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Economics Trump Politics in Syria’s Proxy War

Instead of driving a wedge between regional players, the Syrian conflict’s duration and intractability has forced proxy powers to prioritize cooperation over rivalry for their wider interests, according to Middle East analyst Sharif Nashashibi.

Written by Sharif Nashashibi Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
From left, Turkey's Minister of Foreign Affairs Feridun Sinirlioglu, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Saudi Arabia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Arabia Adel al-Jubeir and Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov meet in in Vienna. Carlo Allegri/AP

LONDON – Since its early days, the Syrian conflict has been synonymous with deep regional divisions, as various countries and parties have backed different warring sides or intervened directly. When Russia became militarily involved last year, there was speculation that these divisions would become further exacerbated. Some even predicted open conflict between Russia and the U.S. over Syrian skies.

However, as the war drags on and a negotiated political solution remains a pipe dream, entrenched positions among proxy powers have given way to realpolitik and economic considerations. Barring the continued animosity between regional powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Iran, this has resulted in varying degrees of rapprochement, if not over Syria then vis-à-vis wider bilateral relations.

Qatar “has never bound politics and the economy,” Rashid al-Suwaidi, second secretary of the Qatari embassy in Russia, said at a meeting of business leaders from both countries last month. “And if, say, there are some political problems, this should in no way affect the relations between our business communities.”

This sums up the general thinking at the moment between countries on opposing sides of the Syrian conflict: Money talks, and politics will not get in the way. This is not out of the ordinary – international relations are primarily dictated by economic considerations.

While this can be morally questionable – even reprehensible – when human rights are sidelined as a result, foreign policy is seldom, if ever, based on morality, regardless of how much we would like it to be. As such, it is somewhat unrealistic to expect the Syrian conflict, as tragic and far-reaching as it is, to trump all other aspects of bilateral relations and national interests, particularly given the war’s duration and increasing complexity.

Not that this provides any comfort to the people of Syria, or to those of neighboring states directly affected by the conflict. Relevant governments may tout their respective rapprochements as being in the interest of a negotiated solution for Syria. However, their decisions to reach out to each other are likely influenced by fatigue over the conflict, and a privately held belief that a settlement is nowhere in sight.

It is the Syrian regime’s opponents who arguably have more to fear from these multi-layered rapprochements. Dismay is being expressed over the surprise announcement on July 13 by Turkey’s prime minister, whose country has until now been among the staunchest supporters of the Syrian opposition, that Ankara wants to “normalize relations” with Damascus.

This comes in the context of Turkey’s wider fence-mending efforts, including with Russia and Iran, two of the regime’s staunchest allies. During Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Turkey in April, both sides talked up the mutual benefits of improved economic ties, particularly since the lifting of international sanctions on Iran following the nuclear deal.

Ankara’s recent normalization of ties with Moscow was spurred largely by the economic effect of the fallout that followed Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian warplane along its border with Syria last year. Turkey’s economy was hurt by Moscow’s barring of chartered flights to the country, and a partial ban on Turkish imports (the restrictions are due to be lifted shortly).

Turkey’s surprise overture to Damascus comes a fortnight after Ankara and Moscow said they would “coordinate” their policies over Syria. This is understandably leading to speculation of an imminent Turkish policy shift, and debate over its extent.

Iran is coming out of decades of sanctions and isolation following the nuclear deal. The impetus behind Tehran signing the agreement was the need to rehabilitate its shattered economy. Assad’s opponents fear that, with Western governments and companies lining up to do business with a hugely lucrative new market, Tehran will be better able economically and politically to boost its already-strong support for the Syrian regime.

This comes in tandem with a continued watering down of the U.S. position on Syria amid its ever-deepening cooperation with Russia over the conflict since Moscow’s direct military involvement last year (Secretary of State John Kerry headed to Moscow on Thursday to seek even deeper cooperation), as well as reports of Western security officials visiting Damascus.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov shake hands at a news conference following long talks in Moscow, Russia, Friday, July 15, 2016. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov shake hands at a news conference following long talks in Moscow, Russia, Friday, July 15, 2016. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

While Saudi Arabia and Qatar – the two Gulf states that are most supportive of the Syrian opposition – have not made any conciliatory gestures to Damascus, both have expressed their interests this year in closer ties with Russia.

All three countries have talked up the economic opportunities of such a move. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir said in January that his country had begun “reaching out and encouraging trade [and] investment, and we will continue to do that.”

That same month, Qatar’s emir met with Russian president Vladimir Putin on his first official visit to Russia in January, saying the two countries had common economic interests, particularly in the energy sector. “We see our investment cooperation as very important,” the emir said. “Many positive results have been achieved of late.”

The more bilateral ties between countries on opposing sides of the Syrian war return to business as usual, the more likely it is that prospects for peace will recede. That is because the conflict may be relegated to a containable nuisance that can be left to drag on without impacting wider relations the way it did until recently, and because Damascus may be emboldened to continue its diplomatic belligerence by a sense of weakening resolve among its foreign opponents. The price for such a scenario will be paid by the Syrian people.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

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