Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. If contacts between Syria and some of the Arab nations lead to formal reconciliation, it would be a boon for Syria’s struggling economy. Image Credit: AP

Beirut: A visit by the Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, this week may have turned a page for Syria, enabling more Arab countries to re-engage with the country.

Syria’s civil war has displaced half of its population, killed hundreds of thousands and driven the country’s economy into the ground. Following his trip to Syria’s capital of Damascus on Tuesday, Sheikh Abdullah headed to Jordan, which has also reopened channels with Syria after a decade-long rupture.
In Amman, Sheikh Abdullah met Wednesday with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and the two discussed “efforts to reach political solutions to the crisis in the region,” a royal court statement said.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi later told CNN that the kingdom needed to be practical and consider its national interests, at a time when a resolution to the Syria conflict seems elusive.
Jordan has been hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and is experiencing a sharp economic downturn, including rising unemployment. It recently reopened its borders with Syria, exchanged state visits and restored flights between Amman and Damascus. 

If such contacts between Syria and some of the Arab nations lead to formal reconciliation, it would be a boon for Syria’s struggling economy, including a tanking national currency and dried up government coffers. Syria will also require massive investments in reconstruction.

Rapprochement would also mean an Arab push into Syria, where Iran has had a presence on the ground through proxy militias for years.

As Washington appears to be disengaging from the region, withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and reorienting its focus toward the strategic challenges posed by a rising China, Arab players are stepping up their game in the conflict-ridden region.

Talking to everyone

“Everyone is talking to everyone,” said one Arab diplomat based in the Middle East, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. For example, Iraq has been hosting talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, its regional archival.

Bringing Syria back into the Arab fold could reduce Iranian and Turkish influence. “If we can have peace with various countries, Syria should be one of the most significant and important ones in the Middle East,’’ said Amjad Taha, a UAE analyst. “Syria should not be left alone. If the Iranians are there and if the Russians are there, so should the Arabs.”

Syria’s ruling party newspaper hailed the visit of Sheikh Abdullah as a “genuine pan-Arab step”. 
 The next summit is in Algeria early next year.

Damascus could offer gestures that indicate a reduction in Iranian influence.
Russia, another major Syrian ally, has already expanded its presence in some areas of Syria at the expense of Iran, either to assuage Israel or the United States but mostly in the interest of improving its grip on affairs in Syria.

“The Syria that we knew is over,” said Ibrahim Hamidi, a London-based Syrian journalist who covers domestic affairs for the Saudi-based Ashraq Al Awsat newspaper. “The Syria that could play a regional role is over. Syria is destroyed and is busy with its own problems.”