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Saudi-Syrian Rapprochement Comes with Risks and Rewards

The recent meetings in Damascus between Saudi and Syrian officials to discuss the renormalization of diplomatic ties between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Syrian regime did not shock analysts who have been following relations between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members and Syria in recent years. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain restored official ties with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in 2018, while Oman, which never severed relations with Damascus, appointed an ambassador to Syria last year. These decisions demonstrate a general trend in the GCC (with a notable Qatari exception) toward supporting Syria’s return to the Arab world’s diplomatic fold. Bringing Saudi Arabia on board with this growing consensus among Arab governments constitutes a major diplomatic victory for the Assad regime and its backers, Iran and Russia.

Shifting Regional Dynamics

Considering evolving regional dynamics, why is the restoration of diplomatic ties between the GCC states and Assad’s regime taking place, and what are the regional and international implications? First, regional leaders have come to terms with the Syrian government’s survival. Thus, re-engaging with Syria’s regime is largely about strategic considerations surrounding this reality, which all GCC states (even Qatar) recognize.

Second, throughout the past few American presidencies, Saudi and other GCC officials have grown increasingly nervous about reliance on the United States as their security guarantor. Consequently, Gulf Arab governments have spent years working to deepen their ties with Russia. In practice, the GCC states embracing Russia-friendly positions on Syria factors into their efforts to build deeper relations with Moscow. Since 2015, the Russians have worked hard to cajole the Gulf Arab monarchies into accepting facts on the ground in Syria that Moscow, Tehran, and Lebanese Hezbollah’s efforts have established. Russia prefers to see GCC members, with massive sovereign wealth funds, large hard-currency reserves, and access to deep credit markets, play a central role in rebuilding Syria. This is especially the case given that Russia lacks the resources to finance Syria’s reconstruction.

That said, Russian influence should not be overstated. Gulf leaders have their own expansive regional interests shaping their stances on Syria. Some Gulf Arab states genuinely feared the idea of a post-Assad Syria governed by Islamists. The same counterrevolutionary agendas from the Arab Spring that most GCC states applied in Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain have always been in play vis-à-vis Syria. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have remained particularly worried that a pro-democracy revolution in one Arab country could inspire others elsewhere in the Middle East, including within the Gulf, ultimately threatening the region’s entire status quo.

As the GCC state most opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam in general, the UAE has led the Gulf’s shift toward re-accepting Assad’s legitimacy. In fact, when Russian’s intervention against Da’esh and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups started in 2015, Abu Dhabi officially welcomed Moscow’s actions because the Russians were fighting against a “common enemy.” The response contrasted against other GCC states, chiefly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which were at odds with Russia on the Syrian file at that point.

Now the Saudis seem to have embraced Abu Dhabi’s approach to Syria. When discussing this month’s Saudi-Syrian rapprochement, Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North Africa analyst with Stratfor, said, “I tend to see it as something of a copy of what the Emiratis are trying to do in Syria.”[i] As the University of Michigan’s Dr. Juan Cole put it, the UAE “paved the way” for the restoration of Saudi-Syrian relations.

Finally, many in the Gulf believe that unless their countries try to lure Syria back to the Arab world’s fold, the Iranians and Turks will further consolidate their influence. Saudi Arabia’s concern that the Iranians would be best suited to exploit Syria’s isolation in no small part drives Riyadh’s engagement with Damascus. At the same time, Ankara’s agenda in Idlib and its various incursions against the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units in northern Syria have unsettled some GCC states which perceive Turkey as a “neo-Ottoman” threat. “After all, Arab disunity and weakness have created a power vacuum into which Turkey and Iran are inserting themselves” said Dr. Joshua Landis, Director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.[ii] “The only way to reverse this is to rebuild Arab unity and strength.”[iii]

Iranian Influence in the Shift to Diplomacy with Syria

Ultimately, Syria is a major factor in Riyadh’s recent foreign policy shift towards diplomacy and is a focal point in Saudi-Iranian dialogue in Baghdad. With Saudi Arabia agreeing to accept Assad’s legitimacy through rapprochement with Syria, might Tehran decrease its paramilitary activities in Syria and rein in groups such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, Kata’ib Sayyid al Shuhada, Liwa Fatemiyoun, and the Zainabiyoun Brigade?

“Unlike Iraq and Lebanon, the Iranians are a bit more flexible when negotiating about their activities in Syria,” explained Dr. Andreas Krieg, a lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, Royal College of Defense Studies.[iv] “The Saudis want to make sure the Iranians are not supplying and supporting thousands of Shi’a militias in [Syria], so there is something going on in terms of engagement on that avenue.”[v]

Mohammed Bin Salman (MbS) wants to be the broker considered capable by Washington of promoting regional stability while building on the GCC’s al-Ula Summit of January 2021. Syria offers a unique opportunity in this regard. The Saudis will probably be working with the Emiratis, Omanis, and probably Qataris regarding Riyadh’s efforts to lure Syria back to the Arab region’s fold at the expense of Iran’s clout in the war-ravaged country.

Caesar Act Sanctions Constrain Saudi Arabia in Syria

Despite all the perceived gains to be made from embracing Assad’s survival, renormalizing relations with Damascus comes with downsides for Riyadh. “The Saudis want to be part of building a new future, but it can come with a great risk because obviously the Saudis need to be wary that the Europeans and Americans are not willing yet to normalize relations with the Assad regime, so they have to tread carefully here,” maintains Dr. Krieg.[vi] Thus, Riyadh will need to balance a fine line that incentivizes Damascus to move away from Tehran’s influence without embracing Assad so much that it fuels problems in Riyadh’s relations with western capitals.

Still, the Saudis understand that the U.S. and most EU member-states do not welcome the trend in the Arab region toward renormalizing relations with Assad’s government. Although western officials will be displeased with Riyadh’s decision, merely re-opening an embassy in Damascus is far less significant than signing trade deals, providing Syria’s military with weaponry, or investing in the Syrian economy.

Ultimately, fears of upsetting the Kingdom’s western partners could prompt Saudi officials to move slowly and cautiously when engaging Assad’s regime. Moreover, Caesar Act sanctions complicate any real incentive for deeper ties as they block reconstruction funding opportunities likely prized by Riyadh. Looking ahead, Saudi-Syrian relations, like Emirati-Syrian relations, will probably be non-economic and mostly diplomatic in nature unless Washington eases its sanctions on Damascus.

Giorgio Cafiero (@GiorgioCafiero) is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

Alexander Langlois (@langloisajl) is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum

References:

[i] Ryan Bohl, Interview with authors, May 7, 2021.

[ii] Joshua Landis, Interview with authors, May 7, 2021.

[iii] Joshua Landis, Interview with authors, May 7, 2021.

[iv] Andreas Krieg, Interview with authors, May 7, 2021.

[v] Andreas Krieg, Interview with authors, May 7, 2021.

[vi] Andreas Krieg, Interview with authors, May 7, 2021.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. He is a frequent contributor to Middle East Institute, Atlantic Council, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Middle East Policy Council, Al Jazeera, New Arab, Qatar Peninsula, Al Monitor, TRT World, and LobeLog. Throughout Cafiero’s career, he has spoken at international conferences and participated in closed door meetings with high-ranking government officials, diplomats, scholars, businessmen, and journalists in GCC states, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. From 2014-2015, he worked as analyst at Kroll. Cafiero holds an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego. Alexander Langlois (@langloisajl) is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa.


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