Saudi attempt to withdraw Damascus from Iran’s subordination

A memorial photo of the Jeddah summit attended by Arab leaders, including the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, and the head of the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council, Rashad al-Alimi - May 19, 2023 (Saudi Foreign Ministry)

A memorial photo of the Jeddah summit attended by Arab leaders, including the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, and the head of the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council, Rashad al-Alimi - May 19, 2023 (Saudi Foreign Ministry)


Enab Baladi – Muhammed Fansa

In a meeting considered the first of its kind since 2011, the Syrian regime’s Foreign Minister met with the Yemeni Foreign Minister in the internationally recognized government.

The peculiarity of the meeting comes from Damascus not recognizing the Yemeni government and the appointment of an ambassador for the Iranian-backed Houthi group to the Yemeni embassy in the Syrian capital.

Faisal Mekdad met with his counterpart Ahmed bin Mubarak on the sidelines of the Arab League Council meeting at the ministerial level, which was held in Cairo on September 6, and the two parties reviewed bilateral relations between the two countries, ways to enhance them, and the latest developments in the situation in the region, according to what was reported by the Yemeni News Agency (Saba).

Saudi Arabia supports the legitimate government in Yemen, represented externally by bin Mubarak, against the Houthi group supported by Iran, which controls several major cities, such as the capital, Sanaa, which raises questions about the reasons for this meeting and its future.

Saudi push

Yemeni objections to the return of any relations with the Syrian regime seemed clear before its return to the Syrian seat in the Arab League, despite Saudi efforts in this context, as The Wall Street Journal said on April 12 that at least five members of the Arab League, including Yemen, rejected the return of the Syrian regime to the Arab League.

Bin Mubarak later confirmed the veracity of these reports through his statements on April 27 that his country “was one of the very few Arab countries that opposed the suspension of Syria’s membership in the League of Arab States in 2011,” but “nevertheless, the Syrian regime handed over the Yemeni embassy in Damascus to the Houthi terrorist militia, in violation of all relevant international conventions and agreements.”

Regarding Yemen’s position on the regime’s return to the Arab League, the Yemeni minister confirmed at the time that his country “urgently proposes that this matter (the embassy and the appointment of ambassadors) be addressed by the regime before expressing its final position.”

Bin Mubarak pointed out that “the Yemeni government had previously presented what the regime had done regarding its embassy headquarters in Damascus through several channels,” adding that “the Syrians did not respond to that.”

The researcher specializing in Iranian affairs, Mahmoud al-Bazi, told Enab Baladi that external circumstances and factors are what prompted the two parties to hold such a meeting, and he believes that this step came from the Yemeni side “with a green light and Saudi instructions.”

Regarding the reason for this Saudi push, al-Bazi stated that Saudi Arabia is still convinced of the “step-for-step” approach and has not condemned it to absolute failure yet, and through this step, it is possible to talk about “scoring a goal against al-Houthi,” according to al-Bazi’s expression.

As for the regime’s government, it agreed to this meeting not out of “interest” but out of “there is no harm in it,” according to the researcher’s view.

Yemeni political analyst Nabil al-Bukairi described this meeting to Enab Baladi as “strange” and outside the usual diplomatic frameworks because the Syrian regime does not recognize the legitimate Yemeni government and stands alongside the “Houthi militias” which it recognizes and handed over the building of the Yemeni embassy in the capital, Damascus.

The analyst added that Yemen has no interest in such a meeting, but the regime needs any meeting with any Arab foreign minister so that the international community feels that it has broken the circle of isolation imposed on it by the Arabs.

The Yemeni expert does not rule out that the meeting came at a Saudi-Emirati command to make the regime feel that they are able to “reintegrate it into the Arab system” on the one hand and try to “pull it out of Iranian dependency” on the other hand.

This is something the analyst excludes from happening in light of the great Iranian control over the political decision in Damascus.

The Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister, Walid al-Khuraiji, had stated before his meeting with Mekdad at the Arab League meeting of the necessity of the withdrawal of foreign forces from Syria due to the danger they pose to its future and the entire region.

He added that Syria’s return to its Arab surroundings would contribute positively to efforts to resolve the “crisis” there and restore stability to Syria and the region.

Official ignore

The Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not mention the meeting between Mekdad and Bin Mubarak through its digital accounts, nor did the official Syrian News Agency (SANA) and local media outlets close to the regime.

On September 7, the day after the Arab League meeting was held, the pro-regime local newspaper al-Watan reported on Mekdad’s speech during the meeting in Cairo and his meeting with the heads of delegations of the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Mauritania, and Tunisia, without mentioning his meeting with the Yemeni Foreign Minister.

Regarding the reasons for this media neglect, al-Bazi believes that the local Syrian media does not have a strategy for dealing with these files.

The Iranian affairs expert believes that the meeting was not planned in advance but rather came during the meetings in Cairo, and therefore, the local media was unable to obtain broad outlines about the mechanism for covering such an event.

The “confusion” in Damascus’ position towards the Arab countries also explains the regime’s “ambiguous” position regarding normalization with the Arab countries, as there is no clear official position on the “step-for-step” path in particular, nor the Arab-Syrian normalization process in general.

Al-Bazi believes that Damascus does not consider rapprochement with Yemen a “pure benefit” because Yemen “is not influential in Arab decisions and does not have the economic resources to interfere in the reconstruction process of Syria.”

Accordingly, Damascus views the meeting with the Yemeni government as useful in terms of creating a flowing wave of normalization and increasing relations after a long isolation, according to the expert.

Regarding the horizon of this meeting, al-Bazi believes that in the short term, it will not go beyond this stage, that is, just a passing meeting, because Damascus has strong relations with the Houthis, and there are problems regarding the Yemeni embassy in Damascus, so it will not move forward with this file in principle.

Similarly, Yemeni political analyst Nabil al-Bukairi expected that nothing practical would result from this meeting “given the complexity of the Yemeni crisis.”

Yemen was among the Arab countries that boycotted the Syrian regime diplomatically after 2011, while the state of estrangement between the two countries increased following the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen in March 2015, after the regime sided with the Houthis and established a diplomatic relationship with the Ansar Allah Houthi group, which appointed an ambassador in Damascus in March 2016.

The Houthis appointed the leader of the Yemeni Arab Socialist Baath Party (Syria’s wing), Nayef Ahmed al-Qanis, as their ambassador to Damascus, who served as vice-chairman of the Supreme Revolutionary Committee.

In November 2020, the Houthi group announced the appointment of journalist Abdullah Ali Sabri as its ambassador to Damascus, succeeding al-Qanis.

The Yemeni government responded by announcing the start of the prosecution of three leaders from the group, accusing them of “impersonating diplomatic qualities in Iran and Syria,” including the two former ambassadors.

The Yemeni Foreign Ministry said in a statement at the time, “The judicial authority has begun taking the necessary legal measures to issue coercive arrest warrants against the three mentioned through Interpol.”



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