Is al-Assad about to have his very own ‘Sadat Moment’?

Something is afoot. Tension bubbles below the surface between Damascus and Tehran. With Iran’s regional rivals slowly reopening their doors to al-Assad, is a surprise change of sponsorship in the offing?

Is al-Assad about to have his very own ‘Sadat Moment’?

In 1972, President Mohamed Anwar Sadat surprised the world by ordering the expulsion of 11,000 Soviet military and technical ‘advisers’ from Egypt. No one was more surprised than Moscow, given that the USSR had been Egypt’s security guarantor for years.

More than 50 years later, might Syrian President Bashar al-Assad be having his own ‘Sadat Moment’?

Certainly, there are more than a few Iranian ‘advisers’ in Syria. They, together with today’s Russia, see themselves as security guarantors of al-Assad’s regime.

Yet the frequency and openness of Israeli air strikes in Damascus and Aleppo, and with the less-than-covert presence of American personnel in Syria’s east, suggests that the country’s security is, in fact, far from guaranteed.

Sadat’s decision prompted a strategic realignment of Egypt towards the American sphere of influence. A peace treaty with Israel and weapons from Washington followed.

The Syria of 2024 differs significantly from the Egypt of 1972. The global and Middle Eastern landscapes are not the same as they were 50 years ago.

Still, might al-Assad be about to replace the mullahs whispering in his ear with the kings, sultans, presidents, and crown princes of the Arab world? As ever, there is much to dissect.

Spheres of influence

Iran’s security sponsorship of Syria was triggered in full in 2011 when Iran committed its resources to “averting the collapse” of the al-Assad regime after a mass movement to overthrow his regime unfolded.

For Tehran, which also committed fighters from its proxy, Hezbollah, strategic interests and regional expansionist objectives were the main drivers of this decision.

There are more than a few Iranian 'advisers' in Syria. Together with Russia, they see themselves as al-Assad's security guarantors.

This proved successful until 2015 when Russia intervened militarily and decisively. Russian jets bombed opposition militias and Islamic State (IS) strongholds, effectively "rescuing" the regime and preventing its downfall.

Subsequently, Damascus found itself positioned between two crucial allies: Tehran and Moscow — both with interests in Syria.

Russia already had an important foothold in Syria through its naval base in Tartus, its only access point to the Mediterranean. In 2017, it signed an agreement with al-Assad, making its presence there permanent.

Iran also used Tartus to export its oil to al-Assad and Hezbollah, and in 2017, agreed to jointly develop a $1bn oil refinery in Syria. More recently, it won permission from al-Assad to build an Iranian port on the Syrian coast.

There are similarities to the Soviets' use of Egypt in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Soviets controlled the strategic points of Egypt's air defence network in the Nile Delta, along the Suez Canal, and down to the Aswan Dam.

They also used Egyptian naval facilities at Mersa Metruh and Alexandria and landing facilities on five airfields, often without telling the Egyptians what they were doing there.

Playing a poor hand

Today, Syria witnesses the territorial encroachment of multiple foreign powers, including the US, Britain, France, Turkey, Russia, and Israel, who operate freely within its boundaries.

Read more: Syria has 830 foreign military sites. 70% belong to Iran

Like Sadat's Egypt, al-Assad has only limited offensive military capabilities of his own, so in many cases, he can only stand and watch as foreign militaries fly sorties over Syrian airspace or operate ground incursions to the east.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi sought to capitalise on Syria's current weaknesses with an official visit at the end of last year to cement sovereign concessions in exchange for Iranian blood, funds, and oil.

The visit from this 'strategic ally' faced multiple delays, primarily stemming from al-Assad's reluctance to endorse draft agreements sought by his guest.

Raisi's arrival eventually materialised in May but coincided with a surge in Arab normalisation initiatives, which brought al-Assad in from the cold. This culminated in his participation at the Arab Summit held in Jeddah that same month, his first appearance at the prestigious regional gathering since 2010.

Iranian President Raisi's arrival in Damasus coincided with a surge in Arab normalisation initiatives, which brought al-Assad in from the cold.

This process of rapprochement is ongoing within the context of Western sanctions against Syria as Arab nations regrow their relations with al-Assad despite the challenges, reservations, and disappointments from the Syrian side.

These endeavours aim to establish an indirect communication channel with al-Assad, which is still in the early stages.

Some Arab states have opted to retain the sanctions first levied more than a decade ago as a strategic leverage tool against Damascus.

