Saudi Arabia re-evaluates policy towards Syria - analysis

The kingdom is recalibrating its foreign policy and resetting relations with its neighbors as it works to stop the influence of global powers in the region

Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks to the Syrian cabinet in Damascus on Tuesday. (SANA) (photo credit: SANA)
Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks to the Syrian cabinet in Damascus on Tuesday. (SANA)
(photo credit: SANA)
Recent moves by Saudi Arabia signal a major shift in the oil-rich kingdom’s foreign policy as it tries to recalibrate its regional approaches and relations with its neighbors. 
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This policy shift is not limited to Saudi Arabia; Turkey also is reassessing the direction of its foreign policy and has started to mend fences with Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Baghdad has played host recently to two regional foes. Saudi Arabia and Iran last month began direct talks that officials hope will defuse the tension between them.
Regional power Iran and its proxy, the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, both played a major role in saving the Syrian government from collapse due to its decade-long civil war. Saudi Arabia views Iran’s growing influence in the region as a threat to its national security.
Meanwhile, ties between Turkey and Egypt are slowly warming following more than seven years of tension that began after the Egyptian military’s 2013 ouster in Cairo of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, who was personally backed by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Saudi Arabia’s top intelligence official visited Damascus this week for a meeting with his Syrian counterpart in the first known meeting of its kind since the eruption of the Syrian civil war.
Giorgio Cafiero, CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Washington, told The Media Line that he is not surprised by the recent development.
“The Saudis have to be pragmatic in how they deal with Syria. It’s very clear that the regime in Damascus isn’t on the verge of falling and I think the Saudis are basically coming to terms with the inevitable in moving toward some sort of rapprochement with Syria,” he said.
Despite the West’s continued unwillingness to engage with the Assad government, more Arab countries are inching slowly toward re-establishing ties with Syria.
“It’s important to realize that as the Assad regime has proven triumphant on the ground and as the Saudis have deepened their relationship with Russia. The kingdom has adjusted its position vis-a-vis Syria, making their support for the rebellion something they officially maintain, but in practice doesn’t mean much,” said Cafiero.
The absence of most Arab countries from Syria’s conflict has created a vacuum and allowed other global and regional powers to establish a foothold in Syria.
Sami Hamdi, the editor-in-chief at The International Interest, a geopolitical risk consulting firm based in London, told The Media Line the shift can be attributed to Riyadh’s determination to stop the expansion of Iran’s influence.
"Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is now mulling over how to win over Iran’s allies and exploring how to assert ethnocentric Arab commonalities with the likes of the Houthis and Assad in a bid to supplant the sectarian bonds that connect them to Iran, thereby weakening Tehran’s influence," Hamdi said.
Hamdi says that the kingdom’s displeasure with the new US administration has something to do with the shift as well.
“Bin Salman may also have eyes on deepening ties with Russia as Riyadh becomes increasingly disillusioned with Washington. Engaging with Syria is likely to increase Saudi-Russia ties and cooperation,” he said.
President Bashar Assad has regained control of most of Syria with support from its allies: Russia, Iran and the Iranian-backed Shiite Lebanese group Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have backed armed factions opposed to Assad.
Much of the fighting in Syria has subsided, and Assad’s forces are in control of more than 60% of the country’s territory. Ten years after the conflict in Syria erupted, it does not look like Assad is going to relinquish power, and with the massive destruction caused by war in the country, reconstruction and rebuilding Syria will require an enormous amount of money.
“We need to keep in mind that Syria is very much in need of reconstruction and redevelopment and the Syrian government is going to want help from the wealthy Gulf countries, so this is certainly a card that the Saudis can play at some point – to support reconstruction with deep pockets,” said Cafiero.
Hamdi says that Assad also would benefit from re-engaging with Gulf countries.
“Assad would also be able to lobby Washington indirectly through Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to lift sanctions, and thereby access the funds being offered by the Gulf states to rebuild Syria. The price, however, may well be a ceding of territory to US allies (the Kurds) and create an entity similar to Iraqi Kurdistan, which Assad will be loath to do,” he said.
The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership nine years ago, but Hamdi says signs point toward Syria’s readmittance.
“Algeria is insistent that Assad be readmitted to the Arab League, and the UAE has restored ties with Assad as it seeks to contain Turkish expansion,” he says.
The UAE, a Saudi ally, reopened its embassy in Damascus in December 2019 in an attempt to re-engage with Syria, creating a diplomatic boost for Assad.
Cafiero says one thing is sure about the seeming thaw in ties.
“The trajectory is clear; the Saudis are moving toward reconciliation with the Syrian government,” he said.