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Middle Eastern Rivalries Are Alive and Kicking Despite Recent Deescalation

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avatar by James M. Dorsey


Supporters of Yemen’s Houthis hold up their rifles as they rally to celebrate the seventh anniversary of the ousting of the government in Sanaa, Yemen September 21, 2021. Photo: REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Middle Eastern battlegrounds are alive and kicking, even though rivals want to soothe 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 that al-Assad waged to keep himself in power.

Sanctioned by the United States and Europe, al-Assad was also a pariah in the Arab world after the 22-member Arab League suspended Syrian membership in response to his conduct in the war. Last week, a meeting of the League’s foreign ministers decided to readmit Syria.

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

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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.

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

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 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 al-Assad.

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

The attack on 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 Abid’s fear that uncertainty about the US commitment to the Kurds, a potential rapprochement between Turkey and Syria, and a restoration of 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.

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.

A UAE-mediated agreement between the Kurds and Assad would facilitate a Turkish withdrawal from Syria and 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 Assad and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On the campaign trail in advance of presidential and parliamentary elections, 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,” Erdogan said in a reference to PKK bases in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains and Kurdish support for his opposition.

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.

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.”

At the same time, hopes that the 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 UAE said in 2019 that it was withdrawing its troops from the country.

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

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.  Responsible Statecraft published a different version of this story.

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