President Bashar Assad Image Credit: AFP

After more than a decade of regional political isolation, the Syrian regime is slowly being rehabilitated thanks to a surprise US initiative that involves Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

Last August the US ambassador to Lebanon proposed to President Michel Aoun that Beirut could import natural gas from Egypt and electricity from Jordan through Syria to help deal with its endemic energy crisis.

The proposal prompted a high-level official Lebanese delegation to visit Damascus earlier in September for the first time since 2011 to receive Syria’s approval which they got immediately.

A week later Amman hosted a four-way meeting by the energy ministers of Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan to discuss technical issues related to reviving the Arab pipeline project, which stopped in 2009, and other logistical matters related to supplying Lebanon with Egyptian natural gas through Jordan and Syria. The attendance of the Syrian energy minister represented a diplomatic breakthrough for Damascus.

Intensifying coordination

And on 20 September Syria’s top military chief made a rare visit to Amman — the first public visit since the eruption of the Syrian civil war — and met his Jordanian counterpart. The talks covered border security, fighting terrorism and smuggling and intensifying coordination.

The meeting took place weeks after the Syrian army, with Russian help, recaptured the old city of Deraa close to the Jordanian border. Amman hopes to reopen the border crossing as a result and resume bilateral trade with its northern neighbour.

And last week, on the sides of the UN General Assembly meetings in New York, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi and his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shukri met separately with Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Miqdad.

Cairo said the meeting covered ways to end the Syrian crisis while Amman said the meeting dealt with increasing cooperation, supplying Lebanon with energy and border security as well ways to end the Syrian crisis.

Steps towards normalising ties

These meetings, which are likely to occur again, represent major steps towards normalising ties with Damascus a decade after Syria’s membership at the Arab League was suspended. Until a few years ago most Arab countries objected to Syria’s return to the Arab body.

But now King Abdullah and President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi are leading efforts to rehabilitate the Syrian regime. Countries like Oman, Algeria, Jordan and Egypt have kept their embassies open throughout the Syrian crisis.

King Abdullah is behind the recent drive towards resuming ties with Damascus. He is said to have discussed this with the Biden administration during his visit to Washington last July when he called for changing the behaviour of the Syrian regime rather than regime change adding that President Bashar Assad has legitimacy.

He also fielded the idea to help Lebanon deal with its fuel crisis by supplying it with Egyptian natural gas and Jordanian electricity through Syria.

The king discussed the Syrian crisis with President Vladimir Putin during his short visit to Moscow last August. Jordan wanted assurances from Putin that Russia will keep pro-Iranian militias in southern Syria far from the Jordanian borders.

While contacts with Damascus appear functional rather than political — for now — the endgame will have to cover ways to revive the stalled political process to end the Syrian crisis.

Jordan and Egypt believe that resuming ties with Damascus will put pressure on Assad to distance himself from toxic Iran. Limiting or even ending the Iranian presence in Syria is a common goal for the US, Russia and Syria’s neighbours, including Israel.

Political breakthrough

The same can be said of Lebanon where a political breakthrough was finally reached last week when a new Lebanese government was approved — a year after the horrific Beirut explosion which deepened the political quandary and almost brought the country to its heels. The formation of the Miqati government should trigger international aid and offset Hezbollah’s attempts to make Lebanon more dependent on Tehran.

President Assad will have to consider his next steps, especially after visiting Moscow recently. The geopolitical arena is changing; Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in delicate talks, the Gulf crisis has ended and there is a positive mood to initiate regional rapprochement.

The US is preparing to reduce its presence in the region and will give Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon a waiver from penalties under Caesar Act but Damascus has to reciprocate.

Syria’s neighbours hope that recent overtures will entice Assad to engage in a new political process aimed at ending the decade-old war while paving the way for reconstruction and the repatriation of Syrian refugees from neighbouring countries.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.