Jordan has gone further, taking proactive measures by initiating air strikes to target what it said were "arms smugglers" operating within Syrian territory.

Read more: Jordan takes its war on drugs to Syria

Last year, al-Assad welcomed the foreign ministers of Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia to Damascus. Next month, he is scheduled to host the visit of an Arab head of state for the first time in over a decade.

Ahead of it, secret efforts are underway to conclude a diplomatic deal that, if agreed, would represent something of a coup for Iran's regional rivals and resemble something of a Sadat Moment to commentators.

Freezing Iran out?

The proposed agreement is said to involve al-Assad preventing Tehran from using Damascus Airport for the transport of Iranian arms and dismantling Iranian military depots situated alongside the facility.

In exchange, Israel would stop targeting the airport, which has proved to be a huge embarrassment for the Syrian authorities.

Following the 7 October surprise attacks by Hamas in southern Israel, Arab states have continued their normalisation efforts with Damascus, which has declined to comply with Iranian requests.

Unlike Iran, Syria did not openly endorse the Hamas attacks and refrained from opening a new front along the Occupied Golan Heights, which would have stretched Israel's resources and attention militarily.

However, Syria also stood still as it watched its north-eastern and south-eastern regions become a 'playground' for US and Iranian forces to confront one another.

Following the Hamas attacks in Israel, Arab states continued their normalisation efforts with Damascus, which has declined to comply with Iranian requests.

Meanwhile, Israel continues striking Iranian sites in Syria as part of the ongoing shadow war taking place on Syrian soil between Tel Aviv and Washington on one side, and Tehran on the other.

Relations between the Syrian and Iranian militaries have been strained after Israel's targeted assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guard leaders in Damascus — notably the senior and influential figure, Razi Musawi.

He was killed in the south of the Syrian capital at the end of last year, and five members of the Revolutionary Guard were killed in Damascus just a few days ago, including one senior intelligence officer, according to reports.

The talk from Iranian "experts" and former officials is that these assassinations could only have succeeded if Israel had infiltrated Syria's security apparatus. This is a serious accusation that could result in serious ramifications.

Iran is not known to take betrayal lightly. History shows that it delivers a stern response to "traitors" or those opposing its agenda in countries like Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria.

Alongside this, several significant security changes have recently been made in Syria. Maj. Gen. Kifah Moulhem, the head of military intelligence, has been reassigned to become the new head of the National Security Bureau.

Concurrently, Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, who Moulhem replaces, has been appointed the new security adviser to the Syrian presidency.

These changes align with a broader set of measures within the security apparatus, encompassing the integration of certain branches, the modification of powers for others, and the withdrawal of some from specific state institutions.

Is this an al-Assad Moment?

Does all this indicate that al-Assad is mirroring Sadat's approach by severing ties with Iranian advisers, akin to Sadat's expulsion of Soviet advisers half a century ago?

Certainly, some prominent figures in the economic, security, and media sectors who played influential roles in recent years have recently been arrested or marginalised.

Additionally, information suggests that Moscow conveyed its concern to Syrian figures "regarding the possible collapse of the remaining state institutions".

Citing factors such as "corruption, internal divisions, and external sanctions", the Russians told al-Assad that it was imperative "to preserve what remains of the state".

Time will tell

Does this mean that al-Assad will mirror Sadat's approach by severing ties with Iran, just like Egypt expelled the Soviets? Will he, in short, swap a Russian-Iranian alliance for a Russian-Arab axis?

Today's Syria is marked by division, devastation, displacement, and loss. It is not Sadat's Egypt, which he inherited and led during the October War against Israel.

Sadat adeptly orchestrated secretive realignments with major Arab states and the United States before expelling the Soviets. He signed the Separation of Forces Agreement with Israel in 1974, which established the status of Sinai, then broke the psychological barrier by visiting Israel's parliament, the Knesset.

Ultimately, this led to him signing the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty at Camp David in 1979, which reshaped the landscape of the Middle East.

Then as now, something is happening. What exactly? We are not sure, but all will no doubt become clear. All we need to do is wait for the next development. It is Iran's move. Will it learn from history?

Just as Soviet secrecy, arrogance, and disrespect fuelled resentment in Egypt in the 1960s and 70s, so too have Iranian 'experts' and 'advisers' in Syria poured fuel on a fire in the already explosive Middle East atmosphere.

Whether this is an al-Assad Moment or not remains to be seen. Iran will hope it isn't.

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