Iran ties hinder Gulf normalisation with Syria

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - “It seems that Syrian-Saudi governmental relations are now moving forward,” says Mustapha al-Sayyed, a Syrian political commentator.

Gradual changes. UAE Charge d’Affaires Abdul-Hakim Naimi (C-R) cuts a cake with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad (C-L) marking the UAE National Day, in Damascus, December 2. (AP)

BEIRUT - A delegation of state-sanctioned Syrian journalists arrived in Riyadh in mid-December, invited to a meeting of the Arab Journalists Syndicate for the first time since bilateral relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia were suspended in August 2011.

That coincided with reports that the Saudi Embassy in Damascus and the offices of Saudi Airways were being refurbished in preparation for reopening.

Just days earlier, the UAE charge d’affaires in Damascus was quoted as saying that the United Arab Emirates was looking forward to a return of calm to Syria “under the wise leadership of President Bashar Assad.”

That was shortly after Arab countries issued back-to-back statements fiercely condemning the Turkish invasion of the north-eastern Syria that started October 9.

Earlier this year, a delegation of Syrian lawyers was hosted in Amman, followed by a visit by Syrian Parliament Speaker Hammouda al-Sabbagh to the Jordanian capital.

The snail-paced Arab normalisation with Syria began with the reopening of the UAE Embassy in December 2018, followed by those of Jordan and Bahrain. The Syrians reciprocated, muting their criticism of Saudi Arabia in state-run media outlets, focusing only on the Turkish threat, which was music to the ears of leaders in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Syria notably stayed out of the Jamal Khashoggi controversy in 2018, with not a single word said against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. When asked about him at a news conference, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said Khashoggi’s death was of no interest to him.

“It seems that Syrian-Saudi governmental relations are now moving forward,” said Mustapha al-Sayyed, a Syrian political commentator based in Dortmund, Germany, aimed at curbing both Iranian and Turkish influence in Syria. “Moscow is the main drive behind this re-engagement,” he said, adding that the Kremlin hopes to reduce Syria’s economic and military dependence on Tehran.

The Russians had pushed for the reopening of the Syrian-Jordanian border, giving Syrian products safe passage to the Arab Gulf and a lifeline for the cash-strapped Syrian economy.

After the United States announced it was withdrawing troops from Syria, Russia hoped that, by regaining oilfields from the Kurdish fighters east of the Euphrates River, the Syrian government would become less dependent on Iranian oil. That aspiration was interrupted by US President Donald ’s last-minute decision to keep US troops at the Syrian oilfields, ostensibly to prevent an Islamic State comeback.

Saudi officials believed they could lure the Syrians away from Iran, repeating a strategy that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed had carried out — with limited success — in Iraq. Instead of trashing the post-Saddam leaders of Baghdad as agents of Iranian expansionism, he reached out to them, one after another, courting them with red carpets in Riyadh and Jeddah.

The Saudi crown prince signalled prominent Iraqi allies of Tehran, such as Muqtada al-Sadr, Ammar al-Hakim and then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, with the sole aim of creating a threshold in Iraqi politics and not leaving the Iraqi stage wide open to Iranian meddling. He seemed convinced that he could do the same with Damascus.

The Saudis were left out of the Astana process, which monopolised Syrian affairs in the hands of Russia, Turkey and Iran. They were excluded from the recent UN-led constitutional talks that started in Switzerland last October and from the Russia-approved Turkish safe zone between Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad.

Last year, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa took the initiative, warmly embracing his Syrian counterpart at the UN General Assembly. The footage — not surprisingly — was aired exclusively on the Saudi Al Arabiya channel and not on Syrian state-run television. He then appeared on Al Arabiya saying: “We deal with the Syrian government and not with those trying to bring it down.”

The Bahraini foreign minister noticeably used the word “government” instead of “regime,” adding that it was inconceivable for Arab countries to be excluded from the entire political process in Syria.

One week later, a favourable interview with the Syrian president was run in the Kuwaiti-newspaper al-Shahed, in which Assad praised Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah. Weeks later, then-Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir travelled to Damascus, the first Arab head of state to visit the Syrian capital since 2011. Many speculated he was carrying a goodwill message from Saudi Arabia, to which he was allied in the war on Yemen.

Gulf countries reopened their embassies but did not provide direct financial aid or investment to Syria, fearing US sanctions. That prompted Assad to travel to Tehran in February 2019, triggering a series of economic agreements between the two countries, in infrastructure, telecommunications, housing and agriculture.

Arab countries expressed willingness to restore Syria’s membership in the Arab League and invite it to the 2019 Arab Summit in Tunisia but that did not happen because of a veto from Qatar — still at daggers drawn with Damascus.

It was decided that Syria could return to the league but only after it fulfilled two conditions: the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for the start of a political process, and to distance itself from Iran. While the first has sluggishly kicked off with the constitutional talks in October, Syrian-Iranian relations remain fully intact.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015). 

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