Saudi Arabia mends ties with Syria as part of regional diplomatic spree
The Washington Post April 14, 2023
BEIRUT — Saudi Arabia abruptly announced this week it was moving to reestablish relations with Syria, the latest effort by the Gulf kingdom to patch up long-simmering regional rivalries during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Saudi Arabia, notorious for painstakingly slow diplomacy, has made remarkable strides in past weeks - restoring relations with Iran, its longtime foe, and fast-tracking peace negotiations in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and its allies have fought a long, grinding war against Houthi militants backed by Tehran.
Rumors of a Saudi rapprochement with Syria have been circulating since 2018, when the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain restored ties with Damascus. Yet there appeared to be little concrete progress until this week, when Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad touched down in Jiddah. It was the first visit to the kingdom by a top Syrian diplomat since Saudi Arabia cut off diplomatic relations in 2012, after President Bashar al-Assad's brutal crackdown on popular protests set off a decade-long civil war.
In a joint statement Wednesday, Mekdad and his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, said they would work toward reopening embassies and resuming flights between the two countries. On Friday, Saudi brought together foreign ministers from across the Middle East to discuss Syria's return to the Arab League.
Saudi Arabia's breakneck diplomatic push could reshape regional dynamics, analysts say, at a time of uncertainty about the future of U.S. engagement. After years of costly military entanglements and proxy conflicts, the kingdom appears to be seeking stability abroad as it focuses on reforms at home.
"I think the lesson [for Saudis] now is maybe actually it's better if we just focus on diplomacy; we don't need to demonstrate strength through military intervention," said Andrew Leber, an assistant professor at Tulane University and expert on Saudi politics. Social changes and high-profile economic ventures seem to be a more effective way of gaining the international prestige Riyadh craves, he added.
That Saudi Arabia would be spearheading efforts to return Syria to the Arab fold would have once seemed unthinkable. For years, the kingdom was among the main suppliers of arms to rebel groups that fought to overthrow the government in Damascus. In 2015, then-Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said if a political process failed to remove Assad, Riyadh would continue to support the opposition "in order to remove him by force."
But 12 years into the war, Assad has maintained his grip on power in Syria - thanks in large part to military support from Russia and Iran, as well as economic aid from Iran and China. The United Nations estimates the conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people, forced more than 6 million to flee the country and left nearly 7 million internally displaced — many in the country's northwest, which is still controlled by a patchwork of rebel groups.
Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have felt the war's spillover most acutely - the three countries are home to the largest number of Syrian refugees in the world. According to the United Nations in 2021, more than 80 percent of registered Syrian refugees, about 5.5 million, live in neighboring countries, including Iraq and Egypt.
The fallout from Syria's conflict is far-reaching and enduring. Arab countries must grapple with the long-term status of refugees, many of whom fear returning home, where they could face arrest or forced conscription. The Islamic State is still active in parts of Syria that are beyond the government's control. And Saudi and other Gulf states remain wary about Iran's influence in Syria, which provides Tehran a much-needed land corridor connecting it with allies in Iraq and Lebanon.
Iran has been crippled by Western sanctions, rocked by months of anti-government protests and faces growing diplomatic isolation over its decision to provides weapons to Russia for its war in Ukraine. The Saudi view, Leber said, is that "Iran is weakened internally, so it's time to lock in some sort of concessions from them on these regional conflicts so Saudi Arabia can move on with more important things like its economic development plans and Vision 2030" - an ambitious reform package aimed at modernizing the kingdom, the brainchild of its young de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Less than a week after the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers met in Beijing to finalize the normalization deal, a Saudi delegation arrived in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, to negotiate an end to its involvement in a conflict that has dragged on for eight years and led to one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.
Originally, the talks were aimed at extending a September truce, said Nasr al-Din Amer, an official for the Houthi rebel group that has fought the Saudi-led coalition. "But now the purpose of the visit is to finalize a peace deal with the Saudis mediated by the Omanis," he said.
The deals with Syria, Iran and the Houthis are "being presented at home as the smart move, the wise move," Leber said. There is also a realization, he added, that the Biden administration has "very little appetite for engaging in new conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa."
Analysts say the perceived waning of the United States' interest in the Middle East plays a significant role in these reconciliation deals.
"The Americans have been touting this idea of a strategic pivot away from the region in order to compete with China," said Mohammed Alyahya, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and fellow at the Harvard Belfer Center. At the same time, he continued, the Chinese, who brokered the deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, seem to view the region as a new venue for great power competition with Washington.
The deal with Iran does not mean the Saudis suddenly trust their longtime adversaries, Alyahya said. "But absent a United States strategy in the region, people are trying to just find a workable modus vivendi."
"The enmity between the Iranian axis and the Gulf stems in large part from a perception that the Gulf is an essential pillar for the U.S. security order in the region," Alyahya said. "If there is no longer a commitment to that order by America, then it follows that a significant source of that enmity disappears."
The U.S. administration's absence on the Syria issue is "irritating everybody in the Arab World," said James Jeffrey, a retired ambassador who was the State Department's special representative to Syria from 2018 to 2020. The lack of clear policy from the Americans has left Arab countries feeling "impotent," he added.
During Jeffrey's tenure, there were efforts at coordination between Washington and Arab states to set up a process for rapprochement with Syria, provided Assad made reforms. "We called this step-by-step," he said. But Assad refused to change, betting that he could wait out his adversaries. His gamble appears to have paid off.
Not all countries in the region are ready to welcome Syria back to the fold, including Qatar, another longtime supporter of Syrian rebel groups: "We had reasons to support the suspension of Syria's membership in the Arab League, and the reasons still exist," Qatari Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said in a television interview on Thursday.
But Salman has signaled he intends to invite Assad to the next Arab League meeting in May. Regardless of regional differences, Leber said, Saudi Arabia "will be trying to present itself and demonstrate that we're able to pull the region together."
Ali Al-Mujahed in Sanaa contributed to this report.