Riyadh moves to normalise with Damascus in changing landscape

Analysts downplay the possibility of major shifts in the region around the Syrian war as long as the Saudis and their Gulf allies remain wary of Iranian designs and the activities of its proxies in Syria and surrounding countries.
Friday 07/05/2021
President Hassan Rouhani (R) meets with the visiting Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad (L) in Tehran, December 8, 2020. (AFP)
President Hassan Rouhani (R) meets with the visiting Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad (L) in Tehran, December 8, 2020. (AFP)

LONDON – Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief met his Syrian counterpart in Damascus on Monday, the British news and media website The Guardian reported, in a sign of possible rapprochement between the two sides a decade after relations were severed. Experts warned however against unbridled expectations.

General Khalid al-Humaidan reportedly met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his intelligence chief Ali Mamluk to discuss restoring diplomatic ties.

News of Humaidan’s Damascus visit underlines a general climate of regional rapprochement which  began with the reconciliation of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain with Qatar and the continued with the return of contacts between Egypt and Turkey on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the other.

On Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud discussed bilateral ties in a call, the Turkish presidency said, the second such conversation between the two leaders in less than a month.

The visit of the Saudi security official to Damascus, if officially confirmed, is the first of its kind since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution against the Assad regime a decade ago.

Syria was expelled from the Arab League in 2012 over its government’s response to pro-democracy protests across the country. The ensuing decade-long civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced roughly half the country’s population.

Rapprochement “has been planned for a while, but nothing has moved,” the Guardian quoted a Saudi official who asked not to be identified. “Events have shifted regionally and that provided the opening”.

The Guardian considered the meeting in the Syrian capital on Monday “as a precursor to an imminent detente between two regional foes, who have been at odds throughout much of the conflict”.

Officials in Riyadh told the newspaper “the normalisation of relations could begin shortly after the three-day Eid al-Fitr festival next week that will mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan”.

Analysts believe that as a first step to restoring relations between the two countries Saudi Arabia will likely reopen its embassy in Damascus, closed in November 2011 following a decision reached by the Arab League. But the analysts downplay the possibility of major shifts in the region around the Syrian war  as long as the Saudis and their Gulf allies remain wary of Iranian designs and the activities of its proxies in Syria and surrounding countries.

Until Wednesday evening, there was no official confirmation from the Saudi side or the Syrian regime of what was reported by the British media outlet. Observers argue that silence could be part of a tactic agreed between the two sides, given that the process of normalisation has not yet begun.

If Riyadh restores links with Damascus, it will be one of the results of a change in the kingdom’s tone towards Iran. Such compromises could eventually yield a climate of regional de-escalation, affecting the Yemeni  crisis as well.

Re-establishing relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria will also likely result in a broader diplomatic drive for restoring other links with Damascus, ultimately breaking the isolation of the Assad regime and leading to Syria’s return to the Arab League.

Reported contacts between Saudi Arabia and Riyadh appear for now to be essentially tactical. The agendas of both countries remain at odds.

A senior Iranian official told Reuters last month that Saudi and Iranian officials held direct talks this month in a bid to ease tensions between the two foes.

“This was a low-level meeting to explore whether there might be a way to ease ongoing tensions in the region,” the Iranian official said, adding that it had come about at Iraq’s behest.

In a confirmation of the Saudi desire for appeasement, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz struck a conciliatory tone towards Iran in late April, saying he sought “good” relations.

“Iran is a neighbouring country and all we aspire for is a good and special relationship with Iran,” the crown prince said in a television interview.

“We do not want Iran’s situation to be difficult. On the contrary, we want Iran to grow… and to push the region and the world towards prosperity.”

He added that Riyadh was working with regional and global partners to find solutions to Tehran’s “negative behaviour,”  in a clear hint at Riyadh’s linegering worries about Iran’s hostile policies in the region.