation both in Iraq and the Syrian north, east and south.
Looking at the current dire economic realities of Syria all this might seem very far, and understandably many in Syria even believe this trajectory unlikely. At least not coming soon. However, there are indications that big things are in motion. The reopening embassies in Damascus even by EU s member states is a good indicator of the changing diplomatic perceptions. The coming American withdrawal from Iraq, discussions of a possible withdrawal from Syria and the recent events in Southern Syria show that the military conditions are also changing. But now the breakthrough is coming on the economic front, which is undoubtedly the most important.
The puzzle around Lebanon
We covered it many times before that Lebanon is in dire situation. Since former Prime Minister Sa‘ad al-Ḥarīrī resigned in October 2019 the county had no stabile government, only one temporary led by Ḥassān Diāb. But that reigned as well in August 2020. Since then Lebanon was drifting in a growing economic crisis, which was only made worse by the Covid pandemic.
There was a complete deadlock between the political factions one part focusing on al-Ḥarīrī’s reinstalling and the marginalizing of Ḥizb Allah, while the other camp countering these steps. The quagmire was deepened by the regional dispute, as all local powers had interest in backing one faction or another. And in the meantime the economy kept deteriorating, which also deepened Syria’s crisis, as Lebanon is still Syria’s main gate to the world.
One possible solution could have been the Western support promised after the explosion of the Beirut port, but not much was achieved beyond the vague promises. This would also required increased support from the Gulf, or Turkey, but there was not serious indication for that either. The other way could have been boosting the Iranian economic support, which Teheran was offering. That, however, was met with fierce resistance both internally and by Washington, as such a path would have benefitted Ḥizb Allah.
This growing problem, which only increased the Syrian economic crisis, however, gave an excellent opportunity for major regional reconfiguration.
Right after the Baghdad Summit, where such groundworks surely took place, on 8 September a quadrilateral meeting took place between the energy ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The goal was a regional project to help Lebanon in its power and economic crisis enabling it to recuperate. According to the agreement a gas pipeline will be created from Egypt to Jordan, through which 600 cubic meter Egyptian gas will be sold delivered to Jordan, where it will produce 450 MW electricity to be delivered to Lebanon. There were also agreements of expanding the gas pipeline from Jordan to Lebanon via Syria as well, eventually allowing Egyptian gas to delivered. The power grid between Jordan and Syria, and between Syria and Lebanon is also connected, therefore the delivery of electricity from Jordan to Lebanon is easy, only needs Syrian cooperation. This means that Jordan and Egypt will help Lebanon through its economic crisis, which has lingered on long enough without solution. And hardly any party can have objection to this plan, as Lebanon – unlike Syria – is not under international sanctions.
This solution is very promising, but takes some time to facilitate. Time, which Lebanon currently simply does not have. So as an immediate solution on 17 August Ḥizb Allah Secretary-General announced that oil shipments will arrive soon to Syria from Iran, the Ḥizb Allah will regard these as Lebanese property from the second the ships reached international waters, and opposing them by any sides – mostly meant by America, or Israel – will be equal to a war declaration. Surprisingly the following day the American ambassador in Beirut acknowledged this, and marked the the US will “allow” these shipment to Lebanon via Syria. She even said that Washington will ask the World Bank to allocate funds for the gas pipeline project from Jordan. Also interesting that Washington practically had no comment on the matter. The first shipment after some delay crossed into Lebanon from Syria on 16 September, days after the oil was unloaded from the Iranian ship in the Syrian port of Banyās. The arrival of the oil tankers transformed into a series of festivities greatly improve in the standing of Ḥizb Allah, even though the party forbade these gatherings for security reasons.
Iraq on its own was acting as well. Also on 16 September the first Iraqi oil shipments arrived from Syria to Lebanon. The Iraqi and the Lebanese governments also agreed in late July that Baghdad would grant 1 million tons of oil to Lebanon, which would be used to produce electricity. The first of these shipments entered Syria from Iraq on 5 September, which makes the timing of their arrival to Lebanon somewhat curious.
Why is all that so important for Syria’s rehabilitation? Several details in this rapid rescue operation indicate that the matter is way beyond Lebanon’s economic and energy crisis. Many of these plans are beyond the immediate needs of Lebanon and shows a long term project. Also, rather curiously, all involve Syrian participation. While it is logical that Iraqi oil shipments be sent through Syria, and the same is true to the Jordanian electricity Iran and Egypt could deliver shipments directly to Lebanon by sea. So why is it important that all goes through Syria? There are two reasons.
