Senior Gulf official: Syria not expected to return to Arab League soon

Increased Arab diplomatic presence in Syria would be a rational calculation to boost Arab influence, official said

Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri meets with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Syria in this handout released by SANA on January 29, 2019. SANA/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE
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A senior Gulf official has said Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's government is unlikely to be readmitted to the Arab League soon, while also rejecting the idea of a Turkish 'safe zone' in northern Syria.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to reporters in Washington DC, advocated a more robust Arab role in Syria, while acknowledging the expansion of Iranian influence in the war-torn country.

“I don’t expect that Syria will return to the Arab League in the Tunis summit in March, I don’t expect it to happen because we need consensus in the Arab League and I don’t see it this soon,” the official told The National.

Asked about the proposed 32km Turkish safe zone inside Syria, he said “as much as we are against Iranian entanglements in Arab affairs, we are also against Turkish entanglements in Arab affairs and the idea of allowing a non-Arab power to establish a semi-permanent presence in an Arab country is an anathema to us whether in Syria or Iraq.”

He added: “This is a position that the Arab League took by consensus when the Turks established a presence in northern Iraq and one of few areas of agreement between 22 Arab states.

“We don’t agree, we don’t support [it] and we don’t think it’s the right idea for the safe zones that would be controlled by Turkey.”

Protecting Syrian Kurds is another reason for rejecting the proposed safe zone, he said. “A large part of our concern in Syria is the protection of the Kurds as an important component in the Syrian mosaic and you can’t expect [Turkish president Recep Tayyip] Erdogan to protect the Kurds.”

The senior Gulf official said an increased diplomatic presence in Syria would be a rational calculation to boost Arab influence and reconcile earlier demands that Mr Assad step down with recognition of the facts on the ground that the Assad government has won the civil war.

"The Astana [negotiating process] with Russia and Iran and Turkey while Syria is not even invited” confirmed “that there is zero Arab influence in Syria.”

“We are not naive,” the senior Gulf official said, acknowledging that reestablishing Arab diplomatic relations with Syria would “not suddenly recede Iranian influence.”

On Iran, the senior official expressed strong support for the Warsaw conference to be hosted by the US and Poland in to weeks, seeing it as “an opportunity to press Iran”.

“We don’t really want confrontation with Iran but we want enough pressure for Iran to examine its destabilising behavior,” the official said.

He said the nuclear deal did not integrate Iran in the region as was expected by the administration of former US president Barack Obama, and was instead used as “carte blanche” by Tehran to increase its missile capabilities.

He hoped that there would be international consensus in Warsaw to pressure Iran to abandon its current path.

One area where the senior Gulf official voiced optimism was in Yemen. He said 2019 is shaping up to “be a transitional year for Yemen,” following the Stockholm talks and Hodeidah ceasefire agreement last month.

“The worst is over for Yemen in terms of kinetic part of the crisis,” he said, predicting a transition to the political process.

“Yemen is moving from the military to the political phase,” the official said.

Asked about the Middle East Strategic Alliance, an equivalent of an Arab NATO that the US is seeking to form, the official did not anticipate a breakthrough in holding a summit in the near future, noting a slow in the momentum.  “It’s a very visionary proposal and we will see if it happens...but we want to see more buy-in and know more details,” he said.