Saudi hint: Will Riyadh follow Abu Dhabi’s approach towards Damascus
Enab Baladi – Jana al-Issa
The issue of the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and the Syrian regime has recently returned to the media surface, drawing on several indicators, including official and “undisclosed” sources.
One of the most prominent indicators is the statement by the Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on 19 January. “We are working with our partners to find a way to engage with the government in Damascus that will lead to concrete moves towards a political solution,” he said.
The minister’s statement is different from what he has long repeated about his country’s desire not to engage with the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad. In light of the rapprochement of many governments, including countries in the Arab Gulf, with the Syrian regime, Bin Farhan considered in November 2021 that it is logical for some countries to have a different systematic policy in their dealings with other countries, stating that their rapprochement with the Syrian regime could contribute to pushing forward a political approach.
This was followed a month later by the statement of the Saudi representative to the United Nations, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, at the meeting of the UN General Assembly. “Do not believe if they say that the war in Syria has ended, and that priority should not be given to reconstruction in Syria, but rather to rebuilding hearts,” he said, wondering, “What victory would they achieve if their leader stood on a pyramid of corpses?”
While the second indicator of a potential future rapprochement between the Syrian regime and Saudi Arabia was a decision issued by the government of the regime, published on 16 January, according to which it allowed importers to import several materials from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, most notably sugar, chemicals, and petrochemicals.
The decision was based on the statement made by the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates that “there is no political impediment” to “complying with the recommendation of the Economic Committee to allow imports from Saudi Arabia.”
The media reports relied on a narrative talked about by the Lebanese political file analyst Wasim Bazzi during an interview on the Lebanese Bel Moubashar platform, in which he spoke of “a positive briefing between the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,” without indicating clear sources in this context, but relying solely on the analyst’s personal analysis.
“Saudi Arabia gave the Syrian regime three civilian aircraft free of charge because of the regime’s need for some spare parts for its aircraft, after the head of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate, Hussam Luka, visited Saudi Arabia in late 2022”, Wasim Bazzi said.
The al-Watan newspaper close to the regime also spoke about what it called the “positive steps that have come between Damascus and Riyadh” over the past months. Among them, it mentioned the visit of the Director of the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, Hussam Luka, to the Saudi capital and the raising of the Syrian flag in the streets of Riyadh during the Arab-Chinese Summit.
The Syrian-Canadian academic Faisal Abbas Mohammad, who holds a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern studies, said in an interview with Enab Baladi that the Saudi Foreign Minister’s recent statements on Syria, as well as the easing of restrictions on trade between the two countries, are indicators of a relative acceleration in the rapprochement between the Syrian regime and Saudi Arabia.
Mohammad explained that this rapprochement falls within the context of the Gulf trend to refloat the Syrian regime, which began gradually in 2018 when the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus seven years after it was closed.
“Conditional” without indicators
The economic and political analyst in Middle East affairs, academic Mohammad Salih al-Futaih, commented on Twitter about the hypothesis of possible rapprochement based on what the Lebanese analyst, Wasim Bazzi, said about “Saudi Arabia gifting three civilian aircraft to the regime.” He said, “While the narrative aims to confirm the occurrence of a Syrian-Saudi rapprochement, it makes the credibility of the rapprochement and whoever promotes it at stake in view of the credibility of this part.”
Since the beginning of the millennium, Syria has suffered considerable difficulties in making deals to buy and hire aircraft and even obtaining spare parts for them. Since the beginning of the millennium, US sanctions have prevented Syria from acquiring aircrafts and parts, even from European companies, because of the existence of US-made components in them.
WikiLeaks documents also stated that acquiring a presidential plane was among the requests of Syrian security officials during their reception of their American counterparts, said the analyst.
In January 2011, the Saudi Salam Company signed a $50 million maintenance contract with the Syrian Airlines to maintain two Boeing 747 aircraft, provided that the maintenance takes place in Saudi Arabia. For 12 years, the two planes are still being held in Saudi Arabia, according to al-Futaih, adding that the logic of rapprochement is for Saudi Arabia to return the two captured planes or to issue any comment about their fate (not to send three new planes).
