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Middle Eastern rivalries are alive and kicking despite de-escalation

James M. Dorsey

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Middle Eastern battlegrounds are alive and kicking even though rivals seek to balance contentious relations.

Take efforts by the United Arab Emirates, and more recently Saudi Arabia, to bring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in from the cold in a bid to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran and address numerous fallouts from the more than decade-long brutal war he waged to keep himself in power.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gestures during an exclusive interview with AFP in the capital Damascus. Photo: Joseph Eid—AFP/Getty Images

With sanctions and international isolation failing to topple Mr. Al-Assad or moderate his policies, the UAE and Saudi Arabia hope engagement will be more productive.

That hasn’t prevented the UAE from continuing to counter the influence of Turkey and Iran in Syria, two countries with which it has formally buried its hatchets.

In the latest round, Mazlum Abdi, the commander-in-chief of the US-backed, predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), also known as Mazloum Kobani, reportedly traveled last month to Abu Dhabi to seek UAE assistance in negotiating an agreement with the Assad government.

General Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Hassakeh, Syria. Photo: AP Photo/Baderkhan Ahmad

The SDF played a crucial role in helping the United States defeat the Islamic State in Syria.

Mr. Abdi was accompanied by Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Bafel Talabani. The PUK is one of two major rival factions in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Emirati officials confirmed Mr. Abdi’s visit but denied reports that he met UAE national security adviser Tahnoun bin Zayed al Nahyan.

The UAE is concerned that further engagement with the Kurds could strain relations with Mr. Al-Assad.

Mr. Abdi’s visit came days after a Turkish drone targeted him as he was travelled in northern Syria with three US military personnel in a PUK convoy.

Kurdish officials read the drone attack and an almost simultaneous Turkish ban on flights from Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, a PUK stronghold, as a warning against involving the UAE in Kurdish affairs.

Turkey said its airspace was closed due to increased activity in Sulaymaniyah of the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Turkey asserts that Mr. Abdi’s SDF is the Syrian wing of the PKK.

The PKK has been waging a decades-long intermittent guerrilla war for greater Kurdish rights in Turkey.

The attack on Mr. Abdi was part of a relentless Turkish drone campaign designed to weaken, if not destroy, the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria. It was also intended to facilitate the return of some four million Syrian refugees in Turkey, which hosts the world's largest Syrian refugee community.

Thousands of Turkish troops were dispatched to northern Syria to support the campaign.

The attack likely reinforced Mr. Abid’s fear that uncertainty about the US commitment to the Kurds, a potential rapprochement between Turkey and Syria that would involve a withdrawal of Turkish troops from northern Syria, and a restoration of Mr. Al-Assad’s control of Kurdish areas could put the Kurds at risk.

Even so, the Kurdish administration has been reaching out to the Assad government since 2019 when the Trump administration initially announced it was withdrawing US troops from Syria, essentially abandoning the SDF and the Kurds. Due to bipartisan pressure in Congress, Mr. Trump subsequently reversed his decision.

In response, in a deal brokered by Russia, the Kurds allowed Syrian troops to deploy along the border with Turkey to deter a Turkish military offensive.

Mr. Al-Assad has demanded a return to the situation prevalent in northern Syria before the civil war outbreak and the Turkish incursions as a condition for a rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus.

Mr. Abdi's concerns were likely heightened last week when the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq joined their Syrian counterpart to demand the restoration of the Assad government's sovereignty in all of Syria and an end to operations by armed groups, militant organizations, and all foreign forces in Syria.

Mr. Al-Assad sees as foreign interference the presence of some 900 military personnel in Syria, US support for the SDF, and the deployment of thousands of Turkish troops in the north.

A UAE-mediated agreement between the Kurds and Mr. Al-Assad would facilitate a Turkish withdrawal from Syria and Mr. Al-Assad’s rehabilitation.

Russia has facilitated talks between senior Turkish, Syrian, and Iranian officials to achieve that goal. However, the officials have disagreed on the terms of a meeting between Mr. Al-Assad and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the extended meeting with provincial heads of ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party in Ankara, Turkey. Photo: ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

Mr. Al-Assad has made a meeting conditional on Turkey’s willingness to withdraw its military from northern Syria and restore the situation that prevailed before the Syrian war.