Firstly, Syria also suffers from an electricity and energy shortage. That is largely due to the American presence in Eastern Syria, which aims to strangle the Syrian economy and force Damascus into concessions. Now the electricity from Jordan, which has sufficient amount of power plans, but lack the sufficient amount of gas to produce such surplus has to go through the Syrian grid. Which inevitably improve the Syrian electricity supply as well. Jordan by Egyptian gas will deliver power, but “some” will “stay” in Syria as well. In such constellation the American economic war will largely prove ineffective.
Secondly the most suffocating legacy of the Trump administration is the so called Caesar Act, which renders all financial transactions with the Syrian state illegal and punishable by sanctions. This paralyzed much of Syria’s trade. However, now, officially at least helping Lebanon, all these transactions can hardly go by without large scale payments with Syria. And that is exactly the point here. Lebanon could be helped in other ways, but the main achievement of this rescue project is to hit a hole in the wall of the American sanctions. Thus rendering it useless, and paving the way for their removal, or large scale circumvention. All these states participate in breaking the sanctions around Syria, and Washington can hardly fight all of them at the same time.
The new Lebanese government
The whole rescue operation for Lebanon, which is largely not even about Lebanon itself has already shifted the balance in the Lebanese politics. After an almost two years long political deadlock and with no effective government for almost a year and a half major changes were forming in August 2021. In mid-August Ḥizb Allah has already talked about the Iranian shipments as a fact. As we saw by this time there were already negotiations between Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq to deliver energy resources.
The artificially exacerbated crisis was losing purpose by this time, and after the Baghdad Summit and the agreements in Amman the results started to show. Though agreement was reached already in July, on 10 September Lebanese billionaire Nağīb Mīqātī managed to form a new government. He was already PM two times before in 2005, and between 2011 and 2014, but this time the constellation is different. He is an ideal conciliatory middlemen with excellent Western and Gulf connections, who is an acceptable man for Ḥizb Allah as well.
Though effective political power is still largely held by President ‘Awn, with solving the energy crisis, improving relations in the region and with Syria, and suddenly forming a government the standing of Ḥizb Allah suddenly greatly increased. So much so that on 17 September in an interview with CNN Mīqātī had a rather conciliatory approach on the Shii party.
Iraq still on the move
As we saw last week the diplomatic efforts of the Iraqi government proved to be a groundbreaking success and largely facilitated the regional reconfiguration ending Syria’s isolation. In this regard the Baghdad Summit and the quadrilateral meeting in Amman was just the beginning.
On 12 September Iraqi Prime Minister al-Kāẓimī traveled to Tehran being the first foreign leader to visit new Iranian President Ra’īsī. The agenda focused on two key matters. The energy cooperation in the region, surely meaning the operations supplying Lebanon via Syria, and the Iraqi mediation in the Saudi-Iranian negotiations. Which hardly separable from the rearranging economic cooperation. This is, however, probably the last major foreign meeting of the current Iraqi government before the elections in early October. So the talks surely dealt with the possible results and the prospects of Iranian backing for the new Iraqi government rumored to be led by al-Kāẓimī, and the prospects of an American withdrawal.
While the Iraqi Prime Minister was in Tehran, on 16 September his Foreign Minister Fu’ād Ḥussayn traveled to Saudi Arabia to participate in the GCC foreign ministers’ meeting. Though Iraq is not a GCC member its participation was very important now to help the negotiations with Iran.
This extensive diplomatic activity shows that despite the problematic situation Iraq was in even a year ago and the upcoming elections Baghdad is a diplomatic hub now. A major deal broker between Iran and many Arab states in the region. And that role will likely increase after the elections and the American pullout. So it is not irrelevant, how much Iraq is now pushing for the reintegration of Syria to the Arab fold.
The worries of Tel Aviv
The new coalition government in Tel Aviv is naturally busy to dismantle the personals of the former government, the legacy of the long Netanyahu era. That, however, did not make them blind to the rapidly changing realities around themselves. Indications suggest that most international steps of this new government are all connected to this matter in one way or another.
It is only natural that the first foreign journey of new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett led him to Washington, as he arrived there on 24 August. It is only natural, since he needs to build up his own personal ties to this key ally, the main guarantor of Tel Aviv’s regional influence. However, much of the key subjects of the meeting talks volumes of the nature of this trip. Bennett’s main concern was to stop “Iran’s regional influence” and to prevent Iran “obtaining nuclear weapons”. This is of course not a new theme, and Tel Aviv knows well that this is a very distant possibility Washington will prevent on its own. The main concern for Tel Aviv is of course not this, but the possibility of Iran’s re-emerging regional influence once the nuclear deal returns active and Washington withdraws from Iraq and Syria. It was very clear, as Bennett also asked the Biden not to withdraw from Iraq and especially not from Syria, as it is the main reassurance that these states will not be the bulwarks of Iranian influence against it.
