The Saudi media reported a few days ago that the country is in talks with the Syrian government with a view to resuming consular services between the two states, citing a source in the Saudi Foreign Ministry as saying that it was engaged in discussions with its Syrian counterpart.
International media outlets have also cited diplomats claiming that Saudi Arabia and the Syrian government have reached an agreement to reopen their embassies and putting an end to the cessation of diplomatic relations that took place over a decade ago.
Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan earlier stated that the current situation in Syria was “untenable” and that “a new approach will necessitate engaging in a dialogue with the government in Damascus.”
“We have to confront the challenges posed by the status quo, including the humanitarian crisis and the refugee situation,” he said, adding that Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries are collaborating with international partners to develop appropriate strategies for engaging in dialogue with the Syrian government.
At the same time, the US Wall Street Journal reported that “Saudi Arabia and Syria are nearing an agreement to restore diplomatic ties after negotiations mediated by Russia.”
“The Russian government brokered a preliminary agreement when Mr [Bashar Al-] Assad visited Moscow last week… Senior Syrian officials have visited Saudi Arabia in recent weeks,” the newspaper said.
International media outlets said Iran has encouraged the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to strike an agreement with Saudi Arabia after it agreed to resume diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia following a seven-year hiatus.
However, news of the normalisation moves came as a surprise to the Syrian opposition, which seemed to be ignorant of them. The opposition had not expected that one of its major supporters, Saudi Arabia, would normalise ties with the Syrian regime, leaving it unsure about how to react.
The Syrian government has been actively seeking to restore its relationships with the Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, for several months in the light of the severe economic sanctions imposed by the US and Europe on Syria and its allies including Russia and Iran.
It also sought to capitalise on the earthquake that struck northwestern Syria in early February to appeal to the Arab countries for support, while simultaneously urging the international community to lift the sanctions.
Normalisation with Saudi Arabia would be an important move for the Syrian regime as it would allow it to move back into the Arab fold. There have been rumours that Al-Assad plans to attend the Arab Summit meeting in Riyadh in April, where the reconstruction of Syria will feature high on the agenda.
Details on the Saudi-Syria rapprochement have not been announced, but according to analyst Said Moqbel the agreement may encompass a range of issues, including “security along the Syrian-Jordanian border, halting the smuggling of Captagon [stimulants] to the Arab Gulf, and addressing the Iranian intervention in Syrian politics,” he said.
“The deal may also involve putting an end to Saudi funding for armed groups in Syria, facilitating Syria’s return to the Arab League and restoring relations between Syria and the Arab Gulf.”
“But there is a distinct possibility that the reconciliation could falter before it even begins should the Syrian regime fail to adhere to certain Saudi conditions.”
The European stance on the potential normalisation of Saudi-Syrian relations is clear, with the EU Head of Delegation to Syria Dan Stoenescu, expressing support for any Arab initiatives that foster progress in the ongoing negotiations on the Syrian crisis and yield concrete outcomes.
Stoenescu said that European policies towards Syria would not change, emphasising that there would be no normalisation, lifting of the sanctions, or reconstruction until Damascus takes steps towards a political transition in the country in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
The US position regarding a potential Saudi-Syrian rapprochement remains unclear, with the US administration offering brief criticisms of the initiative without escalating tensions. Voices have been raised within the US concerning any Arab normalisation of relations with the Syrian regime, with committee members in the US Congress criticising the administration’s delay in activating the Caesar Act that aims to hold the perpetrators of human rights violations in Syria accountable for their crimes.
The Caesar Act stands in the way of normalisation with the Syrian regime, such voices say, prompting concerns over the administration’s allegedly soft stance towards the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement.
Amidst the signs of normalisation with the Syrian regime, there was an escalation of military actions in northeastern Syria this week, with Iranian militias carrying out attacks on US bases in Deir Al-Zor, including on the Al-Omar and Koniko oil fields, resulting in the deaths or injury of several.
The US then launched a series of missile strikes against Iranian militia sites, although the measures were relatively limited in scope. US President Joe Biden issued a statement saying that his country was prepared to take strong measures to protect American citizens, while emphasising that the US does not seek conflict with Iran.
According to Syrian opposition member Ahmed Rahal, the attacks are “an attempt to undermine the prestige of the US forces and the International Coalition in Syria. Iran and its militias, as well as sleeper cells, have reached the US military sites in northeastern Syria and established a military base close to Iraq.”
“The US has neglected these threats, apparently unaware that the near future will see further escalation, particularly as Iran regards the US presence in Syria as illegitimate. If the US fails to respond decisively to attacks by Iran and its militias, the region could witness a major campaign against US bases.”
Two days after the announcement of the Saudi-Syrian talks, Western and Arab governments reasserted their support for UN Security Council Resolution 2254 on the Syrian conflict. During a meeting held in the Jordanian capital Amman, representatives from the US, France, Germany, Norway, the UK, the EU, Turkey, the Arab League, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE issued a joint statement reaffirming their commitment to the resolution.
Many European and Arab countries are adamant about enforcing the resolution, believing in the importance of dialogue with Damascus to address both the humanitarian and the political crisis in Syria. Through a “step by step” process advocated by UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen, they believe they can persuade the Syrian regime to adopt a more conciliatory stance and embrace a political solution.
However, the Syrian regime views the Resolution as interference in Syria’s internal affairs. While it has focused on the proposed steps towards it, it does not recognise that it has to take reciprocal steps towards others.
The next 60 days will be a critical period for testing the viability of the recent agreement between Riyadh and Tehran, as the former has said the agreement will not be implemented until after this period elapses. It is likely that there are undisclosed Saudi demands that will need to be met before the agreement can be implemented.
The success of the Saudi normalisation with the Syrian regime will be closely linked to the Saudi-Iranian agreement. If the latter is disrupted, it could jeopardise the former as well.
Two key factors are likely to shape Arab normalisation with Damascus. The opening of Arab embassies in Syria or an invitation to the Syrian president to participate in the next Arab League Summit meeting would constitute significant Arab gestures towards Syria.
There will also be restrictions on normalising ties with the Syrian regime, and they can scarcely return to normal because of the US and European sanctions on Syria. Any Arab moves in this regard will have to be associated with steps to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which would facilitate the eventual lifting of the sanctions.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly