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Saudi FM meets Syria's Assad in first visit since conflict

Saudi FM meets Bashar Al-Assad for first time since start of Syrian war
4 min read
18 April, 2023
Saudi Arabia's latest efforts to reconcile with long-time foes in the region comes as Riyadh's top diplomat arrived in Damascus on Tuesday.
Al-Farhan's visit to Syria seems to mark a new chapter in Saudi-Syrian ties [Getty]

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan arrived in Damascus on Tuesday to meet Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad as Riyadh follows other regional powers in normalising relations with the Syrian regime.

It marked the first visit by Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat to Syria since war broke out in 2011, following the regime's brutal suppression of peaceful protests, marking a new chapter in relations between Riyadh and Damascus.

Accompanied by his delegation, Al-Farhan was welcomed by President Bashar al-Assad at the presidential palace in Damascus.

"Sound relations between Syria and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia should be the norm," state-run news agency SANA quoted the regime as saying.

Al-Farhan's visit comes less than a week after his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, visited Riyadh - also the first such visit since the war began.

Saudi Arabia and most other Arab countries broke ties with the Syrian regime in 2011 after the mass slaughter of peaceful protesters, leading to an armed uprising against Assad's rule.

Riyadh's step toward normalisation with the Syrian regime comes amid a flurry of diplomatic activities in the region between former foes.

A historic China-brokered deal last month between Saudi Arabia and Iran ended years of diplomatic hostilities and has set the stage for wider reconciliations and peace settlements in the region.

The Sunni and Shia regional powerhouses have been embroiled in numerous proxy wars and crises across the Middle East, including Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Following the Saudi FM visit to Damascus, Syrian regime media said that Al-Farhan expressed his country's "confidence in the ability of Syria and its people to overcome the effects of the war and achieve sustainable development".

He also expressed support for creating "the appropriate environment for the return of refugees and displaced persons", despite the UN and human rights groups stressing that Syria remains an unsafe place for returnees.

Al-Farhan also said Saudi Arabia supports Syria’s unity, security, and stability, which follows Riyadh's decade-long backing of some opposition elements in the war.

Several Arab nations have already reopened their embassies in Syria and re-established ties with Assad’s regime, including the UAE.

Flights carrying aid from Saudi Arabia landed in Syrian airports for the first time since 2011 in the wake of the devastating 6 February earthquake, which saw swathes of northwest Syria and southeast Turkey destroyed.

Assad could even attend an Arab League summit next week in Saudi Arabia, which comes amid a push by Riyadh and other powers to have Syria's readmitted. Kuwait, Qatar, Morocco and the Yemeni government reportedly oppose the plan.

The League suspended Syria's participation in the regional body after regime forces brutally suppressed peaceful pro-democracy protests, shooting dead hundreds and disappearing tens of thousands.

Since then, regime forces have killed hundreds of thousands more, through chemical weapons, bombing, and wholescale massacres of civilians.

Iran, now seeking better ties with Saudi Arabia, has backed Assad’s forces throughout the Syrian war and has been key to the dictator's survival.

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Despite this, the Syria correspondent for The New Arab's Arabic language service, Absi Smeisem, believes Riyadh is still undecided on Assad's return to the Arab fold.

"I believe Saudi Arabia, through its normalisation with the Syrian regime, only wants to minimalise Iran's control of the regime and minimalise the role of Iranian militias in Syria, and stop the smuggling of drugs from Syria to the Gulf," said Smeisem.

"But I don't think Iran will allow the [Syrian] regime to become involved with its Arab surroundings, beyond accepting financial aid for the reconstruction of Syria."

He also believes that Riyadh understands the opposition from some Arab countries to Syria's return to the Arab League.

Over 500,000 Syrians have been killed and around half of the country’s pre-war population has been displaced, mostly as a result of regime bombardment of civilian areas. Much of the Syria’s infrastructure and economy have been left in ruins.