Media reports have claimed that Saudi intelligence officials traveled to Damascus and discussed the possibility of rapprochement and reopening the Saudi Embassy. The reports were reinforced by comments made by the Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon that the regime would welcome any initiative geared towards reconciliation with Saudi Arabia.
Why Now? Saudi Priorities in Syria
It is important to stress that Saudi Arabia’s priorities in Syria were not necessarily to ensure that the revolution succeeded. Rather it was to be able to influence the irresistible wave of the Arab Spring that had begun in Tunisia, spread to Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and had taken grip in Syria. The outcomes of the Arab Spring movements had led to undesirable outcomes for Riyadh. Ennahda had won the elections in Tunisia. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi had won the presidency in Egypt. And while the Muslim Brotherhood had not won outright in Libya, the large number of “independent” victories were made up of individuals popularly perceived to be sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood or of Islamist leanings themselves.
Riyadh decided to work with Syrian groups primarily to ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood would not be at the forefront.
It is in this context that Saudi Arabia began to engage with the Syrian opposition against Assad. Given the international mood had turned against Damascus, Riyadh decided to work with Syrian groups primarily to ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood would not be at the forefront. Saudi officials engaged in extensive attempts to dilute the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood by supporting a range of other factions, including those naturally disinclined towards the kingdom itself.
This does not mean that Saudi Arabia did not wish to see Assad overthrown. It meant instead that they would only agree to see Assad overthrown if they could guarantee that the alternative would not be another Islamist government with a democratic mandate.
If former Saudi intelligence official Saad al-Jabri is to be believed, when the Syrian regime began to wobble as anti-Assad forces began to bear down on Damascus, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Bin Salman sought out Russia to rescue the beleaguered Assad rather than deliver to power an opposition averse to Riyadh.
Course of War
As a result of Russian intervention, limited Turkish operations, US disinterest, and Iranian material support, the fault lines in Syria are increasingly entrenched. Turkey and its allies are established in the Northwest. US Kurdish allies continue to carve out territory in the Northeast in the hope that Washington will press Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran for Kurdish autonomy in exchange for recognizing Assad. The regime in Damascus has restored its control of large swathes of territory elsewhere, while Iran has commenced its project of promoting its Shia ideology in the Southern territories where its militias continue to roam, underpinning Tehran’s ability to entrench its influence in the region.
Assad has announced presidential elections as a means to reconcile with powers that have been antagonistic to him.
Assad has announced presidential elections as a means to reconcile with powers that have been antagonistic to him. Although there is an overwhelming consensus that the elections will lack any substance and that Assad will win a landslide, the offer from Damascus is reconciliation in exchange for international recognition of the “results.” With Turkey already seeking reconciliation with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, there is an expectation that Ankara will soon initiate its own reconciliation process with Damascus.
Meanwhile, the UAE has already restored diplomatic ties. Algeria and Tunisia have long insisted that Assad’s Syria should be rehabilitated back into the Arab League, even as Egypt continues to maintain security ties with the regime in Damascus.
In other words, Saudi Arabia is not breaking new ground in seeking a rapprochement. Rather, it is catching up to a reality that is already being appreciated by an increasing number of other actors in the region that the Assad regime is not going anywhere soon.
Iran and the Nuclear Deal Negotiations
Riyadh remains especially disgruntled at the Biden administration’s relentless push to revive the Iran nuclear deal. However, the Crown Prince and de facto leader of the kingdom, Mohammed Bin Salman, lacks effective leverage against Washington because of his own precarious international reputation. The Crown Prince has already demonstrated his discomfort in the manner he has U-turned on a number of policies since the advent of the Biden administration. He scrambled to reconcile with Qatar and dragged his bewildered allies into the process as well. Women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released, and a new Yemeni government was formed in anticipation of unfavorable negotiations.
