Saudi Arabia is Working Hard to Reset Diplomatic Relations with Bashar Al Assad. Can it Work?

Published February 21st, 2019 - 12:09 GMT
By the summer of 2011 Riyadh believed that Assad’s departure was inevitable. /AFP
By the summer of 2011 Riyadh believed that Assad’s departure was inevitable. /AFP

Fearing a power vacuum that would benefit Iran, Saudi Arabia is moving quickly behind the scenes to normalize relations with Syria.

At its core this diplomatic and economic rapprochement has three aims. The first is to contain Iranian influence inside Syria, specifically the lucrative business contracts enjoyed by the Revolutionary Guards. Secondly, GCC states are aware of a future scenario in which Damascus reasserts itself as a useful if often frustrating diplomatic backchannel into Lebanon. Finally, the interests of Qatar and Turkey in Syria have not gone unnoticed.

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Saudi Arabia and the US 'Soft Withdrawal' from Syria

On 19th December 2018 President Trump ordered the pullout of 2000 US troops from Syria, in a move that led to recriminations from members of his own military, and the planned expansion of bases in Qatar and Jordan.

By the 27th of December Syrian and Emirati media confirmed the opening of a UAE Embassy in Damascus, in a move that almost certainly had the tacit support of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal unofficially signalled anxiety at the move, when he cautioned against a US withdrawal in an interview with the BBC on 13th January.

Over the past few months the US withdrawal from Syria has proven slower as allies and Capitol Hill have scrutinized the implications of the plan.

In the meantime, GCC states have moved quickly to seek rapprochement with Syria. After lobbying by Saudi Arabia, there are reports that Arab League Members maybe ready to readmit Syria into the League ahead of a summit in Tunisia.

 

 

 

Saudi Arabia has also been seeking opportunities to invest inside Syria. In December the ‘King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center” (KS Relief) distributed heating, fuel and gas cylinders for cooking to 9,347 displaced people in northern Syria, according to Arab News. The United Nations estimated that reconstruction in Syria will cost up to $250 billion. On Twitter, President Trump tweeted that Saudi Arabia would be willing to "spend the necessary money" to "help rebuild Syria." A subsequent statement from the Saudi Embassy was far more vague.

Riyadh has always had ambivalent relations with Damascus. By the summer of 2011 Riyadh believed that Assad’s departure was inevitable. By 2015 Saudi Foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir told journalists at the UN general assembly “there is no future for Assad in Syria” and called for removing Assad by force, if necessary. Well before the uprisings of 2011, Saudi Arabia's foreign policy with Syria had oscillated between pragmatism and exasperation.

That relationship is worth briefly exploring, as it gives a sense of the diplomatic hurdles ahead if Riyadh intends to mend relations and seek influence inside Syria over the coming years.

A Decade of Difficult Diplomatic Relations with Syria

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri prays over the tomb of his father, slain former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, in Beirut on February 14, 2017 (AFP)

In February 2005 the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri caused a major split between Riyadh and Bashar al-Assad. The ‘Cedar Revolution’ that followed divided Lebanon into two parties, with Iran Syria and Hezbollah on one side, and opposing Sunni factions on the other.

Perceiving that Syria had a role to play in fanning sectarian tensions in Lebanon and by extension in Iraq, and that an isolated Bashar Al-Assad would only move closer to Iran, Saudi Arabia attempted reconciliation. A year later, during the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel War, Assad responded to claims that Syria was aiding Hezbollah in the Middle East media by indirectly referring to the Saudi leadership that criticised him as “half-men.”

At its center, Saudi foreign policy sought to recognise Syria as a restraining influence on Hezbollah and as a potential source of regional instability should Damascus grow too close to Tehran, Doha or Hamas. In December 27th 2008 - January 18th 2009, Operation Cast Lead saw Saudi Arabia and Jordan on one side with Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Qatar on the other. Riyadh's fears about the direction of Syrian foreign policy seemed to have been confirmed. It was only the election of Barack Obama to the White House between 2009-2011 that softened relations between the two powers.

 

 

In September 2009, Assad attended the inaugural ceremony of the Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. During the meeting, the Syrian President was asked to exert pressure on allies in Lebanon as well as on the Hamas political bureau. Restrictions on trade were removed and joint economic ventures established.

The events of March 2011 reversed the attempts of Riyadh to gradually ease Syria away from Tehran and Qatar, and forge a closer relationship.

There was no immediate rupture. To begin with, Saudi feared that the collapse of the Baath regime could lead to something far worse. A series of Shiite protests in Bahrain were also a direct threat to Saudi Arabia’s own security. There was a chance Damascus could have acted as a broker. Yet as the violence inside Syria escalated, and was beamed around television screens worldwide, Assad moved closer to Tehran. His intentions became clear to Riyadh later in 2011, when a Saudi supported peace plan at the Arab League was exploited by Assad to buy more time and consolidate his position inside the country.

By February 2012 Saudi foreign policy in Syria had reversed course completely. Worried about a Shiite majority in Bahrain, Saudi also began to suspect that the Iranian nuclear standoff and the Syrian war were in reality the same conflict - and that the repercussions could one day spill over into the Kingdom itself, in particular the oil-rich eastern province.

As a result, Saudi Arabia promised “all forms of support” to the opposition, beginning with funding to the Free Syrian army and culminating in the establishment of the “Army of Islam” (Jaish al-Islam) at a cost of $100 million, and led by Zahran Alloush - a Saudi cleric.

2019: Contending With Post-Conflict Syria

Today, Bashar Al Assad remains in power inside Syria with Iranian and Russian influence looks unchecked inside the country.

Riyadh is working to restore a foreign policy that seeks to gain leverage inside Syria and which has as its focal point the lessening of Iranian influence, and the opening of a back-channel into restraining Hezbollah inside Lebanon whenever possible. This will not be easy.

Iranian Influence in Syria

The Pasdaran, or Revolutionary Guards, consolidated their power under President Ahmadinejad. As President Trump's sanctions on Tehran begin to bite, the country will become more dependent on the vast economic interests of the Guards, and their role inside Syria. (FARS)


If Syria is important for Riyadh, it is critical to Tehran. Allies since the 1979 Revolution, Syria offers a vital supply-line for Iran to provide Hezbollah with weapons it a proxy confrontation with Israel.

Iran granted generous credit lines to Assad during the war, in addition to a $4.6 billion loan in 2013. In return, Iranian companies have been offered favorable terms to operate inside Syria.

As the White House reneges on the P5+1 agreement and sanctions on Tehran begin to bite, the Syrian Revolutionary Guards are exploring lucrative opportunities to secure contracts for construction and trade inside Syria; revenue that could become critical to the Iranian state, as destabilising unrest across Iranian cities and the countryside begins to grow.

Any US withdrawal will embolden their economic activities, as well as the extent to which the Guards can supply Hezbollah as a deterrent to Israel.

Ankara and Doha

The proposed US withdrawal from Syria complicates Saudi’s interests in regard to Turkey and Qatar. American withdrawal from Syria would remove the buffer zone between the Kurds and Turkey, allowing Ankara to increase on its gains inside northern Syria and crack down on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Ankara regards as terrorists. The US wants to protect the Kurdish YPG from a similar fate, as the Kurds ask for Syrian and Russian forces to protect their new lands in northwestern Afrin.

Equally, Turkey is planning to open its first post-Ottoman Middle East base in Qatar. The move evinces disquiet in Doha over its future security relationship with the United States, and the pressures of the Saudi Arabian led GCC blockade on the country. It also places Turkish President Erdogan in a supreme position to extract concessions from Saudi Arabia, particularly after Turkey artfully exploited the fallout of the Khashoggi affair without ever mentioning Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salam by name.

Qatar is one of the few countries in the region that can match Saudi spending on reconstruction inside Syria. Equally, Turkey shares a land-border with Iran and a strong trading relationship.

Saudi's Objectives in Syria Will Not Come Easy, But It Has Options

Turkish President Erdogan artfully exploited the fallout of the Khashoggi affair without ever mentioning Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salam by name. (AFP)

Saudi Arabia‘s pivot back to Syria, and its attempt to mend fences with Assad, fall strictly in line with Riyadh’s overarching foreign policy goals.

The path to rapprochement will not be easy, and the results will not be immediate. Riyadh will work to buy good favor through the Arab League, through possible future commitments to reconstruction and aid inside Syria, as well as through its newfound status as Washington’s favoured interlocutor in the Arab World. Extensive and historic tribal links inside Syria will be re-activated.

At the same time, Riyadh will try to contain the economic activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and outspend Qatar whenever possible. This will include working to open up asymmetric business opportunities for its allies such as Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq; opportunities that many Syrian merchants are desperate to restore.

 

 

 

As Turkey looks for cover to deprive the Kurdish YPG of an independent state on its border, Riyadh may withdraw some of its support to the group. Turkey will be affected by sanctions on Iran. Earlier in 2017, Turkey's Aselsan Corp formed a joint venture with Saudi Defence Electronic Co (SADEC) on jammers, radars and electronic warfare suites. According to Stratfor, Aselsan is one of Turkey’s largest defense companies. Ankara has been negotiating the sale of unarmed aerial vehicles to Saudi Arabia, and voices hopes of selling other weapons, including its Altay Tank. Saudi Arabia may seek to open discussion on these deals, with a view to its interests in Syria and its desire to further isolate Qatar.

Acting through Kuwait and Oman, Saudi Arabia maybe able to offer an olive branch to Qatar - the end of the blockade and a return to the illusion of ‘brotherly relations,’ in return for a complete withdrawal from Syria.

For decades, Saudi foreign policy in Syria has struggled to obtain its objectives. Riyadh’s current pivot to Syria will attempt to work with Bashar Al-Assad to overcome this awkward history. The effort will shape and filter into many of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy relationships over the course of 2019.


John Lillywhite is executive publisher of Al Bawaba English. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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