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US Must Decide If Assad Is A Friend Or A Foe – OpEd

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By Khaled Abou Zahr*

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has brought renewed questions about Washington’s disengagement from the Middle East. It has, more precisely, left many people wondering whether the same will happen in Iraq and subsequently in Syria. Beyond the consequences on US allies in these two countries, it is mainly the lack of a clear American strategy that has encouraged the questions about such withdrawal scenarios.

Both Iraq and Syria bear the dynamic of relations with Iran. And the main vector of America’s relations in the Middle East seems to be the outcome of the Iran nuclear deal talks. The Vienna negotiations are currently on pause as new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi settles into office. One might also say the delay is down to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps investigating the direct consequences of America’s Afghanistan withdrawal and how it will play out in the nuclear deal talks, geopolitical files included.

Many are now wondering if a US deal with Iran will be qualified by the US administration as “mission accomplished” and the last required stabilization effort in the region. Hence, it would allow its withdrawal from both Iraq and Syria. Any withdrawal from Syria might not be an issue and is certainly in no way comparable with Afghanistan. As everybody knows, the Assad regime will not fall.

However, as most are mentioning the lack of a clear US strategy in Syria, there is, in my view, clarity needed from the US not on the presence of its troops, which helped defeat Daesh more than people might know, but on its position toward the Assad regime. This is not new. Since the 1980s, America’s relations with Syria have gone from warm to cold and back again multiple times.

The Syrian regime has, first and foremost and despite its alliances with Iran, always been capable of trading on large geopolitical shifts for its own benefit. It did so to keep its presence in Lebanon accepted by the international community for so long. The regime has always known — whether during the early wars with Israel or up to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent Gulf War — where to stand and reap the benefits. Lebanon has paid a heavy price for these transactions. Henry Kissinger’s maxim that you cannot make peace in the Middle East without Syria may still hold true today.

There is another point where the Syrian regime might also make itself useful to the West: Collaboration and information exchange on an intelligence level against terrorist actions that might emanate from groups with a presence in the Levant. Even in times of political deadlock, the Syrian regime has been good at supporting these efforts and sharing information. So Damascus might say: “We might be your political enemy, but we are your friends, and you need us when it comes to dealing with terrorist threats.” And countering this potential threat might be even more important than being a friend to any Western country.

Today, the Syrian regime is holding on to power thanks to support from Iran and Russia. However, the dynamic between Syria and these two powers is not as clear as people might think. Even if there is alignment on a general level, there is also some friction and opposition. Indeed, these powers have their men inside the regime and there is competition to push through their own interests above those of the other.

This support has been key to the regime’s survival, especially since the start of the protests in 2011. Today, the regime has regained control of most of Syria’s territory, although parts of the north are still held by rebels. While negotiations are taking place with the rebels, it seems that they no longer present a threat to the survival of the regime. The key is that the north of the country is rich in energy and is an important logistics route, which the regime needs to bring back under its control. There will need to be an agreement between Russia, Iran and Turkey for this to happen. It is also in the Assad regime’s interests to find a modus operandi with Ankara that stabilizes the situation.

The fight against Daesh has forced the West to reluctantly support the regime to avoid seeing Syria collapse into the hands of this nonstate terrorist organization. I have always questioned to what extent the regime facilitated this.

Similarly, to what extent have the Syrian regime’s sovereign institutions infiltrated terrorist cells to collect information or influence their decision-making on attacks? When one knows that Al-Qaeda found refuge in Iran, it seems everything is possible.

The Damascus regime has been good at forcing the West to choose its enemy and digging out the worst possible alternative. Even the Israelis prefer this regime to any other alternative. In the end, it has been quite cooperative. This is the reality. The Assad regime has been able to play on the fears of the West and offer its services. The nuclear deal talks with Iran have given it even more freedom to act, as no one wants to antagonize or send an aggressive message to the Iranians that might derail the negotiations. Even when it comes to Lebanon, the Syrian regime is being pushed as a potential mitigator for Hezbollah’s influence. It is as if Lebanon is not entitled to its own sovereignty, and it must instead be passed from one ruthless regime to another.

The US and the West generally need to make a strategic decision that is more important than the continued presence of their troops in the north of Syria, especially as Turkey, a NATO ally, can keep the balance. Is the Syrian regime a friend or a foe? And if it is a foe, then do not collaborate with it, even on intelligence.

  • Khaled Abou Zahr is CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.

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Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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