The slow and uncertain pace of Saudi-Syrian rapprochement

On May 26, Syrian Minister of Tourism Mohammed Rami Martini has become the first Syrian government official to visit Saudi Arabia since the civil war began in 2011. Martini’s Journey speculation fueled on a normalization between Riyadh and Damascus, as it coincided with a series of positive developments in Syrian-Saudi relations. On May 3, Saudi intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Khaled Humaidan met his Syrian counterpart Ali Mamlouk in Damascus. A few hours after Martini’s arrival in Riyadh, Bouthaina Shabaan, a prominent adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, expressed optimism on a rapid breakthrough in the Saudi-Syrian normalization talks.

Despite these developments, there is reason to be skeptical about a rapid resumption of relations. From Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recognized that “Bashar remains” In a March 2018 interview, there have been repeated unsuccessful attempts to facilitate normalization between Syria and Saudi Arabia. Such attempt in 2018 saw Saudi Arabia offer reconstruction investments to Syria if Assad breaks with Iran and Hezbollah. that of Saudi Arabia reluctance to imitate the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which reopened their embassies in Damascus in December 2018, further underscore the arduous path towards a Riyadh-Damascus rapprochement.

While recent events could be more than a false dawn, the most likely scenario is a gradual restoration of bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria. A Saudi commentator with close ties to the ruling family told Al-Monitor that rapid normalization between Saudi Arabia and Syria was unlikely due to anti-Assad sentiments in the kingdom. The commentator noted that these sentiments date back to the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 and have intensified due to Saudi media coverage of the Syrian conflict, “which widely covered Assad’s atrocities and called the regime Alawite apostate “. The commentator argued that the UAE could ignore anti-Assad sentiments more easily than Saudi Arabia, as the UAE’s population is mostly made up of non-Arab foreign nationals, and Riyadh will gradually engage with Assad to mitigate public reactions.

Harun al-Aswad, a Syrian journalist based in Turkey, echoed these views in an interview with Al-Monitor. Aswad predicted that “relations between Riyadh and Damascus will not suddenly return” but argued that a series of rumors and leaks “would pave the way for the gradual return of relations between the two countries without causing shock in public opinion. public “. Aswad is convinced that Saudi Arabia’s normalization with Syria will eventually continue because “the Syrian opposition has proven its failure” and Riyadh cannot “invest in rebels who work as mercenaries in Libya and Azerbaijan instead of doing so. in the face of Iranian expansion in Syria “.

Even if Riyadh and Damascus eventually normalize their relations, Syria faces an uphill struggle to return to the Arab League and is unlikely to receive Saudi reconstruction investments.

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have repeatedly claimed that Syria’s suspension from the Arab League has done more harm than good. Arab countries that have consistently engaged with Damascus, such as Iraq, Algeria and Oman, share this point of view. Saudi Arabia’s entry into the pro-engagement bloc could strengthen Assad’s acceptability in the region, but it is unlikely to change the positions of Qatar and Kuwait.

On March 12, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani say the reasons for the expulsion of Assad from the Arab League remained valid, and on May 30 confirmed that Qatar did not intend to normalize with Syria. Kuwait insisted in 2018 that he would not reopen his embassy in Damascus unless the Arab League gave him the green light. Kuwait’s fundraising efforts for humanitarian aid to Syria complicate more its ability to embrace the Assad regime.

The re-election of Bashar al-Assad for a new seven-year term could soften the positions of Qatar and Kuwait over time, but there is no guarantee that members of the Arab League will unite around Assad’s reinstatement.

Saudi Arabia’s prospects for investing in Syria are also slim. The Caesar Civilian Protection Act sanctions are a major obstacle to Saudi investments in Syria. UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed openly criticized these sanctions because they restrict the participation of the private sector in the reconstruction of Syria. However, the United States dismissed The Abu Dhabi critics and insisted that the Caesar Law sanctions should remain in effect until an inclusive political settlement is found in Syria. Due to Mohammed bin Salman’s unpopularity in the US Congress and his icy relationship with the Biden administration, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to be more successful than the UAE in changing US views on the Caesar law.

Even if an unlikely breakthrough in Syria’s constitutional negotiations causes the United States to review its sanctions against Damascus, Saudi Arabia and Syria are both wary of the consequences of economic cooperation. Saudi Arabia is also concerned that investments in the Syrian economy may unintentionally bring material benefits to Iran. Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat, told Al-Monitor that Saudi Arabia had previously tried to counter Iranian influence in Lebanon and Iraq “by supporting moderate Shiite and Sunni political leaders and it failed.” Barabandi said he believed Saudi support for Assad would “empower Iran for free.”

Syrian officials view Saudi Arabia with great suspicion and are unlikely to accept Saudi investments if they dilute the Syrian-Iranian alliance. Former Russian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Andrei Baklanov, who engaged with Assad at the start of the civil war, told Al-Monitor: “Many people in Syria feel offended by Riyadh’s treacherous stance,” adding: “It will not be easy for Saudi Arabia to regain its credibility in Syria. Baklanov recalls that Assad views Saudi support for the Syrian opposition as a thankless move, as Syria aligned itself with Saudi Arabia against Iraq during the Gulf War of 1990-91.

If Saudi Arabia does not review its restrictive policies on Omra hajj visas and work visa for Syrian nationals, Damascus’ mistrust of Riyadh is likely to persist.

A decade after the start of the Syrian conflict, Assad has a wider range of partners in the Arab world than at any time since 2011. A normalization of Saudi-Syrian relations would strengthen Assad’s claims that he is no longer isolated from the international community but would do little. improve Syria’s increasingly dire economic outlook or encourage the international community to support an Assad-led Syrian reconstruction process.

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