Syria Insight: Why Saudi Arabia is normalising ties with Assad

Syria Insight 27
7 min read
27 April, 2023

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan's descent from the staircase of a Saudia flight at Damascus airport this month marked a pivotal chapter in the Syrian war, with Riyadh signalling an end to its 12-year diplomatic embargo of the Assad regime.

Under a blue-clad sky, the Saudi minister was ushered into a car taking him to the presidential palace where he met face-to-face with Bashar al-Assad for the first time - a scene unimaginable ten years ago when Riyadh was still funding Syrian rebel groups holed up on the outskirts of Damascus.

The diplomatic maneuverer baffled many considering Riyadh's antagonistic relationship with the Assad regime, which remains unrepentant and unreformed.

Tens of thousands of Syrian detainees languish in regime dungeons, captagon is flooding the Gulf, and Iran's influence in Damascus is as strong as ever

Yet the Saudi steps toward normalisation have to be considered within the wider context of Riyadh’s foreign policy ambitions as it makes haste with Vision 2030, prioritising regional stability and economic cooperation above rivalry and conflict.

"Saudi Arabia is in the process of closing the chapters to a series of quarrels that have spilled out in the region since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's rise to power as defence secretary in 2015"

A new era

Saudi Arabia is in the process of closing the chapters to a series of quarrels that have spilled out in the region since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's rise to power as defence secretary in 2015. 

In March, Saudi Arabia deposited $5 billion in the Turkish Central Bank, ending a political and trade war with Turkey that erupted after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in Istanbul in 2018. This could prove to be valuable political capital if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wins the next general election in May.

The final piece in the Gulf reconciliation jigsaw will be completed soon when the UAE and Qatar reopen their respective embassies, while the China-facilitated Iran-Saudi rapprochement should temper tensions in Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria.

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The measures appear to have taken the Biden administration by surprise, showing that Saudi Arabia is effectively charting its own course in a new multipolar, cohesive environment without US baggage. 

Crown Prince Mohammed knows his ambitious economic plans will not reach their zenith if Houthi rebels continue lobbing missiles over the border from Yemen and proxy wars with Iran brew elsewhere.

Ayman Abdel Nour, director of the All4Syria media network said that Gulf states - as well as Israel and Turkey - are positioning themselves as independent states, free from US and Western hegemony, which he linked to Washington's increasing isolationism.

"This is because of the US’s failed policies in the Middle East - it has neglected its allies," he told The New Arab.

Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia meets Bashar al-Assad on 18 April 2023 in Damascus, Syria. [Getty]

Biden administration

Alarm bells first rang in Riyadh in 2019 when Joe Biden during his election campaign pledged to make Saudi Arabia a pariah state, triggering fears that as president he would be guided by The Squad on foreign policy, which had made the Yemen war its cause célèbre. 

These suspicions appeared warranted when the Biden administration swiftly removed the Houthis from a US terrorist list, placed limits on Gulf arms sales, and curbed intelligence sharing with Saudi Arabia on Yemen.

"This is not the act of an ally," said Abdel Nour. "So Saudi Arabia started to reposition itself by taking steps under the table in order to prepare themselves for a disconnect with the US."

A decade later and Prince Mohammed is effectively rehabilitated after the fallout of the Khashoggi murder. Saudi Arabia has hosted the G20 - albeit remotely - and Riyadh is preparing to leave the quagmire that was the Yemen war, putting the crown prince in a much stronger position.

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The warm words by former MbS critic US Senator Lindsey Graham on a recent visit to Saudi Arabia - reportedly with a message from the US about Saudi Arabia's recent reconciliation efforts - also bolstered the crown prince.

The US appears to have been repeatedly sidestepped by its allies in the region with oil cuts by OPEC+, China brokering a rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran, and a lukewarm response by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in isolating Russia.

All this hints at a new alignment of independently-minded regional powers while Washington stands on the sidelines, hinting at indecisiveness in the White House on key regional issues, said Abdel Nour. 

