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Analysis

BICOM Analysis: The thawing relations between Riyadh and Damascus

Key points

  • Saudi King Abdullah bin Aziz’s visit to Damascus is a significant element in a larger strategy that seeks to tempt Syria away from its alliance with Iran. It reflects both Saudi Arabia’s close alliance with the US, and its particular interest in resolving the situation of near ‘Cold War’ that has pertained among Arab states in recent years.
  • Saudi Arabia and Syria find themselves in direct opposition over a number of key issues in Middle East diplomacy: notably, the attempt to form a governing coalition in Lebanon, the Palestinian political impasse and most importantly – Iran. 
  • It should not be expected that the visit will lead to the rapid solution of the stalemates in Lebanon and among the Palestinians. These have their own dynamic and are not solely the result of the rift between Riyadh and Damascus.
  • While the Syrians will be happy to see a warming in relations with the Saudis, an early alignment by Damascus away from its longstanding alliance with Iran is unlikely. Syria will prefer to develop warmer relations with Saudi Arabia alongside, rather than instead of its links to Teheran.

 

Background to the Saudi visit

In an important development in Middle East diplomacy, Saudi King Abdullah bin Aziz last week visited the Syrian capital. The two-day visit marked the latest stage in a gradual improvement in relations between the two countries. [i] Relations between the two deteriorated after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in Beirut in 2005. Hariri, who held dual Lebanese and Saudi citizenship, was closely linked to the Saudi royal family. Hariri had been vociferous in demanding an end to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, and the Syrian regime is suspected of involvement in his murder. Following the Hariri assassination, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Damascus.

The rift between Riyadh and Damascus went deeper than merely anger over the Hariri assassination, however. Arab diplomacy over the last half-decade has been characterised by the emergence of two distinct camps. To some degree the current situation in inter-Arab diplomacy resembles that of the early 1960s, the time of the so-called ‘Arab Cold War,’ when the Arab world was divided into a conservative, pro-US camp led by Saudi Arabia and a radical, Arab nationalist camp led by Nasir’s Egypt.[ii]

Today, the divide is between pro-western Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and a coalition of states and movements led by Iran, which includes Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.

The deep freeze in relations between the two blocs is such that last year, Saudi Arabia and Egypt boycotted an Arab League summit in Damascus. In key policy areas, The Saudis and Syria have found themselves on opposite sides as well. Over Iran – Syria is the main Arab ally of Iran, Saudi Arabia the Arab country most worried over the expansion of Iranian power in the Middle East. In the Palestinian arena – the Saudis are aligned with the Palestinian Authority, while Syria supports Hamas, whose leaders are resident in Damascus. In Lebanon, the Syrians support the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition, while Saudi Arabia is the main backer of the March 14 coalition. Sa’ad Hariri, leader of March 14 and son of the late Rafik Hariri, is himself a Saudi citizen.

The visit by the Saudi monarch to Syria is part of an attempt to bring about a thaw in relations, though this is not the first step. In March, King Abdullah and President Assad met in Riyadh. In August, Saudi Arabia reinstated its ambassador to Syria. Two weeks ago Abdullah and Assad met again in Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia.[iii] However, the visit by Abdullah to Damascus, the ‘beating heart of Arabism’, as the Syrian official press likes to describe it, is of obvious symbolic significance.

Why is the Saudi-Syria thaw happening at this time?

It is important to note that the thaw is not happening in isolation. Rather, the Saudi move reflects attempts by the US and France in the course of this year to set relations with Damascus on a new footing. Saudi Arabia would not have attempted to change its relations with Syria if a general Western-led attempt to keep Damascus isolated was still under way. 

The US has sent six high-level delegations to Syria since the beginning of 2009. France, meanwhile, was the first to break from the policy of isolating Syria – inviting President Assad to Paris last year. In addition, the Erdogan government in Turkey has also developed close relations with Damascus.

However, it is important to note that Syria has not yet succeeded in convincing the US that its regional behavior has changed to a degree the deserves the removal of sanctions imposed by the Syria Accountability Act, and most sanctions remain in place. The Saudis are therefore not being obliged by a regional realignment to make their latest moves re Syria. 

For the Saudis, the de facto association to a regional bloc that rejects the Iranian-led front is therefore aligned with Israel, is deeply embarrassing.  Not surprisingly, the Saudis are looking to change, or at least blur this association. 

In addition, with the US preparing to withdraw from Iraq, Saudi Arabia is clearly interested in exploring possibilities of cooperation with Syria in the event that relations between Saudi Arabia in post-occupation Iraq deteriorate. The Saudis would like to see Syria drawing away from the alignment with the pro-Iranian regional bloc and enhance diplomatic coordination with Assad’s regime. The warming of relations with Syria is seen as part of achieving this realignment in Damascus’s regional stance.

