After agreement to reopen embassies, what normalization limits between Riyadh, Damascus
Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli
In a step that would mark a leap forward in Damascus’ return to the Arab fold, Syria and Saudi Arabia have agreed to reopen their embassies after cutting diplomatic ties more than a decade ago, three sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters on March 23.
The reopening procedures will begin the next Eid al-Fitr holiday after the holy month of Ramadan.
The report raised the possibility of the recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran affecting the Syrian file, in addition to other files of Arab countries such as Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon.
This rapprochement between Riyadh and Damascus is considered the most important real development in relations between the two sides over the past 12 years, especially with the wave of Arab normalization with the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, who was rejected by many Western and Arab countries after the outbreak of the war in Syria in 2011.
The Saudi Kingdom has been absent from the Syrian arena for years, as it no longer supports a specific military faction or party, and its participation in the Syrian file has become limited to political statements and some diplomatic moves.
As for Iran, it has maintained its effectiveness in the Syrian file until today, as it still has large numbers of fighters deployed on Syrian territory, and it can have a greater influence in this regard.
Research fellow at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Nader al-Khalil, called the latest rapprochement step between Damascus and Riyadh the “stage of restricting followers.”
Al-Khalil told Enab Baladi that this stage will witness negotiations during the coming period based on the current data.
However, it cannot achieve great success in view of the “hardline” approach and mentality of the Syrian regime towards any change and the participation of the opposition, as well as the Saudi conditions for achieving more détente and full normalization.
As an example of this hypothesis, al-Khalil believes that the state of ebb and flow in the Turkish negotiations with the Syrian regime will be similar to what is coming in the context of the Saudi rapprochement.
However, the “book of conditions” shown by the Syrian regime obstructed the negotiations with Turkey in one way or another, and it is possible that this matter will apply to other parties. In addition, the Kingdom holds its own book of conditions as well, and therefore it is not possible to be certain in this regard.
Mustafa al-Nuaimi, an expert in Iranian affairs, believes that Saudi Arabia may ask Iran to intervene to launch negotiations with the Syrian regime.
“Of course, Iran will agree to the proposal, but its implementation is “nearly impossible” in view of the field data today, especially since there is talk of stopping the escalation by Iran’s arms in the Arab countries,” al-Nuaimi said.
He added that Iran is continuing to invest in the “non-direct confrontation” factor by strengthening the military capabilities of its militias in Syria and Yemen, perhaps at a somewhat reduced rate.
Today, however, we are talking about “the behavior of a gang ruling a state,” which cannot be reassuring for Saudi Arabia, al-Nuaimi added.
Files on table
The anticipation of a change on the ground must be the result of a new and serious rapprochement between the two parties, as the first lines of convergence between the two sides were drawn in 2021, says the researcher at the Omran Center.
Al-Khalil said that the most prominent countries affected by the declared rapprochement are the same that are witnessing a clear movement of political and military parties loyal to Tehran, led by Yemen, represented by the Houthis group.
Syria comes second, where the regime is supported by Iran, then Lebanon, which is in crisis politically and economically under the influence of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and also Iraq, which is the closest arena for Iranian incursion through the virtues of the Popular Mobilization Forces and Shiite political parties.
Al-Khalil believes that the restoration of consular representation is not necessarily one of the results of this rapprochement, and perhaps it is. However, the Saudi desire, and before that some Arab countries, is not hidden, which began years ago with security contacts that later turned into public diplomacy with the Syrian regime.
He added that this desire may come from the gate that the Syrian issue has been prolonged and has reached the stage of “clogged horizons of solutions.”
According to this Saudi desire, the stagnant waters must be moved through measures that may require concessions from the regime. In the end, countries seek to achieve their interests.
What about Saudi concessions?
The researcher on Iranian affairs, Mustafa al-Nuaimi, believes that the Syrian file is not completely different in terms of geographical location and the possibility of influence and being affected by the files related to other Arab countries with regard to Riyadh.
According to al-Nuaimi, Saudi Arabia and the newly formed International Maritime Alliance are focusing on monitoring the maritime shipping lanes for arms smuggling operations from Iran to Yemen for about 1,400 kilometers on the border with Iraq.
He added that these borders have always been permissible for Iran, as the Iranian Quds Force can move from Tehran to Beirut via Syria without being intercepted by any Arab force and is even granted legal cover from the governments of those countries affiliated with Iran, and therefore the Saudi Kingdom cannot barter its negotiating cards between these files.
Al-Nuaimi considered that Iran would not abide by the minimum standards in the negotiating tracks with Saudi Arabia, and therefore any Saudi negotiating track with Iran would not overlook the issue of addressing “the hotbeds of Iranian terrorism in the Arab region as a whole, including Syria.”
Normalization processes with Damascus began by Arab countries after the Syrian regime took control of large areas of the Syrian geography with the support of Russia and Iran in 2018.
The UAE was the first to normalize the regime, in addition to the meetings of the regime’s foreign minister with his counterparts outside the Syrian borders.
The pro-regime al-Watan newspaper revealed what it called “positive steps that took place between Damascus and Riyadh” during the past months, including the visit of the Director of the Syrian General Intelligence Department, Hussam Luka, to the Saudi capital, and the raising of the Syrian flag in the streets of Riyadh during the Arab-Chinese summit.
The Saudi discourse towards the Syrian regime has witnessed a clear change since the beginning of this year. Its features have become more prominent since the earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey.
The latest Saudi statements that bore signs of change were on February 18, when the Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan, said during a dialogue session that “You will see not just among the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), but in the Arab world there is a consensus growing that the status quo is not workable.”
Since last January, there has been a resurgence of talk about a Saudi-Syrian rapprochement based on several indicators, including official ones and other sources with knowledge.
This shift was preceded, in December 2021, by the Saudi delegate to the United Nations, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, who said that the war had not ended in Syria, which witnessed 2,000 deaths during the same year, warning, “Do not believe if they say that the war has ended in Syria.”
Al-Mouallimi added that UN reports showed that the regime is responsible for human rights violations in the country, criticizing “those who authorized the waves of extremists and endangered Islamic and Arab history.”
Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011, relations have been severed, and the Syrian embassy was closed. It also supported and continues to support currents of the Syrian opposition to this day. The Saudi position on the Syrian regime was clear and in line with an international and Arab position at the time.
On April 2, Reuters said that Saudi Arabia is planning to invite the Syrian regime president, Bashar al-Assad, to the Arab League summit that Riyadh is hosting in May, according to three sources familiar with the plans, which would formally end Syria’s regional isolation.
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