The rapprochement between the Syrian regime and Saudi Arabia is politically and economically vital for Syria, much more than the rapprochement with the UAE. But it must be in the sense of Syria repositioning its relationship with Iran, of which there are no indications, according to al-Futaih.
Saudi Arabia benefits
Regarding the interests of the two parties in terms of rapprochement in the event of its occurrence, Dr. Faisal Abbas Mohammad explained that there are common interests for rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and the Syrian regime.
Saudi Arabia’s return to Syria (in the view of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his staff) creates an opportunity to limit Iran’s influence and stop its penetration there. This is if Saudi Arabia’s ultimate goal, which is to remove Iran from Syria and end its presence there, cannot be achieved.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia also hopes to limit Turkey’s influence in the course of affairs in Syria. Another consideration is related to Saudi Arabia’s relations with Russia, as ending the political isolation of the Syrian regime linked to Russia will help Saudi Arabia consolidate and deepen its relations with Russia, according to Mohammad.
While the last reason for this Saudi approach may be related to Lebanon, as Saudi Arabia is interested in rebuilding its influence in Lebanon and not leaving it easy prey for Iran and its allies (Hezbollah and the Amal movement) and the regime, which has succeeded in recent years in restoring much of its influence in Lebanon, which facilitates Saudi efforts to influence again in the Lebanese arena.
The regime’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf states is a “major step” on the way out of its political isolation and restoring its “legitimacy,” according to Dr. Mohammad. By allowing the import of Saudi goods (sugar and petrochemical products), he hopes that the Kingdom will reward him by easing restrictions on the movement of Syrian trucks entering the Gulf countries through Saudi territory, restrictions that resulted in a decrease in Syrian exports to the Gulf countries (including Saudi Arabia) by half over the past year.
The great prize for the Syrian regime is persuading the Gulf countries to invest their money to rebuild Syria after the massive destruction that the regime caused most of it.
Dr. Faisal Abbas Mohammad
UAE leads the way
On 24 January, al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the regime, said that the Saudi talk (about communication with the regime) did not come, of course, by sheer coincidence but rather followed a series of moves that sought as a whole to “restore health” to the Syrian-Arab and Syrian-Saudi relations on the other hand and in particular. The most prominent of these moves was the recent visit made by the UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed to Syria and his meeting with al-Assad.
The newspaper quoted sources it described as “following up on what is happening on the line of recent Arab moves towards Damascus,” saying that the recent UAE visit came “within the framework of restoring Arab-Syrian relations, especially the creation of a political breach on the Damascus-Riyadh line.”
On 4 January, the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, received the Emirati Foreign Minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, with the aim of “discussing the distinguished relations that unite Syria and the UAE, and the existing cooperation between them in many fields, as well as developing economic and trade relations for the benefit of the two countries and the two brotherly peoples,” according to what was reported by the official Syrian News Agency (SANA) at the time.
The academic, Faisal Abbas Mohammad, explained that the UAE was a pioneer in its openness to the regime, as demonstrated by the reopening of its embassy in Damascus in 2018.
Mohammad considered that the UAE’s motives for this openness are similar to the Saudi motives in terms of the desire to limit Iranian and Turkish influence in Syria. Added to this is the UAE’s desire to establish a balance in its alliances in the region, especially after the “normalization” agreement with Israel, as it believes that restoring its alliance with the Syrian regime will contribute to achieving this kind of balance.
Mohammad believes that the process of rapprochement between the Gulf regimes and the Syrian regime “is not paved with roses.” Much depends on the regime’s willingness and ability to make the concessions required in the Gulf, whether in terms of limiting Iran’s influence or engaging (even if partially) in a political process that leads to resolving the conflict in Syria; he added.
The UAE insists on being the most supportive of the Arab countries to refloat the regime on the Arab and international levels for goals that do not appear to be completely specific, including the search for economic and investment opportunities in Syria within the framework of the reconstruction process, also to prove itself to everyone that it is a major player in the region, with a role and presence that is no less important than the Turkish, Saudi and Qatari roles, according to an analysis published by the Emirates Center for Studies and Media website on 5 January.
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