Saudi Arabia reconsiders its Syria stance – an overview

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Saudi Arabia’s recent moves indicate a significant change in the oil-rich kingdom’s foreign policy as it attempts to rebalance its strategic approaches and ties with its neighbours.

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This change in stance is not limited to Saudi Arabia; Turkey is also rethinking its foreign policy and has begun to mend fences with Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Baghdad recently hosted two international adversaries. Last month, Saudi Arabia and Iran began direct talks in the hope of defusing tensions between the two countries.

Regional force Iran, and its ally, the Lebanese Shiite party Hezbollah, have played critical roles in preventing the Syrian regime from collapsing as a result of the country’s decade-long civil war. Saudi Arabia sees Iran’s increasing regional presence as a challenge to its national security.

Meanwhile, relations between Turkey and Egypt are gradually improving after more than seven years of hostility, which started with the Egyptian military’s 2013 ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo, who was directly supported by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoan.

Saudi Arabia’s top intelligence official visited Damascus this week for a meeting with his Syrian counterpart in the first known meeting of its kind since the eruption of the Syrian civil war.

Giorgio Cafiero, CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Washington, told The Media Line that he is not surprised by the recent development.

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“The Saudis have to be pragmatic in how they deal with Syria. It’s very clear that the regime in Damascus isn’t on the verge of falling and I think the Saudis are basically coming to terms with the inevitable in moving toward some sort of rapprochement with Syria,” he said.

Despite the West’s continued unwillingness to engage with the Assad government, more Arab countries are inching slowly toward re-establishing ties with Syria.

“It’s important to realize that as the Assad regime has proven triumphant on the ground and as the Saudis have deepened their relationship with Russia. The kingdom has adjusted its position vis-a-vis Syria, making their support for the rebellion something they officially maintain, but in practice doesn’t mean much,” said Cafiero.

The absence of most Arab countries from Syria’s conflict has created a vacuum and allowed other global and regional powers to establish a foothold in Syria.

Sami Hamdi, the editor-in-chief at The International Interest, a geopolitical risk consulting firm based in London, told The Media Line the shift can be attributed to Riyadh’s determination to stop the expansion of Iran’s influence.

“Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is now mulling over how to win over Iran’s allies and exploring how to assert ethnocentric Arab commonalities with the likes of the Houthis and Assad in a bid to supplant the sectarian bonds that connect them to Iran, thereby weakening Tehran’s influence,” Hamdi said.

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Hamdi says that the kingdom’s displeasure with the new US administration has something to do with the shift as well.

“Bin Salman may also have eyes on deepening ties with Russia as Riyadh becomes increasingly disillusioned with Washington. Engaging with Syria is likely to increase Saudi-Russia ties and cooperation,” he said.

President Bashar Assad has regained control of most of Syria with support from its allies: Russia, Iran and the Iranian-backed Shiite Lebanese group Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have backed armed factions opposed to Assad.

Much of the fighting in Syria has subsided, and Assad’s forces are in control of more than 60% of the country’s territory. Ten years after the conflict in Syria erupted, it does not look like Assad is going to relinquish power, and with the massive destruction caused by war in the country, reconstruction and rebuilding Syria will require an enormous amount of money.

“We need to keep in mind that Syria is very much in need of reconstruction and redevelopment and the Syrian government is going to want help from the wealthy Gulf countries, so this is certainly a card that the Saudis can play at some point – to support reconstruction with deep pockets,” said Cafiero.

Hamdi says that Assad also would benefit from re-engaging with Gulf countries.

“Assad would also be able to lobby Washington indirectly through Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to lift sanctions, and thereby access the funds being offered by the Gulf states to rebuild Syria. The price, however, may well be a ceding of territory to US allies (the Kurds) and create an entity similar to Iraqi Kurdistan, which Assad will be loath to do,” he said.

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The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership nine years ago, but Hamdi says signs point toward Syria’s readmittance.

“Algeria is insistent that Assad be readmitted to the Arab League, and the UAE has restored ties with Assad as it seeks to contain Turkish expansion,” he says.

The UAE, a Saudi ally, reopened its embassy in Damascus in December 2019 in an attempt to re-engage with Syria, creating a diplomatic boost for Assad.

Cafiero says one thing is sure about the seeming thaw in ties.

“The trajectory is clear; the Saudis are moving toward reconciliation with the Syrian government,” he said.

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