After calls for Syria to be returned to the Arab League, Abdel Nour said the US executive branch dallied, while the State Department sternly ruled out normalisation, reconstruction, or lifting sanctions on the Assad regime until a political settlement, along the lines of UNSC Resolution 2254, is reached. 

A lack of response by the Biden administration to Saudi Arabia's recent reconciliation efforts highlights a lack of appetite in the White House to tackle complex Middle East issues, Abdel Nour said, contrasting with a much swifter response by Donald Trump to the UAE normalisation with Assad.

"That was a totally different mindset, Trump made tough decisions and decided to execute them, no matter what, in a very short space of time and did not take months [to deliberate]. That was a totally different era," he said.

"We are seeing the regional leaders accepting that most of [their counterparts] are going to remain in power for the foreseeable future. That doesn't mean that they like or trust each other, but they are trying to find ways to work together"

Caesar sanctions

The US's biggest tool in slowing real normalisation with Syria has been the Caesar sanctions, targeting leading figures within the Syrian regime over rights abuses and effectively halting reconstruction and investment in Syria.

It has also been used to sanction figures in Syria and Lebanon linked to the captagon trade which has been a major concern for Gulf states where the tablets have flooded the region.

On Tuesday, Saudi customs in Jeddah uncovered a stash of more than 12 million pills.

Although it was not clear where the departure point for the drugs was, Syria has reportedly become a major manufacturing and export hub for captagon and this is a point where the US and Saudi Arabia share common ground.

"So far the US has used the sanctions to designate individuals associated with the drug trade from Syria to Lebanon, which overlaps with Saudi interests as the black market creates social problems for Saudi Arabia," said Jane Kinninmont, policy and impact director at the European Leadership Network, an NGO focused on peace and security.

Saudi steps toward normalisation with the Syrian regime stem back to 2013 when former President Barack Obama - with Biden as his deputy - decided not to bomb Syria after chemical attacks in Eastern Ghouta, when Riyadh was allegedly funding the Islamist group Jaish Al-Islam.

"Saudi Arabia was serious about supporting a change of leader or regime in Syria back in 2011 and 2012, but once Western countries decided they were not going ahead with (retaliatory) air strikes, Saudi Arabia began to doubt whether a regime change or forcible removal of Assad would be possible," Kinninmont told The New Arab.

"Now, of course, Saudi Arabia has a different leadership, and the king and crown prince are not as invested in the Levant in general as King Abdullah was."

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Pivot to Asia

After the fall of Jaish Al-Islam's stronghold on the outskirts of Damascus in 2018, Saudi Arabia's influence in Syria has significantly waned.

With few bargaining chips in Syria, Riyadh has been keen to move on from this and other issues in the Levant - such as Lebanon and Palestine -  focusing on building relations with Asian powerhouses.

"A gradual turn to China has been underway for around two decades as high growth Asian economies have become the fastest growing markets for Gulf oil, while Europe has prioritised gas and renewables and the US has talked about energy independence," said Kinninmont.

"Ties with China have been primarily economic and heavily focused on the oil and gas sector. There is a widespread view in the Gulf that growing trade relations will lead to a deepening of political and security relations.

"But over the long term as there's still a great deal of work to do to build trust and understanding. One Chinese scholar I spoke to today said there are more American universities than Chinese academics in the Gulf."

Saudi Arabia realises that the failure of anti-government protests in Iran means the current regime in Tehran is likely to remain in place so Riyadh will have to share the same neighbourhood with it for years to come.

"In the flurry of regional diplomacy, we are seeing the regional leaders accepting that most of [their counterparts] are going to remain in power for the foreseeable future. That doesn't mean that they like or trust each other, but they are trying to find ways to work together," said Kinninmont.

"This applies to Saudi and Syria, as well as more widely the region."

Paul McLoughlin is a senior news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin