High level diplomatic sources in Damascus recently confirmed to the London-based Rai Al-Yaoum daily, that a Saudi delegation headed by Lieutenant General Khaled Al-Humaidan – Chief of the Saudi Intelligence Service – travelled to Damascus during the first week of May 2021. According to the Arabic daily, the Saudi General met in the Syrian capital with President Bashar Al-Assad, and his notorious Deputy for Security Affairs, General Ali Al-Mamlouk.
During the meeting, it was reportedly revealed that the Kingdom would welcome the return of Syria to the Arab League. Syria was expelled from the League in 2012, after the brutal repression by Al-Assad’s security forces in response to civil unrest, which started in March 2011. The Syrian population was demanding respect from law enforcement and seeking to establish a democratic government.
Syria was expelled from the Arab League in 2012, after the brutal repression by Al-Assad’s security forces in response to civil unrest.
A civil war broke out, and over the next ten years hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed; and around 10 million citizens – more than half of the population – have been internally and externally displaced, prompting an unprecedented international humanitarian crisis.
Soon after the civil war began in Syria, the United Nations called for an international conference with the aim of finding a solution to the crisis, which later came to be known as the Geneva I Conference on Syria. The Conference, which was held on June 30, 2012 in Geneva, Switzerland, was attended by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US – along with other European and Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia.
A final communiqué was issued but fell short of demanding the removal of President Bashar Al-Assad from power. The convening body’s failure to call for the ousting of the Syrian president was an indicator that the civil war would continue and that the superpowers involved had conflicting agendas.
Syria’s Civil War
As the marked unrest in Syria morphed into a full-scale civil war, different factions entered the fray. The United States, Turkey, and other nations, such as Saudi Arabia, were supporting some of the opposition factions. Saudi Arabia, in particular, was heavily involved in arming and financing the opposition groups. Russia, Iran, and the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, on the other hand, were supporting Bashar Al-Assad.
In 2015, Russia intensified its support for the Syrian regime and started air strikes against the rebel groups, including ISIS. The United States escalated its military intervention as well in response to ISIS’ growing threat. However, in 2019, the Trump administration announced that it was withdrawing its soldiers from northern Syria near the Turkish borders and gave the Turkish army a green light to invade the area, further complicating the situation on the ground.
By that time, various major powers, with conflicting interests, were involved in the Syrian war. Israeli warplanes were regularly bombing Syria; Russian fighters were bombing the rebel groups; the Turkish army was heavily involved in the fighting; and Iranian soldiers supported by pro-Iran militias from Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan were battling on the ground in support of the Syrian regime.
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[Why Saudi Arabia is Seeking Reconciliation with Assad]
The Iranian Factor
Prior to the May Damascus meeting, Western officials confirmed that rival Saudi and Iranian officials met in Baghdad in April to discuss ways of de-escalating the tense relations between the two countries.
These rapid developments came as the new US administration resumed its meetings with Iran in Vienna, in an attempt to make Tehran abide by the nuclear deal known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Meanwhile, in Washington the United States was recalibrating its position vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. To the disappointment of the Kingdom, the US State Department disclosed that President Biden will only deal with the Saudi King, Salman Bin Abdulaziz, sending a clear message to his son, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MbS), that he was not welcomed in diplomatic matters.
The US State Department has also made it clear to the Saudi authorities that it would like to see an end to the war in Yemen. And to prevent an aggravation of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, Washington reversed the Trump administration’s decision to designate the pro-Iran Houthi group as a terrorist organization.
The Biden administration informed the Saudis that it wanted to see an improvement in the Kingdom’s human rights record.
Furthermore, the Biden administration informed the Saudis that it wanted to see an improvement in the Kingdom’s human rights record. This request must have been a source of preoccupation to the Saudi royals, considering the international pressure they have already been facing in the case of Saudi dissident, Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who was assassinated in Istanbul.
Against the backdrop of these events, Saudi officials embarked on a campaign aimed at recalibrating their own foreign policy options, taking into consideration the new diplomatic rapprochements which were taking place between major players in the region.
While new reconciliation measures between Riyadh and Damascus are expected soon, easing the political tension in Syria should not be viewed as a solution to the crisis in that country. Syria remains a playground where many international and regional powers will continue vying for influence. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt – which are re-evaluating their foreign policy in the region – should assume that more problems are still lying ahead.
The arrival of the Biden administration in Washington caught the Saudi monarchy off guard. The Kingdom is badly in need of improving its relations with the United States, and to gain the confidence of the new administration as a trustworthy partner. In fact, US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, was reported to have praised the Saudi-Iranian meetings. In an interview with the Financial Times, Blinken was quoted as saying that “if they are talking, I think that is generally a good thing.”
Aware of the US displeasure with the ongoing war in Yemen, Saudi officials believe that bringing Syria back to the Arab League would convince the Iranians to put pressure on the Houthis to come to the negotiation table. Meanwhile, the Houthis have not stopped attacking Saudi Arabian cities, oil facilities, and other essential infrastructure sites with drones and long-range missiles provided by Iran.
It is the ultimate objective of Saudi Arabia to convince Iran to use its influence over the Houthis to put an end to the ongoing war in Yemen.
Thus, it is the ultimate objective of Saudi Arabia to convince Iran to use its influence over the Houthis to put an end to the ongoing war. To be sure, the end of this military conflict would constitute a goodwill gesture which could pave the way for smooth negotiations between the United States and Iran.
Ultimately, Saudi Arabia will have to reconsider many of its foreign policy endeavors if it is to improve relations with the US. Rapprochement with Syria could be an easy option since it is well known that the Saudi monarchy has not been happy with the pro-democracy movements in Syria. The Kingdom’s allies –Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain – already started such rapprochement two years ago. In fact, the UAE recently reopened its Embassy in Damascus, in a move that was not taken favorably by the Kingdom.
Finally, recalibrating foreign policy matters remains much easier for Saudi Arabia than re-evaluating and protecting its domestic policies. Human rights violations within the kingdom, as cited by the Biden administration, would be very difficult to defend, but smoothing relations with Syria and Iran may present greater opportunities.