Iran Fears Set Back Russian Push to Bring Assad in From the Cold

(Bloomberg) -- Russia’s push to bring Bashar al-Assad back into the Arab fold and open the doors to reconstruction is facing opposition from some of Donald Trump’s Arab allies.

Bolstered by military assistance from Russia and Iran, Assad has regained control of most of the country after eight years of civil war. But a lack of unity among Arab governments, and concerns about spreading Iranian influence, have put the brakes on its efforts to win the peace.

Iran Fears Set Back Russian Push to Bring Assad in From the Cold

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov left empty-handed after a four-nation Gulf tour last week aimed at rallying support for reinstating Syria into the Arab League, with suspicions over Assad’s alliance with their arch-rival preventing a breakthrough.

“Inviting Syria back to the Arab League now is tantamount to giving Iran a seat at the Arab table," said one Arab diplomat who follows the debate closely. “Who’s going to accept this?"

Reconstruction Costs

Rebuilding Syria will cost at least $250 billion, according to the United Nations, and neither Russia nor Iran has the financial muscle or political will to do it. That makes support from nations like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait -- the countries on Lavrov’s itinerary -- critical for the reconstruction effort.

Iran Fears Set Back Russian Push to Bring Assad in From the Cold

Speaking beside Lavrov on March 6, Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Khalid welcomed what he called the “return of Syria to its Arab family." The U.A.E. has made the case that re-engagement would help counter Turkish and Iranian influence in Syria.

But the Saudis are wary and behind the scenes, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is working to prevent Assad from converting his battlefield gains into diplomatic recognition, according to people familiar with the matter.

When the U.A.E. decided to reopen its embassy in Damascus, the U.S. urged it not to send an ambassador, so the U.A.E. appointed a lower-level charge d’affaires instead, according to a person with knowledge of the issue. Syria has earned its isolation, which is unlikely to end soon, a U.S. official said.

Iranian Forces

The U.S. and EU have tied reconstruction funds to a United Nations-led peace process and are rejecting direct engagement with Assad, whose regime killed hundreds of thousands of its own citizens during the war. More than half of his nation’s people fled, taking refuge mostly in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

During the war, Iran provided forces on the ground, its own military as well as fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian groups to help Assad fend off an anti-authoritarian uprising born in the heat of the Arab Spring in 2011. But it was Russia’s air campaign, beginning in 2015, that turned the tide of the war.

In Tehran, the prospect of Syria’s return to the Arab League is seen as a way to push back against Saudi influence. Despite U.S. sanctions that have crippled its economy, Iran’s sway in the region has expanded in critical countries including Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, making it a counterweight and threat to regimes friendly with the U.S.

Foreign Ministers

“Iran needs allies inside the Arab League, voting members who can stop the pressure from the Saudi-U.A.E.-Israel front,” said Foad Izadi, a foreign policy specialist at the University of Tehran. “The more Syria finds its Arab identity and keeps its good relations with Iran, the better it’s going to be for Iran."

As Russia makes its case for rehabilitation, it’s been trying to cautiously distance itself from Iran. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov denied Russia was Iran’s ally on the ground in Syria in a recent CNN interview.

“It’s in the interests of Russia and in the interests of Gulf states themselves to have Syria rejoining the Arab League” said Alexey Potemkin, head of the Moscow Policy Group, which provides consultancy services on the Gulf. “This would help the Gulf countries distance Syria from Iranian influence."

So far, that argument doesn’t seem to have hit the mark.

Despite weeks of speculation that Syria’s readmission would top the agenda at an Arab summit in Tunis this month, foreign ministers meeting in Cairo Thursday didn’t broach the issue at all, meaning it’s unlikely to even be tabled for discussion. The group’s secretary general, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said Syria’s reinstatement is not on the agenda.

“We want Syria to be part of the Arab region but unfortunately we see that Syria is far from that,” U.A.E. Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan said on Wednesday at a press conference with Lavrov. “We are still at the very start.”

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