Bin Salman’s resignation to Biden’s will has been reflected more recently in Iraq-brokered talks between Riyadh and Tehran as the Crown Prince now seeks to adapt to an uncomfortable reality and secure at least some guarantees in matters concerning the security of the kingdom. This includes seeking assurances from Tehran that the Houthis will cease to fire missiles into Saudi Arabia and that Iraqi militias will not be used to target oil facilities.
However, part of adapting to the changing tide in the region includes a policy on the part of Bin Salman to start a process of wooing Iran’s allies. In an interview with Rotana, Bin Salman alluded to ethno-centric commonalities with the Houthis, asserting his desire to see Houthi’s Arab identity prevail over the sectarian bonds that tie the group to Tehran. With Syria historically perceived as a center of Arab nationalism, it makes sense that Bin Salman believes there is an opportunity to at least weaken the bonds between Damascus and Tehran by gradually improving ties based on ethno-centric commonalities and, more importantly, providing access to funds that Assad urgently needs to rebuild Syria.
An Eye on Lebanon
Another important issue for Riyadh is the ongoing political chaos in Lebanon where mass protests threatened to upend the awkward political wrestling between Iran and Saudi Arabia through their respective allies Hezbollah and Saad al-Hariri. The political situation has turned full circle with Hariri now finding himself back at the head of the government, Aoun preserving his position as President, and Hezbollah continuing to force a government stalemate and insisting on their demands being met by Hariri.
Lebanon has been a consistent source of frustration for Riyadh which has failed to make in-roads against an increasingly dominant Hezbollah.
Lebanon has been a consistent source of frustration for Riyadh which has failed to make in-roads against an increasingly dominant Hezbollah. While the government languishes in corruption and impotence amidst widespread popular discontent, Hezbollah has moved to set up alternative supermarkets with goods from Iraq, Iran, and Syria in a bid to increase the popular goodwill in its strongholds. Saudi Arabia’s frustrations at the impotence of its allies were laid bare when it announced a ban on imports of Lebanese fruits and vegetables after a drug bust in Jeddah.
Historically there has been an assertion in Damascus that Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of its interests in Lebanon will always be futile as long as it refuses to cooperate and work with Syria.
For Riyadh, it appears that Syria’s interests in Lebanon are not entirely in alignment with Iran. This margin of difference may well be seen as enough for Saudi policymakers to strengthen bilateral ties with Damascus, with a view to at least consider a concerted effort to rebalance the Lebanese political scene in their favor.
The View from Damascus
Assad is keen to bring an end to a conflict that has placed him at the mercy of foreign powers. Given Syria’s historical, political, cultural, and economic weight, it makes sense that the policymakers in Damascus— who once prided themselves as a major regional power— are deeply resentful of the current situation which has seen their agency greatly diminished. Assad is also keen to break the tri-partite hold on Syria by Turkey, Russia, and Iran, and find room for himself to assert his own interests. Syria shares a border with Iraq and is therefore not ignorant of the long-term consequences of allowing foreign powers to entrench their forces and pursuits.
Assad has much to gain from establishing ties with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The latter in particular wields significant influence over Washington.
More importantly, Assad has much to gain from establishing ties with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The latter in particular wields significant influence over Washington through extensive lobbying networks and is already actively working to convince Biden to lift sanctions. Faced with a situation in which Syria might be divided into three parts (Northeast, Northwest, and a third entity comprising the rest of the country), Assad will be seeking rehabilitation and an assertion that a united Syria is better than the continued presence of Turkish forces, and a concession that grants the Kurds autonomy.
Will It Happen?
The Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon has already suggested that the Syrian regime welcomes any initiative towards reconciliation with Saudi Arabia. Biden has also made clear through the lack of action on the Khashoggi report that he intends to work with Bin Salman and accepts the Crown Prince’s utility with regards to US interests. Saudi Arabia’s closest ally (the UAE) is also an active advocate for restoring such ties. Bin Salman therefore feels that it is now possible to rebuild relations with Assad without incurring the wrath of Washington.