For now, that seems unlikely.

On the campaign trail in advance of presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14, Mr. Erdogan used the Kurds as a foil to prepare the ground for a possible judicial coup should he fail to be reelected.

“My nation will never hand over this country to someone who becomes president with the support of Qandil,” Mr. Erdogan said in a reference to PKK bases in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains and Kurdish support for his opposition, which scores well in opinion polls.

Mr. Erdogan’s posturing, alongside the Russian and Emirati moves, suggests that improved relations between rival states have yet to do much, if anything, to resolve the region's powder kegs.

The same applies to Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt, which maneuver in conflict areas such as Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq.

Instead, conflicts and rivalries play out differently.

The jockeying also demonstrates the risks inherent in fighting proxy wars by supporting armed non-state or renegade state actors, like the various Kurdish groups, the Houthis in Yemen, and the Rapid Support Forces in Sudan (RSF).

The risks run from reducing conflict to a zero-sum game to proxies exercising their agency and weakening state institutions.

As evident with Turkey and the Kurds, recent de-escalation in the Middle East highlights those risks.

Mr. Al-Assad was likely strengthened in his resolve to get Turkish troops out of Syria and restore his control over the Kurds by last week’s visit to Damascus by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the first by an Iranian head of state since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Iran, like Russia, has supported Mr. Al-Assad throughout the war.

Presidential Ebrahim Raisi. Photo: Majid Asgaripour | WANA News Agency | Reuters

A Jordanian plan to “step by step” return Syria to the Arab fold notes that “current conditions” enable "Iran to continue imposing its economic and military influence on the Syrian regime and several vital parts of Syria by taking advantage of the people's suffering to recruit militias."

The paper warns that "Iran's proxies are becoming stronger in the main areas, including the southern region, and the drug trade generates significant income for these groups while posing an increasing threat to the region and beyond."

Mr. Raisi opted for Damascus rather than seeking to deepen Iran's China-mediated rapprochement with Saudi Arabia by honoring Saudi King Salman's invitation to visit the kingdom.

On the back of the Arab rapprochement, a victory for Iran and Russia, Mr. Al-Assad’s main backers, Mr. Raisi hoped to fortify Tehran's relations with Damascus by tightening economic cooperation. His foreign, defense, oil, transport, and telecommunications ministers accompanied him.

At the same time, hopes that Iranian-Saudi de-escalation would facilitate an end to Yemen’s war are diminishing. Talks between the kingdom and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who control the north and the capital Sana’a, are likely to produce a longer ceasefire at most.

The talks began long before China mediated an agreement in March to restore diplomatic relations between the kingdom and Iran.

Eight years after intervening in Yemen, Riyadh wants a face-saving exit from a war that has failed to oust the Houthis, weakened its negotiating position, and proven costly in economic and reputational terms.

The Houthis have made a timetable for the unconditional withdrawal of Saudi and Emirati foreign forces a condition for a more permanent ceasefire.

A withdrawal under those conditions offers little opportunity to save face.

Moreover, a ceasefire may not halt UAE support for the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) in south Yemen and proxy militias in Shabwa and Hadramawt. That support has increased since the Emirates said in 2019 that it was withdrawing its troops from the country.

Similarly, the civil war in Sudan underscores the risks of supporting non-state or dissident state actors.

This week, supporters of Army Gen. Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan, Sudan’s de facto ruler, demanded the expulsion of Emirati diplomats in retaliation for the UAE’s backing of Rapid Support Forces commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, a.k.a. Hemedti.

General Abdel Fattah Al Burhan after being sworn in as head of Sudan's newly formed sovereign council on August 21, 2019. Photo: EPA

The UAE has long worked with Mr. Hemedti and facilitated his lucrative gold exports through Dubai but was put in a difficult position by the eruption of hostilities in Khartoum that threatened Emirati strategic and maritime interests and could yet spark a broader conflict in the Horn of Africa.

The Kurds, Iran, and Sudan demonstrate that, in the end, the principle of “The king is dead, long live the king” applies to de-escalation in the Middle East.

De-escalation may dial tensions down a notch and help manage conflicts to ensure they do not spin out of control. It offers no resolution and allows open wounds like Kurdish aspirations to fester.

Responsible Statecraft published an earlier version of this story.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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