In his attempt to break the political embargo on Syria, President Bashar Assad recently took his first overseas trip since the deadly earthquake to Oman, where he met with Sultan Haitham bin Tariq. While Assad requested the meeting, the Sultan interestingly expressed his anticipation for Syria's ties with all Arab countries returning to normal.
While this appears to be part of a process for Arab countries to reengage with Syria politically, it is more of an attempt to promote Syrian-Arab relations. Ties between Syria and Oman were barely cut, and Oman was one of the first countries to send an ambassador back to Syria in 2020. So regardless of the public statements around the meeting and the perceptions of an important step forward in restoring Syrian relations with Arab countries, it is more of an attempt to promote this perception from two countries that have maintained ties, and Oman has well known success in backchannel influence on many issues, including Iranian-American negotiations over the years.
While the catastrophe of the earthquake serves as cover for Syria to try to break down political taboos and encourage other countries to engage under the humanitarian cover, Assad faces the challenges of the official US position, live sanctions and the Caesar Act which makes it extremely difficult for the international community to engage. Add the perception of Russian and Iranian influence over Syria, opening doors with the Arab world is a good tactical step, even if they may not have enough influence to shift the US position. Oman is an obvious first step given their experience in building back channels to influence the US and having the trust of the Iranians.
Qatar is also well positioned to play the role of mediator or back-channel sponsor, but when it comes to Syria, Qatar is one of very few Arab countries that maintains a hawkish anti-Assad position. Again, tactically this leaves Oman as the best option to help Syrians in seeking a change in US policy. This is not to say it will be easy, particularly because of the Russia and Iran connections, and the fact Syria is a proxy port for Russia on the Mediterranean.
While Oman may be the channel for the message, the catastrophe of the earthquake along with internal challenges, socio-economic hardship and security threats such as the return of Daesh form the argument for Syria in promoting the need to lift sanctions and the Caesar Act. But it will also be expected that Syria will demonstrate its intentions to cooperate in fighting narcotrafficking in the region and even fighting terrorist groups who have started to make their presence known and attack various cities in Syria, for their campaign to even be considered.
Dr. Amer Al Sabaileh