At the end of last week, there were reports in Lebanon that the Gulf states would soon be returning their ambassadors to Beirut, information that Lebanon’s Prime Minister appeared to confirm on Saturday. The ambassadors had been withdrawn in October, following the release of a video showing the then Lebanese information minister, George Kordahi, criticising the Saudi intervention in Yemen.
The video predated Mr Kordahi’s appointment as minister, and within a matter of weeks he had resigned. Yet the ambassadors remained away. Many observers regarded this as a broader move to change how Lebanon, a country several governments see as being under Iran’s control, would deal with its Arab environment.
Cut to 10 days ago. Syrian President Bashar Al Assad was received in the UAE, the first time the Syrian president had been invited to another Arab country since the Syrian uprising in 2011. Shortly after that visit, Egypt hosted a summit in Sharm El Sheikh between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
One could reach several conclusions about what is happening between Arab countries and the Syrian government. First, the thawing of relations is probably happening with Tehran in mind. Numerous reports indicate that the nuclear deal with Iran will soon be signed in Vienna, and this would constitute a major challenge for the Arab states and Israel.
In light of this, several Arab states may well have concluded that bringing Syria back into the Arab fold was necessary to increase Arab stakes in the country and use this to push back against Iranian influence there. In fact, Damascus had previously used this Arab approach to play the Arab states off against Iran, gaining from both sides.
Yet this time, things may be different. The Arab presumption is that Mr Al Assad is keen to widen his margin of manoeuvre with regard to Iran, and water down his dependency on the Iranians. Syria is not being asked to cut its ties with Iran, but in fulfilling its interests, to set limits on Iran’s latitude to impose its priorities there.
A logical extension of this is, apparently, to encourage Syria to also limit Iran’s options in Lebanon. Since 2005, when Syria’s army withdrew from Lebanon after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Syria has yearned to revive its influence in Beirut. Instead, during that time it is Iran, working through Hezbollah, that expanded its writ in the country, to the displeasure of many Lebanese.
Today, the embrace of Mr Al Assad appears to open the door, in part, to a revival of a Syrian role in Lebanon. The reasoning is that only by offering such an enticement would Syria be encouraged to pursue its priorities in the country, regardless of Iran’s preferences.
This would be different from what existed prior to 2005. The Syrian army and intelligence services will not soon return, nor can they. Rather, the focus may be on reviving Syrian networks in the country, and effectively creating a situation in which Arab countries recognise a greater role for Damascus when they approach Lebanon.
Once Syria rallies its local allies, this would give Arab states a greater stake in Lebanon so that it no longer remains exclusively an Iranian outpost. Syria and Iran would not enter into a confrontation. But the Syrians would aim to have more of a say in Lebanese affairs, which Hezbollah would have to accept, and the Arab states, in that way, would look to limit Iran’s efforts to employ Lebanon against their interests.
In this context, the Sharm El Sheikh summit did not reassure Tehran. The Iranians can sense that the region is reaching a point in which leading Arab states, along with Syria, but also Israel and Russia, are part of a de facto group of countries that might limit Iran’s options as each pursues its own interests in the Levant. All realise that a revived nuclear deal would increase Iran’s sway, and want to prepare for this.
It was no coincidence, therefore, that Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, visited Syria and Lebanon at the end of last week. The Iranians were not happy to see Arab states talking to Israel’s Prime Minister, nor to see that Mr Al Assad had just been received by one of the leaders present in Sharm El Sheikh.
Syria and Russia will not break with Iran, and indeed many Arab states may ultimately improve ties with Tehran. However, in the transactional new regional environment, everyone has a stake in compelling Iran to recognise their interests as well.
With the imminent revival of the nuclear deal and US disengagement from the Middle East, new alignments are taking form that are destined to affect Iranian gains. The region is undergoing radical readjustment and Iran may have no choice but to accept this new reality. The Gulf return to Lebanon appears to show that Arab states now see less advantage in isolating the country than in being involved in politics there and integrating it into the fluid interplay that is giving form to these new alignments.