It was not pure coincidence that I received honorable invitations to two panel discussions: one virtual, conducted last week by Chatham House; and another held this week by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan in Amman.
The former discussed what it deemed to be a de-escalation in the Middle East. The latter, entitled “New Levant,” discussed the new aspects of relations between Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq that seek to overcome what happened in the region a decade ago, after the so-called Arab Spring, when civil, terrorist, and regional wars exploded in the region. Both events in Amman and London wondered whether that incident represented a mere temporary milestone, or a sustainable trend that is headed toward a state of peace in the region.
The fact of the matter is, this is not a purely academic matter for research centers and universities to discuss as they consider the changes taking place in a tensed region that had lately reached historical levels of casualties, wounded, migrants, and refugees, in addition to the destruction of cities and states. There’s more: many states -- some inside the region, others not -- are regularly trying to take advantage of what seems like an opportunity to reverse the violent direction that marked the whole past decade toward pacification and peace.
For instance, the US is trying to integrate, deepen, and broaden the Abraham Accords that former US President Donald Trump had reached with several states. This effort is led by State Secretary Antony Blinken, in order to push forward the relations established on peace accords toward wider paths of cooperation, publicity, and habitual peace. As for expansion, it is based on adding new parties to peace with Israel.
For this reason, the Biden administration tried to give Palestinians a foothold in the future through the resumption of relations between Washington and Ramallah, the return of the US Consul to Eastern Jerusalem, the resumption of assistance to UNRWA, and cooperation with Egypt regarding the negotiations between Palestinians themselves and between Palestinians and Israel, and the reconstruction of Gaza.
This general direction encouraged regional parties to undertake measures to establish confidence. For instance, despite the extreme complications that the Israeli Government is facing, it authorized some of its ministers to make contacts with the Palestinian Authority and agree on ways to improve the status of some Palestinians, for instance by giving residence certificates to thousands in Jerusalem and allowing over 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza to work with Israel, with facilitations in power and fishing transport in the Middle East. In this context, the Israeli Prime Minister visited Egypt and met with President Al-Sisi, and for the first time ever in the history of bilateral relations between the two countries, EgyptAir conducted flights to Ben Gurion Airport.
Regional states outside the Palestinian, Arab, and Israeli circle have taken other steps to resume broken and tensed relations. Building upon the Al-Ula Declaration issued by the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, Egypt and the UAE resumed their relations with Qatar on the other hand and Turkey on the other. The resumption of relations differed in each case, but they both led to reducing the prospects of conflict and confrontation that existed between Cairo and Ankara, whether in the eastern Mediterranean or in Libya. Diplomatic paths between these parties have now warmed up, as evidenced in the resumption of embassy operations and air traffic and the fomenting of economic relations in a friendlier environment.
A decade after the Arab League voted to suspend Syria’s membership at the beginning of the Syrian civil war, signals followed that welcomed Syria to the League once again. Jordanian King Abdullah II, the first Arab leader to call on Bashar al-Assad to resign in 2011, spoke to the Syrian President for the first time since the conflict started. He also reopened the main border crossing between the two countries to help boost trade. Meanwhile, Egyptian Foreign Minister met with his Syrian counterpart in the UN General Assembly and pledged to help “restore Syria’s position in the Arab world.”
Last Sunday, the UAE announced its agreement to reinforce economic cooperation with Syria. It seems that all these steps have been getting wide international support, especially from the US, whose Congress enacted the Caesar Law in 2019. The law requires the US to sanction Syrian officials and entities responsible for committing atrocities, as well as active entities supporting the regime.
However, the Biden Administration does not seem to be extremely committed to the law. After a set of sanctions, it looked the other way when the UAE announced that it is Syria’s most prominent trade partner. On the other hand, it recently supported a deal to transport Egyptian gas to Lebanon -- which is suffering from power cuts -- through Syria. A spokesperson for the US State Secretariat described the Caesar Law as “an important tool,” but a balance must be achieved between sanctions and humanitarian concerns.
The most prominent Arab initiative is the one that brought together Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq, and proceeded steadily over the course of the last two years. It features Egyptian-Jordanian cooperation to deal with the Palestinian cause on the one hand, and peace with Israel on the other; and another kind of cooperation that seeks to bring Iraq back to Arab ranks.
In both cases, huge progress was achieved. The cease-fire was established in Gaza, and the impact of the Iraqi popular movement, which is focused on building an Iraqi national state, was evident in the latest elections.
These developments were not far from Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom supported all these initiatives. It entered into multiple rounds of negotiations with Iran, which surely covered bilateral relations, the Yemeni crisis, and Tehran’s behavior in the region. It also continued to develop its partnership with Egypt, which had developed remarkably since the demarcation of maritime borders between the two countries four years ago. Its latest development was the electricity interconnection project between the Kingdom and Egypt to exchange up to 3,000 megawatts of power capacity at a total cost of $1.8 billion. This step was a culmination of 70 agreements, protocols, and memoranda of understanding between the two countries covering all development sectors, thus achieving cooperation and coordination between concerned apparatuses in the two countries.
The combination of these initiatives points to a new direction in the region on several fronts, many of which are thorny, still marked with violence, and many of which are undergoing confusing transformations, such as in Sudan, Lebanon, and Tunisia. However, the new movements represent a counterattack in the direction of peace and cooperation; and there seems to be no alternative for it one decade after the bloodshed.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.