People protest in the opposition-held city of Idlib, Syria, against President Bashar al-Assad's participation in the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia on May 19. Syrian membership in the organization was suspended after the 2011 war. Photo by Yahya Nemah/EPA-EFE
BEIRUT, Lebanon, June 2 (UPI) -- After years of wars, proxy conflicts, disputes and inaction, Arab leaders are moving to play a bigger role in solving their region's problems with a surprise wave of reconciliation, analysts told UPI.
The new approach emerged at the Arab summit meeting last month in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, against a backdrop of conciliatory moves among Middle Eastern rivals and Saudi Arabia's rise in economic and political power.
Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Abul Gheit summarized the summit mood, saying Arab leaders want to solve their own problems and not leave them to foreign powers.
"The Middle East is a very complex region and solving its problems is not easy," Riad Tabbarah, Lebanon's former ambassador to the United States, told UPI. "Solving our problems ourselves is a dream."
The unstable region has long been the field of complex conflicts and destructive wars, topped by the ongoing conflict between Palestinians and Israel that 75 years of negotiations has failed to resolve.
Multiple players, including formal armies, militias, jihadists and external forces with strategic economic interests, have been involved in the various armed conflicts that resulted in the killing and displacement of millions of people, the destruction of Syria and Yemen, the disintegration of Iraq and Libya, the near collapse of Lebanon and the renewed violence in Sudan.
The rejection of "foreign interference" and the "formation of armed militias" in Arab countries was strongly voiced in the final communique issued at the end of the one-day summit on May 19. Abul Gheit has specifically named Iran and Turkey, stressing the need for "calm" with neighboring countries.
Identifying Iran, which has built a network of proxies to advance its regional ambitions, and Turkey, which was supporting the Muslim Brotherhood for some time, was "not strange" as both are seen as "traditional threats" to the Arab countries, said Riad Kahwaji, who heads the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.
The most complicated issue is the Iranian militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, which are an integral part of Iran's defense doctrine.
"I don't see how this is going to be resolved. They have been set up, funded, trained and armed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. They are more or less part of the hierarchy and are important for Iran's deterrence posture," he told UPI. "Iran relies on them for power projection, especially against Israel."
Would Iran, which has been investing in Lebanon's Hezbollah since the early 1980s and other Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, generously funding and arming them, be ready to disband them? If so, what price would Arabs have to pay?
The first serious sign of changing policies in the region came with the March 10 China-brokered breakthrough agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to re-establish diplomatic ties after seven years of high tensions.
"The Saudis are trying to de-escalate, with the priority to stop the war in Yemen, making sure that there are no missiles launched from Yemen" on their territories, said Karim Bitar, a university professor and associate research fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Affairs in Paris.
With both countries' survival at stake, Bitar said Iran vowed that Saudi Arabia will not be attacked from Yemen and the Saudis will no longer support diaspora media outlets calling for the fall of the regime in Tehran.
"We are witnessing a détente, but not yet an entente, meaning there is not yet an agreement on how to solve the remaining contentious issues; but an agreement to de-escalate," he told UPI.
This "significant strategic shift" for Saudi Arabia, which adopted a confrontational approach in 2015 when it engaged in the Yemen war, was seen as "a turning point in regional history."
Welcoming Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back to the Arab League was a controversial decision, Bitar said, but it was part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's new strategy that Arabs will settle their own differences and prevent outsiders from interfering in internal Arab affairs.
"There is a new and bigger role for the Arabs to solve the problems of the Arab region," Tabbarah said. "There is an agreement based on a yet unclear step-by-step approach or interactive steps."
Concerning Assad, he would need to reciprocate every move by the Arabs toward Syria, starting with the commitment to cooperate to gradually reach a political settlement of the conflict, secure the return of the Syrian refugees, defuse the threat of terrorism and stop the illicit Captagon drug trade that generates billions of U.S. dollars for the Damascus regime.
There has been no serious indication that Assad is willing to make any significant concession. All past attempts to bring him to the Sunni Arab fold have failed and there is no Arab consensus on normalizing ties with him.
"Readmitting Syria [to the Arab League] after a 12-year suspension without a political change, a new constitution is a recognition that the Syrian regime was right," said Tabbarah, arguing that solving the Syrian conflict needs the help of all the countries in the world.
"Would it be possible without the consent of the U.S., Iran, Turkey and Russia, with all their forces on the ground?" he asked.
The same applies to the return of the Syrian refugees, whom Assad clearly doesn't want back, and the reconstruction of Syria, which has been reeling under Western sanctions, including the most crippling Caesar Act imposed by the United States in 2019, which threatens anyone doing business with the Assad regime with travel restrictions and financial sanctions.
According to UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency, more than 6.8 million Syrians have been forced to flee their country since 2011, with most living in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Another 6.9 million remain internally displaced. If the Syrian government is not willing to cooperate, there is not much the Arabs can do.
"The regime is using them [refugees] to blackmail the international community to force them to accept it, do business with it and give it legitimacy," Kahwaji said. "We are still far away from an actual resolution. The obstacle here is that the U.S. is not in any process with regard to Syria."
Therefore, it would be very difficult for Saudi Arabia to start cooperating with Syria, especially taking part in the reconstruction process with the U.S. Caesar sanctions still in place.
"But part of their [Saudis] rationale is to think that they can proceed progressively... Initially, they will try to curb the Captagon trade," Bitar said.
Until the United States changes its position, it will not be easy for Saudi Arabia or any other Arab states to be the major actors in Syria.
With Assad weaker after a decade of war, only Russia and Iran could force him to make concessions.