Giorgio Cafiero analyzes the chances of Riyadh deciding to re-embrace Syria’s president and invest in the country’s reconstruction.
By Giorgio Cafiero
Special to Consortium News
In March 2019, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir declared that it was then too early to restore the kingdom’s diplomatic relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Nearly one year later, however, experts claim that the thinking in Riyadh has changed and some think Riyadh is likely to restore diplomatic relations.
Last month, a pro-Assad Syrian newspaper reported on a recent meeting between Damascus’ permanent representative to the United Nations and Saudi diplomats who “expressed their belief that what has happened between the two countries should pass, stressing on the brotherly relations that have long brought Syria and Saudi Arabia together.”
In coordination (and at times competition) with Qatar, Turkey and the United States, the Saudi kingdom was one of the key state sponsors of the anti-Assad rebellion that erupted in 2011. But in 2015, Riyadh gave up on its vision for a Sunni-dominated post-Ba’athist Syria, at least in the foreseeable future. This was mainly due to the intensified Russian military intervention, which unquestionably helped turn the tide in Assad’s favor.
Riyadh Addresses Russian Interests
Although Moscow’s bold moves in defense of Syria’s regime angered many in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states, officials in Riyadh begrudgingly accepted Russian achievements on the ground. The new understanding was that with the Kremlin determined to prop up Damascus the fall of Assad was extremely unlikely.
At the same time, the kingdom’s leadership has lost confidence in the United States as an ally willing to defend Saudi interests, a development evident during the presidencies of both Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Like many Arab states, Saudi Arabia has tried to diversify its global alliances so it is less dependent on Washington as a security guarantor, especially as questions about the long-term U.S. agenda in the Middle East remain open.
Consequently, Riyadh has invested in its Russian partnership. Although Saudi leaders did not support Russia partnering with Iran to help Assad’s government crush a mostly-Sunni rebellion that Riyadh backed, Saudi officials noted Russia’s firmness in Syria. And Riyadh saw Russia’s commitment to its ally as a major contrast to the U.S.
While the kingdom does not agree with the Kremlin on all issues, the Saudis see Russia as being committed, disciplined and ambitious in the Middle East while Washington’s influence wanes. This gives Riyadh a pragmatic reason to pursue stronger ties with Moscow.
Without question, Saudi Arabia’s interests in better ties with Russia have led Riyadh to greater accommodation of Moscow’s role in the Middle East. The kingdom’s softened stance against Assad is a case in point.
Turkish ‘Expansionism’ into Arab Lands
Any prospect of Saudi Arabia’s government restoring high-level diplomatic relations with Damascus must consider the Turkey factor.
The negative direction of Saudi-Turkish relations in recent years, especially following the Khashoggi affair, has unfolded against the backdrop of Riyadh and some other major Sunni Arab capitals growing fearful of Ankara’s foreign policy in the Arab region. This has greatly eased the kingdom’s opposition to Syria’s Ba’athist regime since that regime — like Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo — views Turkey’s Muslim Brotherhood-friendly government as the enemy.
In fact, Riyadh’s perceptions of the grave threat represented by Turkish “expansionism” or “neo-Ottomanism” into the Levant, and by extension the wider Islamic world, may prompt Saudi officials to view reconciliation with Assad’s government as absolutely necessary.
It is no exaggeration that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi now address this alleged Turkish threat as a parallel to the perceived threat from Iran. Saudi pundit Salman al-Dossary argues that Turkey’s actions in the Libyan civil war are a “clone” of Iran’s use of proxies in the Arab world. This view, which has become increasingly accepted in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, fits into a narrative about a dual Turkish-Iranian threat that GCC members must counter with a policy of “dual containment,” as observed by Samuel Ramani.
Saudi Role in Syria’s Reconstruction?
While the Damascus regime remains a close ally of Iran, there has been a view in Riyadh that the kingdom can use its financial resources to lure Assad’s government closer to the fold of Arab states — such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait and Jordan — and away from Tehran.
There is also a growing belief in the GCC that Russia might draw Syria closer to Moscow and further from Tehran. This is based on the potentially competing interests of Russia and Iran in “post-conflict Syria.”
However, the chances of either Russia or the Gulf states putting significant distance between Syria and Iran could be very low given the extent to which Tehran and Iranian-backed non-state actors have institutionalized their influence and consolidated power in post-2011 Syria. This is true both in terms of the war-torn country’s security architecture and its economy.
This brings us to the issues of investment in Syria’s reconstruction and development stages as well as Saudi Arabia’s grander geopolitical and economic designs in the Levant and across the eastern Mediterranean.
Russia wants Syria rebuilt and for the country to stabilize with Assad’s regime governing every inch of Syrian land. Yet the Russians are not in a position to independently finance this reconstruction and Moscow is hoping for GCC states to make bold investments notwithstanding U.S. pressure to keep their money out of Syria. Nonetheless, the UAE has been discussing Emirati investment in Syria since Abu Dhabi re-established official diplomatic relations with Assad’s government in late 2018. It is possible that Saudi Arabia will soon follow the Emirati lead and re-embrace Assad as a leader.
Assad & the Sunni Arab World
There is no denying that since 2017/2018, the Assad regime has been gradually re-integrating into the Arab region’s diplomatic fold. One key blockage has been Saudi Arabia’s opposition to re-accepting the Assad government’s legitimacy. The U.S. factor is also in play and this does matter for Riyadh. Washington remains opposed to the reintegration of Assad’s government into the international community and financial markets. The U.S. has been putting pressure on Arab states to reconsider their re-engagement with Damascus.
Looking ahead, the Al Saud may decide to restore their once warm relationship with the Assad family, even if that means raising risks of new problems in their partnership with Washington.
After years of Saudi media portraying Assad as an evil monster and after the government in Riyadh armed his enemies early in the Syrian crisis, the government in Riyadh will have to address its own citizens. Many of them, at least until 2015, were hoping for and betting on Assad falling to Saudi-backed rebels.
Selling a change to the kingdom’s domestic audience would be done through a narrative about a pan-Arab bloc working to expel Turkish “occupiers” from Syria as well as Libya. The Saudi government’s messaging would stress its view — shared by Abu Dhabi — that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan poses a greater threat to Arab interests than does Assad.
Reconciliation between the Saudi kingdom and Assad’s government would upset many in Washington. It is a safe bet that Russian President Vladimir Putin would consider it an enormous gain for Moscow’s Middle East agenda. Such a development would further highlight the extent to which the Arab region’s geopolitical landscape is becoming increasingly Russia-friendly and further adrift from the orbit of U.S. power.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.
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