It is less known how much reassurances Bennett got in Washington beyond the formalities, but it was probably not much. On 9 September new Foreign Minister Yair Lapid went to Moscow and held extensive talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, but he was not granted an audience with President Putin. Yet in a very vitriolic press conference after the meeting Lapid stated: “Israel will not sit by quietly while Iran builds terror bases on our northern border [with Syria], or while Iran supplies advanced weapons to terror organizations – weapons intended to be used against us”. Meaning Tel Aviv will continue its airstrikes and covert operations against the Syrian state, to keep it pinned down. Somewhat surprising that Lavrov expressed very little concern about these words, even thought the matter of almost constant air strikes against Syrian military and civilian installations is a source of discontent between Damascus and Moscow. The answer to this matter is that Russia has little concern about these strikes as long as they are targeting Iranian projects, and Moscow will not take a efforts for the sake of a competitor in Syria. And these Israeli strike in the last two-three years meant little complication for the growing Russian economic influence in Syria. Yet it is clear that without major American reassurances Tel Aviv aimed for Russian guarantee that Iran will not be a major player in Syria and the Axis of Resistance will not formalize as a strong economic block.
Beyond the attempts with the great powers, however, which yielded little success apart from some heated statements, Tel Aviv mobilized its Arab connections as well.
Already on 11 August Yair Lapid went to Morocco, which aimed to signal that Tel Aviv despite of Netanyahu’s fall continues with the normalization process. Consequently most Arab states should not trust the Gulf Arab states and that new winds are coming after Trump. But as for Morocco, the trip only served bilateral matters the case of Western Sahara.
More important that on 4 September Israeli President Isaac Herzog made a secret visit to Amman. This happened only 4 days before the official agreement quadrilateral meeting in Amman about the supplying Lebanon with gas, fuel and and electricity via Syria, which is hardly a coincidence. According to the semi official communique by Tel Aviv the aim of Herzog’s visit was to address “matters of strategic depth either on bilateral, or regional level”. Logically, this means that Tel Aviv wanted to inquire on this new economic cooperation project, gain reassures that it does not serve a pro-Iranian agenda, it has limitation concerning Syria, but it most probably had a lightly covert threat that Tel Aviv will not allow major rearrangement. If such an attempt was made that would have consequences on Jordan as well.
On 13 September Bennett himself rushed to Šarm aš-Šayh, the center of regional discussions for the Egyptian diplomacy and met with President as-Sīsī. The official statements focused on the renewed efforts for the peace process and the rehabilitation of Palestine, and there were very few words on any other matters, apart from bilateral trade and cooperation. Considering Bennett represents the most extreme political camp about the Palestinian matter allowing no concessions it is clear that this was only the formal theme. Discussions in reality focused on Egypt’s problems with Ethiopia and Turkey, in which Tel Aviv can be a very effective ally being involved in Ethiopia, but on the other hand Bennett wanted to discuss the prospects of the Egyptian activity in relations with Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon.
We should not forget that while most of these trips, either the official or the “secret” ones came before similar meetings with otherwise important EU, or Asian partners and involved all major figures of the state. What we see is that Tel Aviv tries hard to prevent the unfolding re-emerge of Syria, the new economic cooperation with it, and also probes this project at all levels. Meaning Tel Aviv is concerned.
Have these steps reached their goal?
Seeing such far reaching diplomatic activity by Tel Aviv, and not even mentioning the military and intelligence operations, the question is logical. Do these steps work? Do they have the effect the new Israeli leadership desires?
If Yair Lapid was hopeful about his discussions with Lavrov and that he was not responded after his vitriolic statements about Syria, his content did not last for long. On 14 September, only days after Lapid’s visit, Syrian President Baššār al-Asad met with President Putin in Moscow. Not much was aired beyond the formalities and it was not explained why this rapid meeting was so important, but it easy to deduct that it came in response to Lapid’s visit. It held a message to Tel Aviv that Moscow will stay a strong supporter of Damascus and will support the economic reconfiguration in the region – as long as it does not jeopardize Russian interests -, but likely an agreement was reached that military action in Northern Syria is about to start. And since then Russian and Syrian airstrikes against Turkish backed militant groups intensified, which are in great disarray.