The Syrians, for their part, hope to benefit in two main areas from renewed relations with the Saudis. First of all, in the economic sphere: Once the largest foreign investors in Syria, Saudi investments dropped massively after the rapid deterioration in relations between the two countries. Investments have now, however, begun to creep up again. A Saudi construction firm recently announced the opening of a $110 million industrial park. The Syrians, whose oil sector is in steady and irreversible decline, are in dire need of help for their economy.[iv] The other main Syrian interest in improved relations relates to Iraq. As US withdrawal from Iraq approaches, the Syrians would like to link with the Saudis in joint opposition to the emerging new government in Baghdad. 

Is the warming of Syria-Saudi relations likely to herald major change in regional diplomacy?

While the apparent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Syria is important, there is little reason to assume that this alone will be sufficient to solve the situation of political deadlock in Lebanon or among the Palestinians. 

In Lebanon, the coalition negotiations remain at stalemate. It is interesting to note that a statement issued over the weekend by Hezbollah’s international relations officer, Ammar Moussawi, explicitly warned against attempts to link the Lebanese coalition negotiations with broader attempts at regional rapprochement.[v] The Hezbollah statement appears to indicate that despite an announcement following the meeting between Abdullah and Assad in Damascus that they had reached ‘agreements’ on all major issues, the Lebanese deadlock remains unsolved.

Similarly, regarding the Palestinians, the latest statements by Hamas leaders give the impression that the movement is looking for a way to avoid attending reconciliation talks scheduled to take place in Cairo later this month.

Neither Syria nor Saudi Arabia is in a position to dictate policy decisions to the side with which it is associated in Lebanon and among the Palestinians. As such, the improvement in relations between Riyadh and Damascus will not necessarily produce rapid change in either of these arenas.

In Iraq, Syria currently stands accused by the Maliki government of facilitating major acts of terror in Baghdad which took place in August and claimed the lives of 95 people.  Saudi Arabia’s relations with Maliki are also strained. Riyadh is worried at the emergence of a Shia-dominated Iraq, and Baghdad has accused the Saudis of not doing enough to prevent the entry of Saudi citizens wishing to take part in the Sunni insurgency in Iraq from entering the country. Cooperation on Iraq probably represents the most concrete basis for renewed cooperation between Syria and Saudi Arabia. However, because of the explosive nature of Iraqi accusations against Syria, the Saudis will doubtless prefer to proceed with caution, avoiding major public declarations in this regard.

Finally, and most importantly, there is reason to doubt that Saudi overtures will lead to a Syrian distancing from Iran. The Syrian regime, in the words of Sami Moubayed, one of Syria’s most prominent political analysts, wishes to see itself as a ‘gateway’ between the two regional blocs – which means in practice that Damascus will be happy to revive warmed relations with Saudi Arabia, but the Syrian conception is that these will then exist parallel to close relations with Iran, rather than in place of them.[vi]

Lacking natural resources, Syria has been able to ‘punch above its weight’ in regional diplomacy because of what Middle East analyst Fouad Ajami has called its ‘capacity for mischief.’ That is, Syria, with a small population and lacking natural resources, has been able to achieve a place in the front rank of Arab countries because of its willingness to align with and support radical and disruptive forces. Damascus’s modus operandi has been to support such forces, and then to use its influence with them or willingness to curb or remove its support for them as a means to establish itself as an indispensable part of any regional diplomatic process. Syria’s alignment with Iran, and its support for insurgents in Iraq,  Hizballah and Amal in Lebanon, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad among the Paletinians are all aspects of this strategy. However, this strategy requires that Syria never entirely abandon its links to radical forces, since at that point it would lose its relevance. Syrian statements with regard to Saudi overtures are in keeping with this approach. Syria has stressed that its desire for friendship with Riyadh should not come at the expense of its other alignments and alliances.

Conclusion

The Saudi attempt to repair relations with Syria is a significant element in a larger Western strategy of seeking to tempt Syria away from its alliance with Iran. It reflects both Saudi Arabia’s close alliance with the US, and its particular interest in resolving the situation of near ‘Cold War’ that has pertained among Arab states in the recent period.

However, it should not be expected that last week’s visit to Syria by the Saudi king will lead to the rapid solution of the stalemates in Lebanon and among the Palestinians. These have their own dynamic and are not solely the result of the rift between Riyadh and Damascus.

In addition, while the Syrians will be happy to see a warming in relations with the Saudis, an early alignment by Damascus away from its longstanding alliance with Iran is unlikely. Syria will prefer to develop warmer relations with Saudi Arabia alongside, rather than instead of its links to Teheran. 

 


[i]  Julian Barnes-Dacey, “Fearful of Iran’s influence, Saudi king reaches out to Syria,” Cristian Science Monitor, 7/10. http://www.csmonitor.com

[ii] Eran Lerman, “Understanding the New Arab Cold War,” Hiram7 Review, 2/4/08.  http://hiram7.wordpress.com

[iii] King Abdullah hosts Assad for bilateral meeting in Saudi Arabia, Beirut Daily Star, 25/9.  http://www.dailystar.com.lb

[iv] Jonathan Spyer, “Talk softly and carry a large carrot,” Jerusalem Post, 29/7.  http://www.analyst-network.com

[v] “Moussawi says success of Damascus summit exaggerated,” Now Lebanon, 9/10. http://nowlebanon.com

[vi]  Barnes-Dacey.