There has been many military and intelligence operations, which all show that the Israeli leadership is not about to sit idly putting all its faith in diplomatic action. The fuel shipment to Lebanon and the works on the gas pipeline in Jordan have just started and suddenly a major gas pipeline was blown up in Syria knocking out much of the Syria electric grid for a day. Dā‘iš took responsibility for this attack, which is somewhat puzzling, since such actions were much more characteristic of the so called “Syrian opposition” then this terrorist organization, which previously was not really interested in such economic sabotage operations. The attack also has little benefit for the organization, but comes very useful for Tel Aviv now, when Syria is about to settle its electricity problems and become a supplier once again for Lebanon. Such a cooperation between Tel Aviv and Dā‘iš, or other al-Qā’ida affiliated terrorist organizations might seem far fetched, but we should not forget the statements of former Mossad director Efraim Halevy stating that “Israel is on a different account with al-Qā ‘ida…”.
Also recently the same mysterious attacks in Iraq against the al-Ḥašd aš-Ša‘abī (Popular Mobilization) repeated themselves. Few years ago many of the Iraqi forces blamed Israel for the drone attacks. This time as well many Iraqi pointed the finger on Tel Aviv, especially that Washington was fast to reject any responsibility, unlike with previous similar attacks.
In fact Israel has reasons to worry from the recent developments in Syria, not only because of the prospects of Iraqi-Jordanian-Egyptian-Syrian cooperation. The developments in Syria’s Darā‘ also caused worries. This region was the heartland of militant actions and foreign meddling in 2011, when the war against Syria started. This city and its surrounding were labeled the “cradle of revolution”, and witnessed heavy clashes for years. When the tie was changing and the Syrian state with Russian support managed to regain much of the lost territories a fragile peace was brokered in 2018 restating Damascus’ control. However, due to the nature of the settlement many of the former fighting groups were only nominally incorporated into the Syrian Army and held on to their weapons. Their arsenal in recent months has been boosted significantly. Largely due to UK special force operations the training of the same militant factions went on and there were sporadic terrorist actions. Mostly against the Syrian state and army, but also against civilians. This situation was spiraling out of control and the war broke out once again in July 2021. Yet the Syrian state did not want to allow any major confrontation and did its best to prevent casualties, therefore did not intervene fast. It rather surrounded Darā‘ al-Balad, the district which once again flared up, and pressured the militant inside to give up. Eventually the “uprising”, which interestingly this time bought little international interest, clearly proved to be futile and in 31 August a ceasefire was brokered with Russian mediation. Jordanian King ‘Abd Allah met with the Russian leadership in Moscow to hammer out a deal, and the final settlement was announced in Moscow by Lavrov on the same press conference Lapid had his vitriolic statements. By the settlement Lavrov announced all effective control – unlike in the 2018 settlement – is returned to the Syria state in Darā‘ province, so there will be no Russian involvement anymore. The Jordanian connection is important as well, since most Western support is coming through Jordan.
What happened was a last effort to light up the Syrian south once again postponing action in Eastern Syria and Idlib. The operation failed and the Syrian state will reassert it full control, which will improve its air defense capabilities and close the effective border with the Israeli held territories. Meaning a major security buffer zone desired by Tel Aviv has just fallen, instead of retaining its significance.
The results clearly shows, as on Sunday 19 September 2021 Syrian Defense Minister and Chief of Staff ‘Alī Ayyūb was invited to Amman to hold extensive talks about the new developments. Considering that this is the first meeting of such kind since 2011 and happened on Jordanian request shows how much Syria is recuperating.
Despite these military gains for Damascus with the prospect of a major operation in Idlib and a possible American withdrawal, at least from Iraq, the main question still is, whether this economic recuperation will prove sustainable or not. Damascus might have little trust on the long run in Egypt, Jordan or the Gulf, but much more for Iraq and Iran. And their capabilities keeping in mind that all oil sent to Lebanon now testing this cooperation so far came from Iraq and Iran is sufficient to help rebuilding of much of Syria’s economy. So are they strong enough to facilitate this project? As we saw recently Iraq is has managed to gain impressive support and has become a power deal broker once again.
As for Iran, this year Tehran signed a strategic partnership with China, which will soon boost the Iranian economy regardless the results of the nuclear deal negotiations with Washington. More importantly, on 17 September Iran became full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the largest economic-security block in Asia including Russia and China. This is not as much of a diplomatic rather an economic success, which will greatly improve Iranian economic capabilities within 2-5 years. With a land bridge via Iraq secured it will have very significant results in Syria and Lebanon as well, and what we see now in regard to the new Lebanese government is just the beginning of this reconfiguration.
In short, the scene is changing around and within Syria. These are very hard times within the country both economically and in living conditions and that is hard to dispute. But all indications as we saw suggest that these are the darkest hours of the night before the dawn comes.